May 22, 2007

What Do Non-Gamers Want?

by Andrew Stern · , 6:11 pm

With our efforts to build interactive drama and comedy, we want to reach a large audience — both as a business opportunity, so we can make our work self-sustaining, and as artists, hoping to reach out and communicate to many. We’re particularly excited about making entertainment that appeals to all those who don’t consider today’s videogames much fun. Let’s call them “non-gamers”. I think non-gamers outnumber gamers, perhaps greatly. For entertainment media, non-gamers enjoy TV, movies, books, even a bit of web, blog and YouTube surfing. We want to add interactive drama and comedy to their list. Reaching them would also have the nice side effect of expanding the expressiveness of videogames as an art/entertainment form.

What would non-gamers theoretically enjoy from videogames? I’ll speculate on this from my “it takes one to know one” perspective. Yes, I’m a non-gamer. I don’t enjoy playing today’s games. Actually that’s not precisely true; I enjoy the games of today, and yesterday, but I enjoy excellent TV, movies, books, comics, theater even more. (My free time is limited, so I’m forced to choose, and videogames fall by the wayside.) As a teenager videogames were near the top of my list (I also had more free time then), and I am quite a good player actually, but what I want out of entertainment has changed, and today’s videogames don’t do it for me.

Videogames could regain a place on my list of entertainment choices if: as I played I gained experience of people’s lives, culture, and especially human behavior and psychology — and therefore, learned about myself — just as I gain from the best TV shows, movies, books, and so on. And, if I’m going to do work to interact with my entertainment, I want my actions to be meaningful, to be expressive of who I am, and to matter.

Further, we non-gamers don’t want to have to work a lot for our entertainment. We don’t want to be spoon-fed, but it won’t fly to make our entertainment laborious. If given the opportunity to act, make it worth it our effort — give us a lot of choice (like, at least twelve American Idols to vote for ;-), and give us a lot of reward back for little work.

Don’t make us learn some arbitrary control mechanism either; it should be easy and natural to play.

In the discussion of natural language understanding (NLU) interfaces, from which this post is launched, Christopher brought up the topic of what I’ll call “simplified” game interfaces, such as color-based mood choosers. An example is Cecropia’s (to-be-released) The Act, where the player, in a series of mini-games presented between cut-scenes, simply turns a dial to express various emotion states, each a point on a linear range of emotions for the player character. (The timing of how long the player expresses an emotion matters there as well; I know because we got a chance to play it at GDC last March.)

Another version of simplified interfaces are symbolic ones, as Ian Bogost suggests in a discussion on NLU interfaces from several years ago. In the realm of games on interpersonal subject matter, this includes games such as Eric Zimmerman’s SissyFight 2000 which offers a button-menu of high-level generic actions such as “scratch”, “tease”, “grab” and “tattle”, in the context of playground fight. (These player moves might seem literal, but they are abstracted versions of real playground interactions.) An even more symbolic interface, Rod Humble’s recent game The Marriage has players pushing and changing the size of squares and circles representing features of a married couple’s relationship.

(Ian called symbolic representation of human interaction “representational expression”, versus more literal, natural, mimetic representions he called “semantic expression”.)

The idea here is that abstracted interfaces can allow players to express nuanced meaning via simple mechanisms. On the surface that would seem to match the requirement that non-gamers do little work, and that their actions be meaningful. A good solution?

My concern is that these kinds of interfaces are actually too abstract for most everyone’s tastes, especially for non-gamers. Among the general population, people tend to want their entertainment to have specific expression, especially in their fiction. Dance, poetry, experimental theater, metaphorical literature — these just aren’t very popular, I think because they don’t communicate literally enough for most people. (“Literal” does not mean “dumbed down”, it just means specific and not abstract.) I’m not making a value judgment on these forms, I’m just making a business and popularity argument.

(There are interesting exceptions to people’s aversion to abstraction in entertainment. Abstract visual art seems to have some mass appeal, but I’m guessing it’s more about the enjoyment of visual beauty and sensory spectacle, than literal meaning. Abstract lyrics (a flavor of poetry) combined with music is of course extremely popular, I think because both music and singing have their own special, fundamental auditory appeal.)

Dials and sliders, particularly when used to represent emotions, require some cognitive work for players to filter their expression into the particular range, and abstraction, of the interface. I suppose dials and sliders can be considered somewhat akin to how we can express ranges of meaning by the strength of our facial expressions and voice — e.g. a wider smile means happier, a louder voice means more emphasis. But this filtering work is still there, and, the range itself can feel too limiting, requiring the player to fit their expression into a overly simplified, narrow spectrum of expression.

My overall argument here is: I think your average Joe and Jane need interfaces that mimic how they express themselves naturally. This interface issue, my gut tells me, is a big reason the general public doesn’t play games. (Don’t get me started on controller button sequences.)


Take the breakthrough game Myst. To use physical objects, players use the mouse to move a pointer onto an object and click, which is not too removed from reaching out and using their real hand. For locomotion, clicking where they want to walk to is not too different from literally pointing at where she wants to go. (Likewise, moving a joystick or controller pad in a direction is akin to leaning, and therefore walking, in that direction.)

Take the breakthrough game Nintendogs and its predecessors. Literally stroking the scruff of your pet’s neck with a stylus, or using a mouse to move a pointer, is not too removed from petting using your hand.

For games with language, typing conversational dialog in natural language in a real-time, non-turn-taking fashion, would not be too removed from just saying the words out loud.

I realize I’m suggesting that any game interface with a menu of choices, particularly for the purpose of interpersonal communication, will be alienating to the mass of non-gamers out there. But it could be true. (Menus feel natural enough on e-commerce webpages, akin to filling out an order form.)

In the NLU post, I suggested that non-gamers would forgive the occasional misunderstanding in an NLU interface, e.g. if errors occurred no more than 10% of the time, for the gain of the natural interface form itself. Josh questioned if non-gamers would really be forgiving, when they already have a low tolerance for, and possibly bad experiences with, wrestling with existing computer and game interfaces?

I think my points in this post actually make a case for this. When non-gamers have had frustrating experiences using computers, I’d suggest, it is exactly because so few interfaces are natural. The work of trying to learn various non-natural control systems, sometimes bizarre or arbitrary, could be the problem. Present players with a very natural interface, even one with an light error rate, and they may be more open to playing.

My next post will discuss a related and, I think, very interesting, topic: transparency in the behavior of, and interface to, NPCs.

12 Responses to “What Do Non-Gamers Want?”

  1. dglen Says:

    [Dance, poetry, experimental theater, metaphorical literature — these just aren’t very popular, I think because they don’t communicate literally enough for most people. (”Literal” does not mean “dumbed down”, it just means specific and not abstract.) I’m not making a value judgment on these forms, I’m just making a business and popularity argument.]

    Don’t you think part of what you’re arguing for is an opportunity to change this once and for all, and to make the distinction between popular/unpopular or high art/low art seamless by transparently rendering the communication mechanism (ie, interface)?

  2. andrew Says:

    I don’t get how a transparent interface would end the distinction between popular vs. unpopular art, or literal vs. abstract art? Please elaborate.

    I want to ask, who thinks I’m overreaching here with the claim that abstractness or symbolism in art/entertainment is unpopular? And/or, am I overreaching to conflate the low popularity of abstraction with the potential success of symbolic or metaphorical game UIs?

    Come to think of it, animation itself is an abstraction — and as such, truthfully, I think a hindrance for use in creating mass-appeal, humanistic interactive drama. (There is no getting around an animated look in digital games with visuals, without using hyperrealistic characters and falling into the uncanny valley.) There are perhaps few examples of “serious”, “important” art that are animated. Animation is, by and large, considered “kiddy”.

    Maybe serious games will change all that. Is this supposed public distaste for abstraction, whether in animation or game UIs, just a generational thing? That shifting of attitudes will be changed by creating “serious, important” animated games, some with abstracted UIs?

    Painting, of course, is as serious and historically important an art form as it gets, and as of the last 100 years or so, very abstract. Is there something about animation, versus canvases, that we always associate with kids’ cartoons?

    Even these claims are essentially true, I like to believe there are exceptions; again, the example of music lyrics is a strong case against it. The rise of excellent alternative comics addressing serious themes is another (although, these are not popular in US, more so in Japan).

  3. josh g. Says:

    I don’t know if “abstract vs. natural” is the best way to look at the issue. I agree that there’s value in having an input system that a user can naturally understand. But there are plenty of abstract interfaces that people use every day which they have no trouble with, either because the interface has a clear natural mapping to the expected result (like the spatially-related examples you gave of clicking where an avatar should move to) or because of cultural conventions (like light switches, where we’ve already learned that ‘up’ maps to ‘on’).

    So I’m probably just agreeing with what you’re saying, but I think where you’re labelling “natural” vs “abstract”, I would just say “usable” vs “awkward”.

    On the other hand, that’s speaking entirely about interface and not about the meaning of the entire system. ‘The Marriage’, for example, did have a slightly awkward (or unexpected) interface, but I’d see that as a different issue than the abstraction of meaning in the game. To clarify, the awkwardness I’m thinking of were things like how clicking was mapped to ‘restart’ and everything was controlled by mouse cursor position. One could remake The Marriage with an interface that uses more natural or expected mappings, such as clicking where you want one of the boxes to drift towards, etc. This could make the interface more usable (or “natural”) despite the fact that the meaning and expression is still highly abstract.

    Or to put it another way, a design could make it very easy for the user to understand their range of actions, how to do them, and what immediate output/feedback will occur, but still be left to interpret what those actions represent and what the results of those actions mean.

  4. andrew Says:

    Hmm, are there plenty of non-natural, abstracted interfaces that people use every day that they have no trouble with? Sure, on/off switches are easy, traffic lights are easy, thermometers, steering wheels and gas pedals — they’re so simple. Setting the timer on a microwave, most people can do. Ordering a book on Amazon, many can do. Programming a VCR to record a show, few can do. (DVRs, like TiVo, show people a schedule grid, allowing them to simply highlight the names of the shows they want to record; people seem to have little trouble filling out simple forms to accomplish tasks.)

    Obviously, most entertainment media are not “natural”; turning pages in a book is not analogous to anything natural; edits in cinema and TV are not natural; and so on. We learn these conventions, until they become so familiar they feel natural.

    In theory, we could invent media conventions for interacting with NPCs in games and interactive drama, that aren’t natural, that with enough widespread use, everyone would eventually adopt. A chicken-and-egg problem, perhaps. But I think the conventions of today’s games, and text-based IF as well, are too far from natural to be widely adopted.

    I think where you’re labelling “natural” vs “abstract”, I would just say “usable” vs “awkward”

    I’m specifically trying to understand what can make UIs awkward, and I’m suggesting that abstraction, especially abstraction requiring the player to map their natural mode of expression into an abstracted range of values, or set of menu choices, can be just cumbersome and onerous enough to turn off people — especially if what they’re seeking is entertainment, versus the work they may expect to have to do for accomplishing a task.

    Anyone know of good books or papers addressing the topic of popular, easy-to-use UIs, for play and entertainment? Are we in Don Norman territory now?

    But there are probably few examples of UIs in the domain of interpersonal interaction, either person-to-person or person-to-NPC. I can think of email, texting and IM clients — they simply allow users to write/chat in open-ended natural language, without assistance, mediation or abstraction. Emoticons and text speak are simple, popular abstractions that emerged from these open-ended interfaces. L33t is more abstract, and less popular.

  5. andrew Says:

    Another question is, thinking about Breslin’s enjoyment of learning how the game system works and then playing within that — how many non-gamers will want to do that? Is that a more intermediate or advanced activity perhaps, that gamers will tend to want to do, but newbies won’t?

    Newbies may be plenty entertained by the novelty of interactive drama, and the pleasures of having meaningful effects in the game world, and may not feel the need to “master” the game as a system, to “conquer” the game so to speak.

    Even if so, assuming newbies begin to play and enjoy interactive drama, will they inevitably turn into intermediate and advanced players, and start desiring system mastery?

    Another point: the relative success of casual games, particularly among the “traditional housewives” market (1 2), possibly contradicts my claims here. Thoughts?

  6. Gilbert Bernstein Says:

    I’m not sure what non-gamers want is really centered around interfaces. I suspect it has more to do with content and subject matter, looking at the success of games like the Sims. The advantage to having a natural language interface might not be so much that non-gamers like NLU, as non-gamers like… say parties. As things stand however, it’s not clear you could create a meaningful game experience about a party.

    Drifting closer to gamer games, I was chatting the other day while watching a friend play Socom and we started discussing how it would be cool to have a heist game; plan and execute something really elaborate like in Ocean’s Eleven. When I started thinking about it, I realized how much of a boon an NLU interface would be to such a game in making it about the heist instead of (perhaps) just some modification of a stealth shooter.

  7. Brad Says:

    I am unconvinced that the masses disdain games primarily because there’s anything wrong with games per se, e.g., their interfaces, or even their content. Likely, few will be convinced by my alternate theory, but here goes:

    Children love games and stories, and playing pretend, and learning-by-messing-with-things. Adults also love these things, but largely consider these activities irresponsible, which they are, from a certain point of view; and yet adults play games (in groups, or when they are goofing off) and enjoy stories (the more realistic, the better, of course). But the adult capacity for pretending, for endowing an imaginary scenario with meaning, is pretty piss-poor. Most of you have probably seen (hell, most of us have probably been) a three-year-old pretending to be a dog — like, totally barking and walking around on all-fours, and trying his damnedest not to do anything out-of-character.

    Now consider the same behavior in a six year-old. Try twelve on for size. And finally: twenty-four.

    In each case the activity is the same, but public interpretation changes. The three year-old is both cute and annoying in varying measures. Some would start worrying immediately about the six year-old, others not. The twelve year-old pops up a red flag, and the twenty-four year-old case is rare enough that he is instantly branded as insane until his motive becomes clear (unless that motive is itself insane).

    As we get older, the masses settle into the socially encouraged, responsible roles that are available to them; they make the definition and cultivation of those roles their life’s work; and they distance themselves from all previous roles they might have had, like an actress might downplay the exploitation movies at the start of her career. Oh yes, adults are engaged in serious business, you see, and playing pretend in any form is anathema to that, unless you’re doing it for money.

    If you can make it to age twenty or so without “putting away childish things,” then you have an adult gamer on your hands. Or a cartoonist. Or a sci-fi writer. Or a games designer. Or a musician. Or a computer programmer. When faced with the prospect of joining the “adult club,” we looked at the adults around us, and saw that something was awry, and said, “No thanks, that doesn’t seem like it’s worth it; your lives are crappy.” But the truth is that we end up surrounded by a vast majority of people who did find the prospect of adulthood alluring; they might have soon felt cheated, but they’re in it for the long haul — like a student in their third year of a four-year degree program, it’s too late to turn back now.

    So, adults aren’t interested in playing roles within interactive scenarios, because they’re too busy playing themselves, which, if you’ve ever had to do it for any length of time, is exhausting compared to just being yourself. Thus, passive entertainment rules precisely because it demands so little of its audience, and I don’t see any interactive innovation coming to change that.

    The market for games/interactive drama/classic-transformer-toy-reissues can grow, but it will always consist of the same category of people who feel alienated from the adult world.**

    (That said, I admire the work being done, and I believe that there is value, possibly even massive financial value, in improving the interactive state-of-the-art. But I doubt there’s any overall respect coming from the general public for being involved with it, except via the money. Or maybe posthumously.)

    **I believe this explains the general lack of female gamers, for reasons too long (and possibly too obvious) to fit in this margin.

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  9. N. Ng Says:

    I don’t think that it’s a matter of natural/unnatural so much as familiar/unfamiliar. Is it more natural to point to a place in order to go there, or to turn a key, pull a lever, step on a pedal, turn a wheel, step on another pedal and then push the lever back? Yet millions of people use a combination of the latter actions everyday to get from point A to point B.

    In my opinion, once the unfamiliar becomes familiar, it ceases to be problematic. RTS gamers can easily pick up another RTS because the core interface conventions are familiar.

    The real challenge, interface-wise, is to bridge the gap between unfamiliar and familiar. “Natural” interfaces are one solution, as are interface actions which closely resemble activities which the player is familiar with (see: Wii Sports). The question we may want to ask ourselves is, are there other actions which are familiar to nongamers that can be parlayed into game interfaces? (Keita Takahashi’s cat interface is an interesting example.)

    Brad’s comment is interesting and potentially explains why relatively few casual games involve taking on a character-role. Of course, this does not exclude all games.

    I think that in certain societies more than others, young girls are socialized towards “mundane” activities (playing house, dressing up dolls, and so on), whilst young boys are given the latitude to engage in “fantasy” play (action figures which have a heavy combat focus, for instance). Although I could be wrong!

    **Peculiarly, yesterday I saw a young woman playing with her DS on the train. This morning I saw two others – one with a DS and one with a PSP. I didn’t get a look at the screens this morning, but the girl yesterday was playing – of all things – Super Robot Wars. In Japanese. (Which is just about the geekiest, most male-oriented game you can find – particularly since the DS version is one of the few iterations of the series which doesn’t let you choose a female main character.)

  10. josh g. Says:

    Anyone know of good books or papers addressing the topic of popular, easy-to-use UIs, for play and entertainment? Are we in Don Norman territory now?

    I should admit, while I was writing my reply I was struggling with the urge to confess that I’d only recently read The Design of Everyday Things and I’m echoing Norman’s ideas pretty strongly as best I understand them. I’m a sucker for a usability discussion either way, though. I’d recommend DoET highly if you haven’t read it yet, it’s a great book on how to balance design choices to make something more usable. (If nothing else, you’ll never look at doors the same way again!)

    I’m specifically trying to understand what can make UIs awkward, and I’m suggesting that abstraction, especially abstraction requiring the player to map their natural mode of expression into an abstracted range of values, or set of menu choices, can be just cumbersome and onerous enough to turn off people — especially if what they’re seeking is entertainment, versus the work they may expect to have to do for accomplishing a task.

    Another point: the relative success of casual games, particularly among the “traditional housewives” market (1 2), possibly contradicts my claims here. Thoughts?

    I think a phrase Norman’s ‘Design of Everyday Things’ used a lot was ‘natural mappings’. I would totally agree that part of good UI design is making use of natural mappings between an interface and the action it performs. I’m getting the impression that this mostly matches what you’re arguing in terms of ‘natural’ vs ‘abstract’; maybe not 100%, but it’s probably close.

    What I took from DoET is that natural mappings are probably the first thing to think about on the short list of ways to think about design for users. There are other things on the list that shouldn’t be forgotten though. Thinking about how to use constraints, how to make things visible (ie. make actions obvious and provide clear feedback), how to design for error, etc. And “when all else fails, standardize”. And if there are pre-existing standards you can take advantage of, do so – which is not to say that interactive drama has to use an IF or adventure game interface, but may be something as simple as giving the user a standard visual prompt for entering text. (And in a larger sense what you’re really hoping to achieve is to bring existing cultural standards for social interaction into an interactive simulated social environment – a bigger challenge but there might be incredible possibilities in designing with such a rich set of cultural expectations and behavioral constraints to work with!)

    Casual games make heavy use of point-and-click interfaces, which is already a fairly natural and user-friendly interface technique. There’s a clear natural mapping between moving a mouse and the movement of the cursor on the screen which made mouse movement relatively natural from the start, and today point-and-click is a conventional means of input. From there, casual games often do abstract slightly in the sense that they don’t make use of traditional “button” visual types to communicate clicking, but they create such immediate and clear feedback to clicking actions that the learning curve for how clicks map to actions in them is incredibly user-friendly. It’s a good example of how to balance using natural mappings with other considerations such as visibility of actions.

    So I think they may run counter to a claim that “natural” vs “abstract” is a solitary criteria for good UI design, but I don’t think you’re really arguing that anyway since you’ve already discussed other issues such as visibility of the game’s state. And given that you’ve already discussed why you see it as important not to make the game’s internal state too transparent, I think it’s a smart design choice to balance the slightly opaque nature of your game with a form of input that will feel very natural to the user. (And of course I worded that in such a way that I’m now thinking of a dozen further questions as to how NLU qualifies in that regard; but I’ll cut all that short and just say that I think it has great potential and I’m looking forward to The Party!)

  11. drdon Says:

    I have to question the whole idea of non-gamers. Are there such beasts? My mom is in her mid-70’s and is addicted to Solitaire on her computer. There’s an interface!

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