A Cursory Look at the Invisibility of Design

Steve Gaynor of 2K Marin wrote an opinion piece for Gamasutra in 2008[1], speaking about the desire for total player immersion. He argued that such immersion could be achieved by making the rules, and hence the hand of the game designer, invisible.  He applauded simulation games like The Sims where interactions are intuitive and endless like the physical world and doubted the usage of controllers that only expose an artificial, limited set of interactions.

Reader support to the piece was underwhelming, as most retorted that game essentials like rules are the soul of the game, put in place to create an alternate reality for the player. A couple of the readers, however, seemed to align with Gaynor; an anonymous reader alleged that the naysayers were simply “…too close to what have become the conventions to re-examine…” the role of game designers.  Before speculating on why Gaynor may have failed to convince the majority of his readers or better yet, whether his claim was even grounded, it would be worthwhile to examine the concept of “invisibility of design” more widely.

The American psychologist Julian Jaynes, in 1976, wrote extensively about the concept of “consciousness”. Consciousness in the context of skill performance “is often not only unnecessary; it can be quite undesirable.” [2] A pianist suddenly conscious of his fingers during a furious flight of arpeggios would have to stop playing. A sprinter who becomes more conscious of his alternating feet rather than his opponent’s position, may trip on the track. Even an ordinary person would lose the ability to speak if he had to be fully conscious of the articulation and enunciation of every word. If Jaynes’s insights are correct, the implication for the role of design, in the context of task performance, is quite profound. Regardless of how the design may be tied to the performance, it seems to require “invisibility”, so that it does not risk becoming the culprit that exposes the performance.

Indeed, in 1988, Don Norman spoke about the need for the “invisibility of design” in computer and user interfaces. “Whether I’m using the computer for text editing, drawing pictures, or creating and playing games – I do think of myself not as using the computer but as doing the particular task. The computer is, in effect, invisible.”[3] To support his claim, he listed an array of poorly designed products, from doors that should be pushed rather than pulled to telephones that do everything but forward a call. All of these products failed because the design became visible. If the user tries to pull a door that ought to be pushed, the design of the door is no longer invisible to him. Restating Norman’s observation in Jayne’s terminology, the user was forced to become conscious of the “performance” of door opening because he must first figure out the design before he can complete the performance. All of a sudden, he is not opening the door anymore, but preoccupied with figuring out the design of the door. The design became so visible it swallowed the user and his performance whole.

At this point, the game designer may wonder, “how does this apply to game design? The player is playing a game, not typing up an essay or making a telephone call. If the player isn’t swallowed up by the design, like rules, how else would the player experience total immersion in the game?” Certainly, total immersion remains the goal, but the important distinction is the medium. The player should be immersed in slaying the dragon, not the rules around how to slay the dragon. All of a game’s components are meant to create an experience for player.  If the player is to be swallowed by anything, it ought to be the experience, not the rules.

The idea of “experience design” is a fairly new concept to the design community.  In 2007, the Canadian designer Bill Buxton compared “interface design”, “interaction design” and “experience design.” Buxton explained why “experience design” is most akin to what designers are trying to accomplish, “it is the most human-centric of the lot. Despite the technocratic and materialistic bias of our culture, it is ultimately experience that we are designing.”[4] To illustrate his point, he related a personal anecdote about three juicers (See image below). Although all three juicers produce the same result – a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, nuances of the interaction like motor noise, tactile feedback, and lever resistance created completely different experiences. After the third juicer was declared the champion of the juicing experience, he only wanted to use the third juicer. For Buxton, a good design brings about experiences so salient that it is desirable; users want more. However, designers should also realize that designs do not dictate the experiences in a one-to-one mapping. Even the best designs are just “plans” for an experience. It is, after all, missing a most critical ingredient for an experience – the user.

The game designer, similarly, can at best put in place all of the components (minus the player) – monsters, mazes, rules, weapons, characters, story…etc. that encourage good gaming experiences. In order to anchor the player in the experience, these components must become background noise. The player need not be conscious of the every weapon usage rule or camera angle shift during a perilous boss fight. The player also should not be conscious of button mappings when Tetris blocks are falling down at lightning speed. According to Jaynes and Norman, those are about the worst things that could happen because they will instantaneously eject the player from the alternate reality the designer has created.

The objective of this essay is not to recommend ways of accomplishing “invisibility of design”, but merely to suggest that it is a legitimate concept for total immersion. Returning to Gaynor’s piece from the beginning of this essay, he was perhaps also a little “…too close to what have become the conventions” to comfortably champion the cause.  His argument might have benefited if he had stepped away from the specifics of game design like rules. It was never about whether the rules are life-like, artificial, few, or countless. His high-level argument is still valid – game designers should strive to put forth conscious designs that are invisible to the player, so that the player is unconscious to everything except the overall, immersive gaming experience.

[1] Gaynor, S (2008) Opinion: On Invisibility In Game Design, Gamasutra.com

[2] Jaynes, J (1976) The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Mariner Books

[3] Norman, D (1988) The Design of Everyday Things, Basic Books

[4] Buxton, B (2007) Experience Design vs. Interface Design, Sketching User Experiences, Elsevier, Inc.



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