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Random thoughts on a new language

Random thoughts on a new language
« on: February 25, 2011, 02:20:09 pm »

Warning: I ramble a lot!

I read a very interesting article in EDGE on UI design and what a game is (though he made the mistake of confusing a game with a toy). He talked about how some people simply play with the interface on iOS and Android devices - scrolling, zooming - sliding their way around, just for the joy of doing so. He was pointing out that good UI design can inspire playfulness. He also talked about how icons make very little sense from a real-life standpoint and many of the objects they were initially associated with are obsolete. He's right - computer interaction; the shorthand and abstraction; the simple rewards and punishments; visual style and icons; this IS the evolution of a new language. Much of written language has evolved from pictograms - it's the same for not just games but computer interaction in general. Game language is a superset of computer interaction language (I'm not talking about programming here).

For example - in Skype, the icon for making a call is the silhouette of an old-fashioned phone handset. Has anyone under the age of 20 seen one, if not stuffed in the corner of a dusty closet, let alone even used one of these? How about an alarm clock icon shaped like an ancient, wind-up alarm clock with the big bells on top? A schedule app with an icon shaped like an old Filofax book? Save icons often look like a floppy disk! Whaaaa? I haven't had a computer with a floppy drive in 10 years and it was useless long before that.

At first I thought is was absurd that people complained about the iTunes icon being changed. It was "old" and it showed an old CD on it. It made no sense, in a real-world sense, to keep the icon. Few people are still buying CDs and ripping them. Even fewer actually play CDs. However, I've changed my mind about this. What Apple did was alter the language. It didn't matter if the CD made no sense in reality, it was part of the accepted language. Instead they just have the musical note, which means far less to most people than that image of the compact disc. What would make far more sense is if Apple made the iTunes icon look like a phonograph. Despite most people never having seen on in real life, it's still the most recognizable image representing recorded sound! It's part of the modern world's visual language. And more importantly, it's effective!

I used to think all this legacy iconography was pointless. That instead some sort of abstract shapes should be used in their place. But this is absurd. By the mere process of language evolution, this is happening anyway. And secondly, our brains simply don't work like that. Using these old-fashioned objects to represent the functionality of software makes far more sense. First of all, many modern equivalents (if they exist) to their old counterparts don't really have a recognizable shape. A modern alarm clock just looks like a plastic box. A modern phone - well they are variations of boxes. Mine is one of the weirder ones and is part of my modem; it looks like a half-cylinder mounted on a miniature Cray-1 - but that's the exception. All this streamlining and boxifying makes many modern devices indistinguishable from one another in silhouette. Using old devices to represent these functions isn't nostalgia, it's sensible.

This is also why older people have such difficulty learning to use computers. They are learning a new language! I'm in my 40's and you know what, learning Italian has been extremely difficult for me. If you didn't grow up with it, it's not obvious or easy. UI designers have struggled to make computers easier to learn. I can't help but think that the ease of use really can't get any more simplistic beyond what iOS has achieved. Additionally, it makes little sense. This is an evolving language and a fast moving one at that. Once you over-simplify things too much, it makes things frustrating for experienced users. If you know the language, you don't want to go back to reciting the alphabet, know what I mean?

Anyway, good UI design is about understanding and using this new language effectively. The fact that people actually enjoy it and toy with it, I think that's fascinating. Atm, most people don't have a way to "write" in this language themselves. Will it be long before they can?
« Last Edit: March 16, 2011, 05:57:12 am by ghostwheel »
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Re: Random thoughts on a new language
« Reply #1 on: February 26, 2011, 04:37:44 am »

Mainly because I tend to be unsophisticated with regards to UI design, I'm actually in the camp that favors no UI or HUD if one can get away from it.

Most UI is used to display gamey elements, such as achievements and scores.  I tend to play games that have neither.

Having an HUD in a 3rd person 3D game often breaks my immersion.  It's better to just map actions to standardized or reconfigurable controls or just have them be context-dependent.

In a 2D game having minimal UI works to an extent as well, unless if the entire game was about managing stats.  That's why I just can't get into the most hardcore of strategy and simulation games -- they look like gazillions of stats, and they confuse the heck out of me.  Some people recommend taking the abstaction away from those stats and going back to what those stats represent, namely information obtained from exploring yourself and asking people.  This puts you back from 'God Mode' back into 'Human Mode' where instead of presiding over an abstract representation over a world you go down and step into it.  I never really got into these God simulation games.

On the other hand I'm still jealous of game designers who can make pretty menus.
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Re: Random thoughts on a new language
« Reply #2 on: February 26, 2011, 08:28:25 am »

I enjoy pleasant UI design as much as anyone else. But to think of it as a language goes a bit too far too me. That seems to imply that it's just about straight communication. And that has always bothered me. When I was going to school to become a graphic designer, my course was called "functional graphics". I had issues with that name because my teachers seemed to know exactly what "function" these "graphics" are supposed to have: to be readable, send a clear message, etc. While I found that graphic design can have so many more functions and layers. It could entertain and tell stories, it could subvert its own message and make you think, it could simply be spectacular and completely unreadable, etc. And the more recent wave of Usability Experts also rubs me  the wrong way. All these assumptions that there is only a single goal to everything -speed and efficiency- really narrow things down far too much for me.
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Re: Random thoughts on a new language
« Reply #3 on: February 26, 2011, 05:10:37 pm »

I'm not really talking about functionality or prettiness and the the original article wasn't either. It's more about how good UI design inspires playfulness. And I really do believe it is a new language. However, it's still so young, I can see how you might doubt it. I highly suggest reading the article, it's by Randy Smith Steven Poole in issue 225 of Edge magazine. I don't think I communicated his thoughts or what I extrapolated from them very well. I'm sorry but it's not available online.
« Last Edit: March 16, 2011, 05:51:04 am by ghostwheel »
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Re: Random thoughts on a new language
« Reply #4 on: March 10, 2011, 06:08:59 am »

I enjoy pleasant UI design as much as anyone else. But to think of it as a language goes a bit too far too me. That seems to imply that it's just about straight communication. And that has always bothered me. When I was going to school to become a graphic designer, my course was called "functional graphics". I had issues with that name because my teachers seemed to know exactly what "function" these "graphics" are supposed to have: to be readable, send a clear message, etc. While I found that graphic design can have so many more functions and layers. It could entertain and tell stories, it could subvert its own message and make you think, it could simply be spectacular and completely unreadable, etc. And the more recent wave of Usability Experts also rubs me  the wrong way. All these assumptions that there is only a single goal to everything -speed and efficiency- really narrow things down far too much for me.

I don't think it's fair to talk about any form of communication as "straight" communication.  All natural languages are tools for communication, and they have an infinite range of subtlety, complexity, and depth.  I agree with ghostwheel--my father, a teacher, likes to talk about how he's pretty good with computers, but he'll never be as good as his students because computers are a second language to him, while for most of his students it's their native tongue.  I think any tool used for communicating ideas (rather than, say, algorithms) will have elements of a natural language, and any natural language has the capacity for subtlety and complexity, and will evolve over time.
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Re: Random thoughts on a new language
« Reply #5 on: March 10, 2011, 09:19:00 am »

I recently had a rather skewed thought about this "Appleification" of design.

One of the strengths of Apple's UI designs is their simplicity. And the reason why they are so simple is that they make bold decisions about what they allow the user to do and what not. If these decision are the right ones, they effectively remove all the stuff that the user doesn't need in favour of a small array of very useful and easily accessible functions.
(as opposed to the Microsoft/Windows school of design which aims to "empower" the user and provide them with access to as much functions as possible, resulting often in very difficult and unpleasant UIs)

Now, the dark side of the Apple design philosophy is that sometimes it seems that function follows form. Sometimes it seems that designers are only developing applications or including functions in their applications that can be expressed through these pleasant UI principles. Sometimes it feels like they develop an application UI first and then figure out what the application does.

As a result, many applications (on the iPhone e.g.) feel more or less the same to interact with, despite of their vastly different content.

A second, more gloomy, result might be that developers are only creating tools for functions that can easily be accessed through Apple-style metaphors, disregarding the real potential of the technology. This could be an explanation of how Web 2.0 is only giving us access to old media (written text, images, video) and does not allow us to use the new power of the computer (interactivity, procedurality). Perhaps the latter is just to hard to express through Apple-style metaphors.
« Last Edit: March 10, 2011, 09:21:12 am by Michaël Samyn »
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Re: Random thoughts on a new language
« Reply #6 on: March 10, 2011, 07:36:52 pm »

I just had an even more skewed thought: Apple as the benevolent dictator of the UI design field, happily pruning all the redundant or unnecessary language from their designs to create a procedural Newspeak.  What's really scary about that thought is, I love Apple!  I think their UI design is second to none--but placing the emphasis on usability and efficiency certainly does have that dark side of eliminating the expressive power of the language.  Have you ever thought about making a game that plays on some of the UI conventions that we've become familiar with?  What would the UI equivalent of a pun look like?
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Re: Random thoughts on a new language
« Reply #7 on: March 16, 2011, 05:15:04 am »

Very inspiring thread guys, thank you Smiley ghostwheel, I think your first post was spot on.

I like the rumination on the dark side of "Apple-style metaphors." As part of our Weiv project, we have to create a PowerPoint-like application to launch our videogame (notgame) scenes. I want to approach this with completely fresh eyes and think about how this would actually be used without considering what's been done before, but the Apple metaphors, especially when it comes to organizing media (i.e. iTunes with playlists, library, etc), seem so obvious. But maybe those are just a small peak and we're missing the big one. This certainly makes me want to step back and look at the big picture.
Re: Random thoughts on a new language
« Reply #8 on: March 16, 2011, 01:53:55 pm »

Quote
He talked about how some people simply play with the interface on iOS and Android devices - scrolling, zooming - sliding their way around, just for the joy of doing so. He was pointing out that good UI design can inspire playfulness

This is something I tried to exploit for The Lake. When you don't have headphones plugged in, you can just spin the card around, "mindlessly". People really lose themselves for a while in activities like that and I think it's a very interesting entry point for creating a new breed of games.

That's also why I prefer the verb "to play" to the noun "the game". It describes an activity in which a game is just a specific form of play. It   also contains the playing we did as children, aimlessly or finding your own goals, just watching a toy car from very very close and BROOOM there it goes. Or playing around with a stick. Scrolling up and and down forever on an iPhone is the equivalent to playing with a stick. And I'm very interested in that particular moment because this moment isn't really only filled with fun… people lose themselves in a daydream. For a short while time has stopped while doing something that doesn't make any sense in itself.

Mainstream interaction design has one goal: "Don't make me think". Bruce Sterling once pointed that one out quite nicely: "Reduce my cognitive load while giving me more opportunities at less cost". And in this vein also game design can be called addiction design.

This has always been true for other media as well. Like movies for example. During the last century we learned a lot on how to overrun you with images in the most effective way. TV destroyed a lot of the patience people could have towards something new. If it doesn't make sense immediately they switch away.

But we can't go back. We should instead exploit that. Maybe we can start off at this slippery part everybody is falling in easily and then slowly ramp up the experience. Give it a twist. Break everything. Put them in a spot they never imagined.
« Last Edit: March 16, 2011, 02:08:52 pm by Patrick Juchli »
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Re: Random thoughts on a new language
« Reply #9 on: March 16, 2011, 06:42:25 pm »

That's also why I prefer the verb "to play" to the noun "the game". It describes an activity in which a game is just a specific form of play.

I think it was Will Wright that made the distinction between toys and games. Games have goals and rules. Toys are play without rules or freeform rules, they have no goal beyond the interaction.

Quote
Mainstream interaction design has one goal: "Don't make me think". Bruce Sterling once pointed that one out quite nicely: "Reduce my cognitive load while giving me more opportunities at less cost". And in this vein also game design can be called addiction design.

I think Bruce Sterling is a pompous ass and that quote is bullshit. It's the typical, "if it's mainstream, it must be shit. Damn, I'm so counter-culture." Really, I can't stand the guy, he never has anything intelligent to say. Cynicism isn't a sign of intelligence.
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Re: Random thoughts on a new language
« Reply #10 on: March 16, 2011, 07:13:37 pm »

Haha, well you might have a point on Sterling himself, I give you that Cheesy (Although he meant the sentence in the complete opposite way that you insinuate, he actually took the standpoint against designers with their fancy ideas. Then again, he does change his mind now and then.)

But how in the hell is the quote bullshit? All interaction design is geared towards making me as a user think less, making my life easier. The ideal interactive device knows of my wishes without me telling it. That's the ideal train ticket machine, the user is living in a world of cotton and everything is running smoothly even the f...ing web forms get better and better at telling me what I want. Don't you have the same moments when filling out a form and you just came across one that is even better, smarter, smoother? Will those form developers ever stop?! Do they sleep?! Is this always same guy?! Cheesy

If you have one interactive device A that makes the user think one second more than B, which one do you think will be more successful these days? And that's where the problem starts with us people trying to invent something new: People will have to think. Which is good and I'm all for it. But the people's conditioning to easy fluffy interactive stuff can't be ignored. Maybe we have to exploit it, subvert it, attack it openly, I don't know.

As with the toys vs games, I probably wasn't specific enough: I think you can benefit a lot from thinking about games in terms of activity, which is playing. Playing with rules of course but last time I checked this is a place where we debate the exact definition of "rules". I'm interested in the range between "no rules" and rules. That's why I'm here at Notgames. And the toy-thing is very interesting as well... I think it's perfectly reasonable to think of a game that consists of nothing but a toy. But the more you play around with it, rules start to form. Isn't that a beautiful thought?

It certainly is something I would like to see. And it's not so unimaginable to do.
« Last Edit: March 16, 2011, 07:34:14 pm by Patrick Juchli »
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Re: Random thoughts on a new language
« Reply #11 on: March 16, 2011, 07:28:47 pm »

Lol sorry, Sterling has become a pet peeve of mine. Every time I read something by him it just pisses me off. Knee-jerk reaction.

I was saying bullshit about the implication (or what I imagine it to be coming from Sterling) that it is a bad thing or that is what mainstream games strive for. I don't think either is the case. Clearly that wasn't what you were implying either. I'm just so used to hearing that sort of thing that is what I assumed you were getting at. I apologize for my stupid assumption.
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Re: Random thoughts on a new language
« Reply #12 on: March 16, 2011, 07:35:37 pm »

No problem! I totally understand  Grin

Knee-jerking is good from time to time, keeps you sharp and your heart pumping! Now that I know, I might use the guy with you again though, haha.
« Last Edit: March 16, 2011, 07:45:03 pm by Patrick Juchli »
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Re: Random thoughts on a new language
« Reply #13 on: March 17, 2011, 08:04:50 pm »

This is me campaigning for my "unnamed medium" theory, but I was inspired by the talk about playing and toys.

Think about board games. You have people, a board, some tokens, and rules. You play the game according to the rules by using the tokens and moving them around. What were to happen if you take the rules away? You'd be playing with the tokens and moving them around - i.e. what many children did as a pastime. So removing the game element from a board game gives you a toy, which I think you could consider as an art form - I call it "token-based roleplaying" to make it distinct from "live-action roleplaying (LARP)."

With videogames, you have this same idea. The Unnamed Medium plus a games structure, and then you take the game structure away and you have a toy - or rather, an art form that can be either a toy or a "sublime" experience.  Cheesy
Re: Random thoughts on a new language
« Reply #14 on: July 19, 2011, 01:09:14 am »

I like that way of describing the notgames idea, God at Play. Smiley

Thinking about little kids playing make-believe games with the pieces from a board game whose rules they don't understand or care about...
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