UX Cambridge: Sarah Lacy, Playing Games With UX

Sarah Lacy is a UX and game designer. She tweets at @sarahofsandwich, and her games live in the Utopian World of Sandwiches.

  • As UX designers we like to make peoples lives better — we’ve seen massive change in technology and neuroscience in the last ten years. We’re at the forefront of a new understanding of people.
  • Games design has also changed a lot (cf. Sensible Soccer vs FIFA13).
  • We have all this understanding of how people work and what motivates them, and also have new hi-tech ways of meeting their needs.
  • The only constant throughout all of this is: How can we create meaning and purpose for the people we design for?
  • We hear about how games are bad for people, violent, or bad for your health; but recent studies have shown that games are  developmentally, cognitively and emotionally beneficial.A study in Texas showed that gamers were better than surgeons at skills relating to surgery.
  • A New Zealand study aimed to create a computer game that could cure depression; they created Sparx, with a 44% cure rate compared to 26% cure rate with traditional medicines.
  • There are lots of studies into the social benefits of games; they make you feel closer to the people you play with, make it easier to relate to people; a study showed that girls who played games with their parents were less aggressive.
  • The perception of games among parents has also changed in recent years; now they are seen as a way to encourage the family to spend time together.
  • Most games don’t aim to have these effects — imagine if they set out to do good!
  • What makes a good gaming experience? Requires defining what an experience is — something that happens to someone, can be crafted or guided, but is ephemeral. A great experience makes you feel alive and fulfilled; if you want to get people to spend time doing something, it has to feel worthwhile.
  • A book or film is a consistent experience; a game is a different experience each time. The people who play it are participants in the outcome. In any one session, a player can be happy, sad, angry, frustrated, bored — the sense of engagement is what you’re looking to encourage.
  • Swearing is a positive outcome of a game playtest — the player has completely lost their inhibitions and only cares about what is happening in the game.
  • Csikszentmihalyi wrote The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He interviewed creative people and discovered many talked about getting into a ‘State of Flow’ — the exact right balance of challenge and skill — this applies to computer games. With a game you can design an experience that causes a Flow experience to happen to players.
  • Games are a series of unnecessary challenges that you need to undertake, and involve: Autonomy: what happens if I do this thing? Mastery: I want to do this thing to get better at it. Purpose: I believe I can make a difference here. You are always the hero of your own story.
  • Leads onto Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. Narrative patterns of stories apply to games; but you are always the protagonist. You choose between safety and risk, and are rewarded and experience growth. Within a game you’re safe and can play around with possibilities.
  • When you’re playing a game, stuff happens to your brain. In Don Norman’s Emotional Design, he discusses how what you’re feeling affects what you’re thinking (“Affective Thinking”). When you’re relaxed and happy, you are more open to learning, creativity, curiosity, and more able to see the bigger picture, solve problems, improvise and create.
  • Dopamine isn’t released when you’re rewarded, it happens when you want something. Playing a game is a constant loop of wanting and rewarding = neurotransmitters to make you feel good.
  • Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Zelda and Mario) — when he talks, he sounds like a UX Designer. He says he really wants to make awesome experiences.
  • The notion of experience design is a lot broader now than it has ever been. The experiences we deliver to people in ten years will be completely different. When we design experiences for people we focus on emotion, context; those are the things that are going to endure. In ten years time when the technology has changed, those are the things that will still matter.
  • As UX Designers we are emotion architects; we create and develop vision, and seek to innovate, understand and empathise, and encourage players or users to live their lives to the fullest. What I came to realise is that game design and UX designer is the same thing. Game design is experience design.

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