Tagged in: psychology

Review: The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

Book: The Design of Everyday Things
Author: Don Norman
Year: 1988. There’s a revised and expanded edition for 2013 that I recommend over the original if you have access to it, but this review is for the original text.

Design of Everyday Things Cover

Summary: A must read for anyone who designs things – whether they are objects or games – for people to use. Very readable and no prior experience necessary.

It almost feels silly to review The Design of Everyday Things considering its reputation. I think most game developers that are somewhat serious about reading about their craft already have a copy. It’s certainly the one book that I find game designers recommend the most when asking about a book to read – despite not being about game design.

The Design of Everyday Things is a foundational text on usability and user centered design. It looks at everyday objects – telephones, doors, watches, radios, cars, teapots, remotes – and presents examples of good and poor design. The author delivers important lessons on how to design with users in mind to make their experience of using that object smooth by contrasting them with pages and pages of anecdotes of objects that frustrate and confuse its users. If you get nothing else from the book, you will at least gain a sense of horror about how poorly the world around us is designed.

If you’ve ever fumbled with a door, pushing when you should have pulled or vice versa, or pushing on the hinge instead of where the door swings, or pushing when you were supposed to slide it… then you will find the anecdotes in the book cathartic to read. And while the anecdotes are the easiest thing to recall, each are paired with concepts from usability: affordance, constraints, memory, feedback (a concept all gamedevs should be familiar with!), and so on.

There’s two sections of the book I want to call out as being particularly informative for me. The first is the stress on human error as an inevitable thing, as all humans will eventually error no matter how well a system is designed or how much experience they have with it. A designer’s role, then, should be to design controls to eliminate error as much as possible (for example, a water tap that you could never turn hot enough to scald yourself). When that’s not possible, you should design it so the error is reversible or limits damage as much as possible (for example, the recycling bin application on your computer, or autosave features). Of course, applying this to games, think about elements where it’s easy for players to make mistakes, like at an RPG vendor, and methods games have implemented to limit user error, such as the ability to buyback items you recently sold in WoW. Norman points out that in these situations just a confirmation prompt alone is not enough to prevent human error: if the error is still possible, you should design safeguards for that event.

The other section I found particularly enlightening focused on human memory. The author splits up memory between memory in the head (our minds), memory in the world (cues, post-its, event calendars, reminders, instructions), and memory associated with cultural standards (how to drive a car doesn’t change much between cars, so you only need to learn it once). There are flaws with relying on any given type of memory for users of your design, so the author advocates whenever possible to design so that those users do not need to use their memory – the design is intuitive as is. Recall switching between different games and trying to remember what controls go with what move. Luckily, there are standards that most games follow – left analog stick controls camera, right stick controls movement. But I’m sure most people remember playing a game where the controls seemed to break the rules and you had a lot of trouble not throwing a grenade at your feet (*cough* Call of Duty *cough*).

A lot of the content in this book crosses over into other books I’ve read regarding design. A whole section on how the brain works, with a focus on patterns, may remind you of Koster’s similar emphasis on patterns in A Theory of Fun for Game Design. I’d say a good portion of the principles in Universal Principles of Design are cribbed from this book – constraints, accessibility, chunking, affordance, and so on. Since this is such an important book, you’re likely familiar with some of its concepts already.

There’s two editions of the book out. I read the copy from 1988 and found it was fine, but if you were born in the 90s or later (and don’t remember what it was like to reprogram a VCR or use call-waiting system or a mechanical projector) I recommend picking up the newer one. It replaces a lot of the examples with more contemporary ones and I hear it’s still worth rereading if you’re only experience is with the original.

In case it’s not clear yet, I highly recommend the book for everyone. Its lessons are timeless, even if it’s examples aren’t. It’s written in an easy, approachable manner that makes it suitable for anyone interested in the topic, whether they are experts or hobbyists or students.

Review: Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butcher

Book: Universal Principles of Design
Author: William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler, designers
Year: 2010 for the enhanced version, which I review here, but the original edition is from 2003

Summary: Alphabetical, illustrated overview of many design rules, spanning fields from architecture, product design, web design, user experience, and so on. Highly recommended as an easy reference text for anyone who cares about usability and design of objects.

100PrinciplesOfDesignUniversal Principles of Design has come highly recommended to me from people of various departments, but seems to have a special place among UI and UX designers – and for good reason. This book attempts to survey major principles from every field of design and package them in a neat, inviting, and (dare I say it?) well designed book. Universal Principles of Design is not about games, but the lessons within often intersect and overlap with situations and problems familiar to game designers.

The book is 263 large, glossy pages long. Each principle of design takes up a pair of pages: on the left the principle is identified, defined, and explained in easy English, with references to studies and recommendations for further reading. On the right hand side the authors use a variety of annotated visuals (graphs, diagrams, photos) to illustrate the principle in practice. This means that you can open up the book to any page and immediately get a comprehensive and clear overview of that page’s principle. It’s easy to digest without being too simple or brief.

The topics are arranged alphabetically, which means that as you read one principle may have very little to do with the next, though all fall into the broader category of “design”. Some principles are very relevant to game design – like Performance Load (“the greater the effort to accomplish a task, the less likely the task will be accomplished successfully”) or Five Hat Racks (“there are five ways to organize information: category, time, location, alphabet, and continuum”). Others are interesting as novelties but won’t make me a better designer – like the principle of Most Average Facial Appearance Effect (“a tendency to prefer faces in which the eyes, nose, lips, and other features are close to the average of a population”).

If you’ve read much on usability and user experience design, then a lot of these principles will tread familiar ground. Many of the principles that didn’t get much mileage for me as a designer were related to visual design, advertising, and product design, or repeating axioms like prototyping and iteration that most designers have already internalized. The large number of principles covering architecture and environment design makes the book particularly relevant for level designers.

The only caveat I have is that Universal Principles of Design don’t seem to be all that universal. Several of them actually focus on western culture bias without acknowledging it. For a simple example, the Gutenberg Diagram principle describes how eyes move across a page of information, and describes this as from left to right. But this principle is reversed or otherwise flipped in languages that are read from right to left or other directions. I have similar misgivings about other principles that make claims about how we associate empty space with expensive products, or the color red with attractive women and strong men. Meanwhile, others had to point out to me that the principle of Hunter-Nurturer Fixations regarding gender role behavior is flawed because it relies largely on a debunked study to prove its merit.

Those aside, I do recommend the book. I don’t think people should take a principle from its pages and treat it as the complete truth, but as guidelines they appear really solid. I think the topic is general enough (all design fields) that the book has a lot to offer anyone, regardless of whether they know nothing about game design or have many years of experience. However! This is not a game design book, so your mileage will greatly vary depending on your own interests and needs. If, like me, you’re looking for a game design specific book set up in a similar way, Universal Principles of Game Design by Wendy Despain appears to follow a similar format (but I abstain from saying if it’s good until after I read it).

Review: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Book: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Author: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist
Year: First published in 1990, but I read the 2008 reissue with a different forward.

Summary: An important book explaining flow, a concept related to the balance between skill and challenge. However, I recommend skipping the book and just reading the articles instead.


“Flow’ is a term I’ve been reading about at around the same time I entered the game industry. It’s often referenced by game designers, with various articles espousing it, direct references in most (all?) game design textbooks, and academic critiques of the concept. It’s important enough that I believed reading the source material would give me greater insight into flow and how I can use it in my work.

Unfortunately, that was not really the case. While there’s a few new details I learned about flow from reading the book, the bulk of relevant knowledge can be found in the following articles: Jenova Chen’s “Flow in Games“, Sean Baron’s “Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design” and countless others written by game designers that are floating around the internet. I recommend skipping the book (unless you want to check it off from your list like I did) and just read the articles. That said, this whole series is about reviewing game design books, so I’ll get into that now.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience isn’t particularly long at 240 pages, though the text is compact and the content very dry, dense, and – unfortunately – boring. If flow is supposed to be a state of rapt focus and attention, this book definitely failed to induce it in me.

The content of the book revolves around (unsurprisingly) the concept of flow. For those unfamiliar, a flow state is a perfect balance between skill and challenge that allows people to achieve a very fulfilling, engaging, and focused mental state. Too much challenge leads to anxiety, and too little leads to boredom. Everyone, I think, can recognize the flow state in their own lives. Think of a situation where you are so engrossed in what you’re doing – running, painting, working, reading, anything – that you aren’t consciously aware of what’s around you or the passage of time. This obviously has applications to games – challenge, skill, dynamic difficulty adjustments, pacing, immersion, and fun are all influenced by it.

The key elements of flow don’t differ from other articles, so I won’t repeat them (please read the articles instead). One detail of flow that I find interesting is that it requires internal, self-driven goals – not external goals or rewards. This leads me to think that most games run counter to a flow state, since they are very focused on those external goals to keep players moving (objectives, collectibles, achievements, scores, etc.). Players who want a real flow state need to bring their own goals into the game, not let the game lead them along – so think of Minecraft creations, speed-running, and self-imposed pacifist runs in violent action games.

Another element that strikes me is that that one of the ways to distinguish mindless leisure from a flow state is that with the latter your consciousness becomes more complex as a result. This is hard to explain but essentially the idea is that when you enter the flow state you are at a balance where challenges appropriately match your skills and you develop or mature by engaging in it. This helps identify, say, mindless grinding for loot in an MMO with much more focused goals (which may include grinding, just not mindlessly done) that lead to a more complex consciousness as you internalize new skills, knowledge, or extend your goals.

Flow covers this concept in detail in chapters three and four and then the author spends the rest of the book discussing examples of the flow state in the lives of many people he has interviewed and even pulling from historical records. These examples include everything from assembly line workers, to surgeons, to chefs, to rock climbers, to people who live solitary lives in hard, back-breaking work. He categorizes them as physical, mental and social sources of flow and takes pains to explain how different people reach their flow state in different ways.

These chapters don’t really add a lot to a game designer’s repertoire. They mostly consist of anecdotes, survey responses, and sort of a long, dry list of examples to back up the importance of flow and how happiness is not tied to income or material needs but rather being in a state of flow. This emphasis on happiness, on the harm of “psychic entropy” (the opposite of flow), and so on makes the book read similar to a self-help book yet the author provides no practical way of putting the content into practice. As a game designer, I wanted a book that could help me structure experiences to create that flow state in others. Instead, I learned that if I want to be happy, I should pursue flow, and a long list of examples of people who’ve done that.

So far of the books I’ve read for this Game Design Library, I liked Flow the least. It was not practical, it didn’t provide me with all that much insight, and I found the author’s writing style very dry and boring. I hesitate to recommend it, and I am honestly not sure who would find the book helpful. Csikszentmihalyi has written other books, including one about flow in creativity that may be more relevant to creative professionals, but I am skeptical after this experience.

Review: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

Book: Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World
Author: Jane McGonigal, game designer for alternate reality games
Year: 2011

Summary: an optimistic, visionary plea for harnessing the power of games to improve society and increase happiness, focusing on gamification and alternate reality games. Written for a general audience, so good for outsiders or even gamers, but of limited use for game developers.


I’ll start this review with a caveat: this is not my kind of book so I approached it with some trepidation, but still wanted to give an honest, fair review of the text for people who are more into the subject matter. Thankfully, even though my reservations remain, I thought Reality is Broken was very good and brought me some new ideas and terms I was unfamiliar with.

The book is just over 400 pages, though I thought it was a quick read. McGonigal’s writing style oozes with friendly, infectious optimism, almost like a full-length version of her TED talk. It’s divided into fourteen chapters, each identifying a problem (with reality) and a fix (derived from games). It is written for a general audience, so insider lingo (like “co-op”) and very popular games (like World of Warcraft) are described in great detail and might bog some readers down. On the flip side, information most people aren’t familiar with such as new terminology (like “ambient sociability”, where you play solo in a multiplayer world) and relatively obscure alternate reality games (like World Without Oil) are also detailed out. Reality is Broken has more practical information than I would expect from such an inspirational book due to the level of detail in these examples, but still lies very much in the realm of ideas rather than a how-to guide.

There are a few key arguments McGonigal makes within the book and she backs each of them up with one or more case studies of existing games, both from popular entertainment and from the fringes of serious games and alternate reality games. She argues first that reality is broken – our communities have become fractured, people are not engaged in civic and social issues, depression is epidemic, and our jobs leaves us largely unfulfilled. Second, that games excel in fixing these problems by creating virtual communities, engaging people meaningfully in productive work (even if that work is toward goals in video games), making people happier and more fulfilled, and fostering collaboration. This leads to a plea to use the well-tuned systems in games (short and long-term goals, immediate feedback, multiplayer mechanics) toward real world systems (education, investigative journalism, citizen science, and so on) in order to engage people in fixing the world’s problems, using those productive hours for lasting change instead of escapist entertainment. Lastly, McGonigal claims that gamers themselves are perfectly suited to help fix those larger-than-life problems with their extensive experience in collaborative projects and crowdsourcing (such as WoWiki, or folding@home).

One element throughout the book that I found particularly valuable is McGonigal’s description of the design process and thoughtfulness behind several of the alternate reality games that she has designed. (She also uses the term “directed”, which I don’t see often in game development but is surprising apt to describe the ongoing performance-oriented gameplay of alternate reality games.) The author takes many lessons from positive psychology (the study of happiness) and designs her games to include “happiness activities” like physical touch, complimenting or helping others, contemplating death, and collaborating in service of a much bigger goal. She admits that these activities, even though they are supported by research, are “hokey” and come off as inauthentic to the skeptic (incidentally, exactly what I was thinking when I reached this section) and that even though we know what to do to be happy, we still do not do it. McGonigal points out that games can be used to trick people into engaging with them and gives specific, detailed post-mortems of how she integrated these activities into her games.

Mind you, the examples that demonstrate McGonigal’s claims – alternative reality games that successfully and meaningfully improve the world – are few and far between, reaching a crowd numbering in hundreds or lower thousands. While they have interesting design goals and strategies, these games are not yet changing the world on the massive scale that McGonigal envisions. She is a futurist not a historian, and her role as a researcher at the Institute for the Future means I expected a lot of big, provocative statements that have yet to prove themselves.

Like I mentioned at the start, I have some reservations about Reality is Broken. There is a lot of focus on psychological studies and applying their results to games or game-playing but most of these studies are phrased as variations of, “study suggests X in Y scenario, so then it should still suggest X in Z scenario”. These are bold claims, especially when they make up the bulk of McGonigal’s argument that games can improve happiness, yet few of the studies directly deal with games. This isn’t really the fault of the author – the problem lies in how little research there is now and how much work there’s yet to be done. Since the author works on the bleeding edge of serious games, and this text is, in part, to demonstrate the worthiness of future work, I found these leaps of logic pretty reasonable if under supported by the science.

As a designer, I have some other nitpicks, such as the focus on feedback to mean points, achievements, badges, and levels – these are qualities that give gamification a bad reputation. (Feedback in game development means much, much more than ticking numbers.) The author also puts an overwhelming emphasis on questing, avatar rewards, mini-bosses, and similar role-playing game structures as the “fix” to gamifying real-world systems, which I disagree with. (Note: the author never says gamify or gamification in the book to describe this process). But as a book targeted at the general audience, this is not really the place to dive into the subtleties and best practices regarding game design. I would love to see a book by McGonigal written directly for game designers on how to take those lessons from positive psychology, crowdsourcing and collaboration, and so on and apply them to games, and vice versa.

The main reason I find myself hesitant towards Reality is Broken is that I am naturally skeptical of a book that makes such big, grand, self-serving claims about how games can fix the world, repair broken communities, treat depression, and harness the ‘crowd’ to solve problems like climate change and food insecurity. As a game designer, I’ve already staked my career in games and I naturally want to hear that they can be used to improve the world. But when the claims are as overstated as those McGonigal proposes – especially when propped up by some questionable psychology – I can’t help but let my skepticism lead the way. I sincerely believe there is a place for serious games and that work in this area is valuable and meaningful. But the level of optimism strikes me as naïve and does a disservice towards other fields – like education – by implying that game designers can go in and “fix” them. This pushes my buttons the same way Silicon Valley start-ups attempt to “disrupt” various social services with their technological expertise, often causing more problems than they purport to solve. I think we need a bit more humility in our lives, and that is something Reality is Broken does not serve its readers.

All that said, I did enjoy the book. It’s easier for me to talk about what I didn’t like than what I did so I don’t want to give you an unfair review. It is deliberately provocative and demands a lot of discussion, so if the goal were to increase the discourse about the positive power of games, I’d consider this a success. I’d easily recommend it to people who think of games only as escapist entertainment or otherwise don’t see the value in gaming but are naturally curious (I know two non-gaming family members who will be getting a copy next time I see them). Game developers who are interested in alternate reality games and serious games may want to give this a try, but keep in mind it’s not a text that teaches you how to design with these elements in mind, but rather why you should.