On happiness, “better” and the ludic

A point of clarification I want to make, in response to Jane McGonigal’s and Raph Koster’s presentations at ETech, Joe McCarthy’s take on the daylight between Jane’s position and mine, and even, obliquely, a question Cory Doctorow asked during my own session (essentially, “is enchantment a more acceptable interface metaphor if you’re trying to construct a ludic experience?”):

When I told Cory that I was “not a fun guy,” I was playing to character, and having a little fun at my own expense. (The laughter from that wonderful amen corner should have been your clue that I was speaking in something other than entirely earnest.) I don’t literally have anything against fun, enjoyment and playfulness – if anything, the source of my resistance is probably that I hold them in higher esteem than most of those who claim to be speaking and acting in their name. Here’s why:

I believe that there’s already abundant material and ground for happiness, enjoyment and fun to be found out there in the world as it is. I don’t want “suggestions” toward same forcefed to me programmatically, at the level of system architecture or design.

I do not believe that products and services should aim at making my life “better,” because with very few exceptions, I just don’t trust designers (manufacturers, providers, marketers…) to understand what “better” means to me. My vision of the good life sure doesn’t resemble that being offered me by Verizon or Ford or Blizzard – or Prada, or even, gasp, Apple – and I’m willing to bet that yours doesn’t much look any of those either, when all is said and done.

I especially am not interested in products and services that aim to stimulate “playful” or (ugh) childlike states. I’m perfectly capable of finding those for myself, thanks so much – if anything, a little too easily. I’d so much rather that designers-understood-broadly concentrated on producing useful tools, and on making sure those tools didn’t occasion hassle or misery in use.

Let me assemble these components into a meaningful experience “at runtime,” as it were, instead of ramming your idea of fun down my throat. (I think Matt Webb would call this “Generation C” behavior, but I think it’s worthwhile whether he’d recognize it as same or not.) What I’m looking for from designers is tactful acceptance that I intend to use their product to serve my own (now ludic, now serious) ends, rather than a positive assertion that they’ve a priori understood what makes something fun.

But the latter seems to be what were getting at the moment, and will be getting more of for the foreseeable future. And I think this is a shame, because fun – in my book, anyway – is much, much too important to be left to the designers.

22 responses to “On happiness, “better” and the ludic”

  1. Jane McG says :

    Hi Adam! I appreciate your comments. At the same time I think you are fundamentally misunderstanding or misrepresenting my position, which is that we should aim as technologists to reduce human suffering in ways that are near universal. It has nothing to do with slick brand visions of “the good life” and everything to do with existentialism, and the belief that life is very difficult and painful for many people a great deal of the time, as I mentioned at the beginning of my talk. I and many great philosophers have observed throughout history that when we play in the full meaning of the word, we do not suffer. I am therefore optimistic that by understanding some of the ways that play reduces or prevents suffering, we can make interactive technologies that improve global quality of life.

    Suicide is a major issue, globally. Seniors are treated terribly. Pockets of poverty are impossible for many youth to ever escape. The typical American way of life is increasingly insane – we are overworked, obese, and miserable in huge numbers. I want to address these problems. I think it’s the only sane way to engage with the state of human affairs.

    I undestand that there is some rhetorical pleasure in taking a contrarian position, but if you can’t get behind a genuine desire to reduce human suffering through techniques that speak to the few things that are almost universally agreed upon by all philosophers of all time, from the ancient Greeks through today’s cognitive scientists, to reduce human suffering, then I think you are ignoring the very real fact of how difficult life is for many people, much of the time, and our obligation as people who make culture and technologies to try to mitigate that suffering..

  2. speedbird says :

    (*Rubs hands together*)

    Oooh, this is going to be good – because I completely and entirely share your concern for human suffering, and just about completely disagree with the idea that it’s “our obligation…to try to mitigate that suffering.”

    I think I’ve accurately understood your position, I really do hope I’m not misrepresenting it – in fact, far better that you speak that position yourself – and I’m sure not merely taking a contrarian position for the hell of it. I genuinely disagree: respectfully, but profoundly.

    However, this is an evolving position for me, I want to get it close to right on first statement, and Nurri’s calling me into the kitchen to make the rice. Will you forgive me if I spend some time putting together my thoughts before responding?

  3. Christopher Fahey says :

    I would also contest Jane’s view that “life is very difficult and painful for many people a great deal of the time”. Ennui is a type of suffering that is almost entirely the purview of the priviliged. Existential angst may well be an indulgence for the highly educated. And when I say indulgence, I mean it literally — getting all wound up about existential crises is a kind of fun, I think, for many people.

    Is it possible that most people globablly find having fun — and finding fun — quite easy to acheive, without technological assistances? We’ve all heard about those studies showing that there’s an eerily exactly inverse relationship between material comfort and occurrance of depression, for example.

    Normal physical pain, of course, is entirely different from either existential angst or ennui. And many cultures don’t attach as much greif to death as we do. So while there is much suffering in the world, it’s mostly not the type that I think “fun” will help with.

    In particular the argument that “Suicide is a major issue, globally” I’m not going to look this up, but I would venture to guess that by any measure suicide is one of the absolute smallest problems globally.

    I agree that in America technological entertainments can be a positive force. But there’s another way of looking at it, too:

    I wonder if gaming and other forms of technologically-mediated entertainment aren’t analogous to those anti-bacterial soaps, where the more we use them the more we lose our ability to naturally protect ourselves agains bacteria — or in the case of overuse of technological entertainments, we lose the ability to have “regular kinds” of fun, in a kind of vicious cycle. As a culture, we’ve become reliant on technology to help us escape from all the other technologies that stress us out. It’s a little frightening to look at it all this way, but it really does make sense.

  4. Raph says :

    A very interesting post!

    I wanted to respond specifically to this bit here:

    “I especially am not interested in products and services that aim to stimulate “playful” or (ugh) childlike states. I’m perfectly capable of finding those for myself, thanks so much – if anything, a little too easily. I’d so much rather that designers-understood-broadly concentrated on producing useful tools, and on making sure those tools didn’t occasion hassle or misery in use.”

    First off, you have to understand that “fun is the chemical response to learning.” And I mean that in a very literal sense; the sort of “hard fun” that I was discussing in my talk is specifically an emotional response to mastery of patterns and to experimental problem-solving. This is why the core of it involves things like tools, statistical variation in patterns, and so on. It’s about building mental models and applying them.

    Fun is therefore also fleeting — once you achieve mastery of the pattern being presented, fun tends to go away.

    A tool that isn’t fun may still be perfectly useful. But if you create tools which are not fun from the outset, you are almost certainly failing at the interface and design goal of *teaching users how to use them.* Note that this lies on a different axis altogether from “easy to use.”

    So to me, making things more fun is not about forcing people to have fun when they just want to get something done. It’s about life being about learning. And the fact is that we as humans often DON’T choose to continue lifelong learning.

  5. speedbird says :

    [Crap, I had a really long response here, but WordPress seems to have eaten it. The following is an attempt at reconstruction.]

    Yeah, Raph, I got that from your talk – that the cascade of neurotransmitters appears to be identical in orgasm, chocolate-diggin’, and the kind of fun we’re talking about. I also understand you to say that fun is something to which we become habituated fairly rapidly, and so we need challege ramps to keep ourselves engaged and motivated. So far as that goes, it accords with my own experience, both as user and as designer.

    Beyond that, though, I’ll confess that I haven’t thought very deeply about the role of fun in helping people learn to use interfaces. I also sense that many of the words I’ve used here invoke underlying, long-term, fairly charged discussions in game design, with folks like Jane and yourself and Ben and Kevin and Frank holding more or less strongly-defended positions the nuances of which I remain unaware of. So I’m loathe to wade on in – not, at least, without having done a little more homework.

    What I am comfortable identifying, though, is the precise aspect of Jane’s position that I seem to be having such a hard time with: it’s what, in another context, we might call “vanguardism.” Between a longtime, Buddhist-derived belief that ideally we shouldn’t be engaged in making still more karma, and an equally venerable anarchist-derived belief that vanguards are pernicious in and of themselves, the idea that we-as-designers have the ability – let alone the obligation – to usefully engage in the positive production of “anti-suffering” is one that just doesn’t sit well with me. (Jane, I’m sure you’ll correct me if this is an inaccurate characterization of what you’re asking for.)

    That said, Chris, I’d certainly agree with Jane that suicide is right up there as a serious global public health issue, especially in Asia. (Google anything like “Indian women” + “insecticide” sometime for an abundance of hair-raising examples.) Where I part ways with her is in thinking that we-as-designers can do anything at all about it beyond, just possibly, harm reduction in the specific context of a given product.

    And that’s because what’s at issue in these suicide is despair, not (or on top of!) depression – despair born of economic marginalization, brutally restrictive caste and gender politics, and basically all the socioeconomic, political, medical and familial realities that combine to negatively inflect the life outcomes of rural Indian or Chinese peasant women. The idea that we-as-Western-designers are going to be able to do a thing about that is what I call “the AIGA fallacy.” I’m not counseling apathy or disengagement: I merely think our engagement must be on a different level.

    (This is also why I’m skeptical about OLPC, by the way: the $100 laptop cuts both ways, and I don’t think we’re nearly sophisticated enough to be able to understand the fuller dynamics of introducing something like that into the village environment. I suppose we’re all going to find out what they look like, though.)

  6. Jane McG says :

    The goal, of course, it not to be a Western Designer — it’s to be a global designer, and alternate reality games have been very successful in that regard — engaging global communities in a single, shared, adventure and wrapped in a collective mythology.

    I’m not equating suffering with ennui. But I would say that all suffering deserves to be mitigated, even if the root is borgeouis good fortune. Adam has already made the point I would have made about suicide globally as a problem. I too was specifically thinking of the rise of suicides in China and India.

    Religion for ages has sought to relieve suffering. I am merely suggesting that the immersive systems technologists are making have the same scale, mythos and community function can serve similar interventions,

  7. Christopher Fahey says :

    While any suicide spike is clearly a problem, as it is among Indian teens and apparently also among citizens of almost all of the former Soviet republics, it still seems like these are isolated cultural subsets of the global population. The article you linked to states that “The global suicide rate stands at 14.5 deaths per 100,000″… I dunno, to me that seems statistically pretty acceptable — and I would guess that it has ever been thus and ever shall be thus. Color me eugenicist?

    As far as fun helping people use interfaces, my gut tells me it’s absolutely integral. The universal acceptance of the GUI, which is empirically inferior in almost every measure to a command line interface, might be attributable to the fact that GUIs inspire a kind of tactile/visceral glee — that is, they’re fun.

    And, to build on Raph’s point, many of us who have been using GUIs for decades are finding that we are now ever so bored with the GUI novelty and are turning back to nouveau command-line products like Humanized’s Enzo, Google Desktop, and of course Spotlight. New pretty OS bells and whistles continue to entice us back to the desktop, but ultimately I think the “game” of using the GUI has gotten old and we want to “play” something else now.

  8. speedbird says :

    I’m not sure you were done, there, Jane – WordPress has been truncating comments all night. Forgive me if I respond as if you were?

    I guess I just don’t think it’s possible to be a global designer. Not even if you’re Jan Chipchase.

    I do think it’s possible to pay attention, to listen very, very carefully and involve local people very, very closely in the design of complex technological systems – in fact, I think it’s becoming absolutely critical to do so. But if my experience in design teaches me anything, it’s that I am not the expert: the locally-acculturated, locally-immersed user is the expert. In this context, I am supremely wary of coming to believe that I’m anything but a facilitator.

  9. ryan says :

    Jane’s “designer as Bodhisattva” conceit is certainly something worth aspiring to – but my experience has mapped more closely to Adam’s, and thus I find myself approaching it with cynicism. I completely concur that when they present themselves, we should embrace opportunities to reduce what pain and suffering we can. Not out of obligation, but in the service of what we create. Utility, real or perceived, can only be magnified when we marginalize hostile elements within the associated experience.

    The real problem is opportunity. Only ever getting a chance to neutralize the pain a product inflicts, rather than build something that nullifies existing suffering in the world, is frustrating. That said, I share Adam’s discomfort with designers assuming they have the understanding to build something that could achieve that nullification.

    Finally, with regards to Adam’s point about considering himself as facilitator of experience rather than its expert/craftsman (my interpretation), I’m reminded of William James’ observation that “all apprehensions of the deity have in common ego suppression at depth.” His views in “The Varieties of Religious Experience” come down to the fact that if you want to transcend, to create, to benefit others, the first step is to forget about yourself. Ego drives us to assume the role of expert, but I’m of the belief our solutions to people’s needs must come from someplace else entirely.

    As wonderful an idea as reducing suffering is, setting up designers as arbiters of fun/play/joy seems ego-driven at best, and hubris at worst. We risk convincing ourselves that we are saviors when, in truth, we are merely servants.

  10. Matt says :

    I look forward to gently disagreeing with you in person with you on this one, Von Doom.

    I wasn’t at etech, but having seen both Jane McGonigal and Raph Koster speak before, I wouldn’t have characterised their position as you have.

    As you know I’ve been dosed with a strong burst of playdiation in the last couple of years, but I wouldn’t think for a moment that fun is something that designers can flashbake into people’s heads (unless perhaps they are molecular designers for pfizer or something)

    You can’t force someone to have fun, or force them to play – it’s a contradiction in terms – but successful designs and designers can certainly increase the possibilities for play to be had “at runtime” – and as Raph Koster states – not all of these possibilities need be ‘easy fun’

    In my piece for Receiver, (http://www.receiver.vodafone.com/17/articles/index01.html) I make the case that making design interventions in devices, services and environments in order to increase the possibilities of play (and hence, perhaps fun) would be beneficial both to commercial interests supplying those things, and to those using/consuming/partaking of them – in that they encourage trial and learning (Mr. Koster’s case, I believe at some level)

    And also, perhaps more of a stretch, that the current vogue for play is a counter-cultural one (a reaction to the ‘strict adult’ conservatism on the rise globally)

    Play as an instinct, especially the one that leads us to crave ‘hard fun’ or ‘fiero’ is linked to the ‘flow’ state as investigated by Chicks-on-my-harley et al – this is something I personally associate very heavily as a goal with you Adam, and have been there at a couple of extremely fun ‘runtimes’!!!

    Also, I think you a connoisseur of ‘the smile in the mind’ (http://www.amazon.com/Smile-Mind-Thinking-Graphic-Design/dp/0714833282) – so I ultimately I think you need to elaborate on designing for ‘fun at runtime’ from your point of view. More that would be good, yes?

    Often, I believe, – as with all design – increasing the possibilities for play is about what you leave *out* (the child throwing away the expensive, limiting toy and having a ball with the box?), and while I’m as wary as you about the inexpert, enforced fun we could be subjected to (alessi kettles?) I’m broadly optimistic about a generation (C?) of designers, makers and hackers more centred on increasing the background playdiation of this life…

  11. speedbird says :

    Interesting points, all, of course. The one in particular I want to (read: feel equipped to) address at the moment is the idea that the current vogue for play is countercultural.

    I feel like in some senses I’m looking at a Go board. You ever play Go? It’s interesting. The primary imperative in Go is to claim territory, which you do by surrounding it; as a consequence, you’re also very interested in surrounding enemy stones, capturing both them and the territory they’d otherwise command.

    One of the really interesting things about Go on the full 19×19 board – at least at my humble stage of development – is that there will be moments, relatively late in the game, when I literally can’t tell if I’m surrounding my opponent over a large swath of the board or (it’s a he in this case) he’s surrounding me. I can’t tell which position is closer to closure, to hegemony.

    And this is the case with the question at hand, whether or not play is in any sense countercultural. You may well be right, in that infusing that lightness of spirit into things is a world-historical strike against the lockstep grey oppression of gravity that has otherwise characterized “maturity” since time immemorial.

    But I don’t feel like that’s actually the dominant tendency in my world at the moment. The daily drumbeat I hear is Fun Enjoy Kick Back Consume, in a way and at a pitch that would make Cedric Price gag. There’s ceased to be any lightness of spirit about play, in other words, and far from being countercultural, it’s now the ludic that feels authorized and underwritten and even (occasionally) enforced.

    Looking down on the field of play at the moment (as it were), I can’t honestly say which position is enclosing which. If I could bring the actual situation into sharp focus and high resolution, of course I’d immediately throw my lot in with the underdog, whichever it turned out to be. I don’t like hegemonies.

    So please talk all my comments above to mean “I don’t believe design should force its users to do or to think like anything,” whether the template proposed is an IBM 360, Mies van der Rohe, a pierced and tasseled Burning Man firedancer, or a six-year-old child in the Ballroom at Ikea.

    And the rest, the smiles in the mind and suchlike, may indeed be best investigated over beers. : . )

  12. speedbird says :

    To clarify, endlessly to clarify:

    I do believe that good design consists in part of, if not forcing, than strongly constraining the available options to, safe use. I’m thinking of prescription-medication bottles, anesthesia equipment, skip loaders…

    Sigh. I need to caffeinate.

  13. Dan Saffer says :

    I think there is a big difference between easing pain and forcing fun down people’s throats, so this conversation should probably be broken into bits.

    But re: fun: to name drop my own 19th century thinker, the moment you realize you’re happy, you cease to be, noted John Stuart Mill. (I’m paraphrasing of course.) It’s the same with designed fun: the moment I feel I’m being manipulated into having fun, I’m not. As Matt points out, you can’t force people to have fun, but design can encourage it (just ask Walt Disney). A board game, for instance, can only provide you with the rules and tools to engage in play, but it can’t make you have fun while doing so.

    One could make the case that ignoring the emotional wants and needs of users is just as bad as trying to affect them. But I won’t. :)

  14. Nurri says :

    I’m concerned that fun and play have become an cultural obsession in the last couple of years. Everywhere we go these days, either in the art or design field, we’re overwhelmed by cute little things, either weary draggy ones like Nara or Koge-pan, or more aggressive post-Murakami style. You don’t have to go to art fair, you can see these everywhere you go dangling from cell phones and key chains.

    One of my professor said in the past that those cute culture tendencies are a transitional period heading to scatological ecstasy, that they’re one step on the way to total infantilizing. Whether he was right or not, I think we also need to pay attention to the meaning of fun play and cute things. I’m really interested in balance and when you spent a lot of time in a culture where playfulness is everywhere you just want to push back against it.

  15. Jane McG says :

    To clarify: I’m not talking about fun. I have no idea how my work is getting confused with a “fun militia.” I actually don’t think my slides use the word “fun” once! I won’t go so far as to say that I couldn’t care LESS about fun (I could care less, I care a little) but I am talking about a sense of being engaged meaningfully by reality. Please visit my slides for my POV: http://www.slideshare.net/avantgame/creating-alternate-realities-or-hacking-happiness

    Also, a lot of this depends on if you believe there is anything universal to human experience. I do. I like cognitive science and think it has a whole hell of a lot to teach us. While I don’t take any particular research finding as Holy Unassailable Truth, I think the vectors of science and positive pyschology point toward a better way of hacking the world.

    Finally, as a practical matter, I have found that designing to improve qulaity of life has produced outstanding alternate reality games and other social media that seems to not only do what I want them to do, but to be considered — aesthetically — good design. So it’s useful in that way as well!

  16. speedbird says :

    I have no idea how my work is getting confused with a “fun militia.”

    That’s fair comment, Jane. There’s at least two and maybe three or more separate conversations here that should probably be unpacked. Here are some of the points I see being engaged here:

    – Is playfulness inherently countercultural?
    – If so, is this a sufficient justification for its inclusion in the design brief?
    – Can playfulness usefully be designed into the interfaces of non-game products, services, or systems?
    – What’s the relationship between fun, enjoyment and retention of interface elements?
    – Is “improving the world” a valid, let alone a mandatory, role for designers?

    Obviously, none of these issues is going to be settled here – or anywhere, necessarily – but I sure am happy to see these comments, and I encourage the many people I know are reading this thread but haven’t yet chimed in to do so.

    Finally, I think there are obviously valid reasons why game design is distinct from other design domains – there are things which I’d be inclined to view as more or less mandatory in the structuration of a pure game experience that I wouldn’t want to see in any other context. But maybe that, too, is at the crux of what’s at issue here?

  17. Andrew says :

    I pulled this Ackerman quote from Matt’s Receiver piece he linked above:

    “Play is an activity enjoyed for its own sake. It is our brain’s favorite way of learning and maneuvering. Because we think of play as the opposite of seriousness, we don’t notice that it governs most of society… even in its least intoxicating forms, play feels satisfying, absorbing and has rules and a life of its own, while offering rare challenges. It is organic to who and what we are, a process as instinctive as breathing. Much of human life unfolds as play.”

    Ackerman’s quote certainly suggests that play isn’t in any sense “inherently countercultural”, it’s simply “cultural”. Play and fun’s marketing as countercultural is all wrapped up in the undisentangleable mess that is “cool.” It doesn’t seem worthwhile to try to sort that out. :-)

    If play is as broad as Ackerman defines it, there are an awful lot of activities we engage in that are playful, but not really “fun”. This conversation, for instance, isn’t “fun” in the way playing ping-pong is fun, but it’s clearly playful and enjoyable. Threading your way through a sidewalk full of oncoming pedestrians isn’t quite “fun” either, but it’s all about improvising, maneuvering, and there are clearly rules and challenges–is it wrong to call it “play?”

  18. Ben Kraal says :

    Starting with this: “Can playfulness usefully be designed into the interfaces of non-game products, services, or systems” (Adam)

    And this: “we can start to imagine a different take on taut usability and interface design, leaving space for the user to bring finesse and delight to the experience through play” (“The Space for Play”, Matt Jones)

    And finally: “is it wrong to call it ‘play?'” (Andrew)

    Play (as a term) is heavily overloaded. (!)

    I think there are less ambiguous words for what is meant by “play” in most, if not all, of the senses it is being used in this discussion. Leaving aside “Flow” there is Engagement, Immersion (though that probably has VR overtones), and Involvement (there are obviously more).

    The great thing about those words is that they seem (to me) really hard to build in to something but are obviously (to me) things that arise “spontaneously” in and through use. Though perhaps by “spontaneously” I mean “after great effort on the part of the user”.

    EG: A pianist can achieve the flow state when playing only after a great deal of practice. A programmer can achieve flow/play cutting code only after a great deal of practice. Mountain climbers (to use one of Csikszentmihalyi’s examples) have to be really good to achieve the flow/play/Quux state. But play isn’t built into the piano, C++ or the rock as you can plainly experience if you are a poor pianist, coder or climber.

  19. speedbird says :

    I think Nurri’s reminded me of something important, which is that I’ve spent all the years since 2001 first immersed in kawaii in its native environment and then in the light-cone of its overseas success. It’s one of the major reasons why I tend to feel that affect along the happy-joy-playful-childlike continuum has become dominant in design, and why crisp clean functional(ist) Swissisms feel like such a blessed relief to me.

    Obviously, not everyone is going to be coming from the same perceptual surround. Yet. : . )

  20. Joe McCarthy says :

    I realize I’m coming late to the game (pun intended). I’m in Toronto, will be attending Pervasive Computing and am looking forward to your upcoming keynote there. I had a quick peek to see what you’ve been up to (or writing about) lately, and came across this post.

    I don’t want to reignite the discussion, but as I was reading through the thread, I was repeatedly reminded of James Carse’s fabulous book on Finite and Infinite Games, in which he writes (in Section 14):

    “To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous, or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen. On the contrary, when we are playful with each other we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open to surprise; _everything_ that happens is of consequence. It is, in fact, seriousness that closes itself to consequence, for seriousness is a dread of the upredictable outcome of open possibility. To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself.”

    Harking back to some of the comments about counter-culturalism, Carse [also] has quite a bit to say about culture (which promotes infinite play and deviancy) and society (which promotes finite play and conformity … and is thus, in some sense, counter-cultural … and culture is, in some sense, anti-societal).

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