Make it like a game

by Alistair Gray on 6 November 2009

Whenever I’m testing systems I find this quote cropping up. It usually follows a groan from the observation room. After all it’s a phone/spreadsheet system/application form/etc, it’s NOT a game, but this doesn’t mean the comment should be ignored. There are lots of things games do well that can be carried across into different areas.

So when someone says “make it like a game”, what do they mean? It could be many things. As a gamer here are some of the things games offer that could be seen as useful for people, and therefore things that system designs could consider:

  • Microsoft Office menuOffer a tutorial – Games almost always offer an initial introduction for players. Who would want to sit down after getting a new phone and read through the manual? As the saying goes – learn by doing. People often jump in head first and systems should support this.
  • Provide real scenarios – Games let players try out the actions introduced, be it picking up an item, ordering people around a field or passing a ball. Systems should do the same and offer real data to manipulate. Don’t force users to read how to do things, or even watch a video, let them get hands on.
  • Progressively add complexity – Games gradually up the difficulty as you play, and often the complexity increases correspondingly. Moves, controls and more complex systems are introduced through play. Systems could do something similar by restricting access (or at least hiding) some of the more advanced controls. This is done by Microsoft Office, with more advanced options often harder to access than the basic controls.

I’m not calling for speadsheets to announce “You have reached level four in pie charts, you have now unlocked pivot tables”. But some of the tricks games use to introduce themselves and add to their complexity shouldn’t be ignored.

Have you got any ideas about other things games can teach us?

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