More Than Just a Game at SXSW

November 6, 2014 in Notes from the Field
Jon Larkin
Game Designer & Engineer

MAYA’s Trending Vending experience at SXSW was an experiment that redefined the product-consumer relationship as a dynamic, collaborative and emergent process. We built a system that gave users the ability to deconstruct the iconic Oreo cookie and use its basic building blocks—flavors, colors, and shapes—to create thousands of unique combinations, each reflecting in real-time the ever-changing landscape of trending social conversations. During the development of this concept, game design played a critical role as part of a larger human-centered approach to delivering an unprecedented user experience.


The Trending Vending touchscreen interface

Experiences are richer when they motivate the user to explore, and foster a sense of agency and confidence in the interactive process. Games encourage precisely this kind of process of discovery. On one hand, games generate curiosity by forcing the player to explore. On the other, they guarantee that this very exploration will lead to reward. Somewhere in that space between the thrill of the unknown and the certainty of resolution lies the root of why games are so emotionally exhilarating. When presenting users with new interactive paradigms, using this experiential architecture of games allows us as designers to cultivate an eagerness and openness among the users of a system to venture out of the realm of the familiar.

Optimal complexity

Leveraging game design to make a user experience more fulfilling by promoting curiosity is not a new idea. In the essay Heuristics for Designing Enjoyable User Interfaces: Lessons from Computer Games, which is now over thirty years old, Thomas Malone discusses the value of borrowing from game design to generate user curiosity in non-game systems. Games aptly cultivate curiosity and exploration by presenting the user with what he refers to as optimal complexity:

“Environments should be neither too complicated nor too simple with respect to the user’s existing knowledge. They should be novel and surprising, but not completely incomprehensible. In general, an optimally complex environment will be one where the learner knows enough to have expectations about what will happen, but where these expectations are sometimes unmet.”

In a game, the player performs actions that cause any number of effects by the game itself and/or other players. These reactions are then presented back to the player through some means of feedback. This feedback is then interpreted by the player, who uses the newfound knowledge to perform subsequent actions within the game’s possibility space. This constant push and pull between cause and effect is ubiquitous in game experiences and important for other interactions as well, especially when those interactions aspire to entertain, surprise, or astound.

An expanded possibility space

As Will Wright, creator of the Sims, explains: “Games cultivate—and exploit—possibility space better than any other medium. In linear storytelling, we can only imagine the possibility space that surrounds the narrative: What if Luke had joined the Dark Side? What if Neo isn’t the One? In interactive media, we can explore it.”


The cone of possibility space

The cone of possibility space graphic above is a slightly altered version of the cone I first saw in Stuart Candy’s The Futures of Everyday Life. Candy explains, “This conical conception … of possibility space … reflects an understanding of life, and of history, that is not purely deterministic on the one hand, or chaotic on the other, but a mixture of the two; contingent.” The possibility space of any environment is not bounded by what actually does happen, but rather encompasses the psychological space of everything that could happen, including that which exists as well as that which is imagined. Giving users access to an open-ended environment, while assuring that same user that the environment is not completely chaotic, is a basic building block of playfulness and a key ingredient of great games.

Games are particularly well suited to evoking a broad sense of possibility space by their very nature as interactions. As non-linear media driven by the user’s choices, interactive experiences like games or websites can unfold in many different ways, over different timelines, and with vastly different outcomes. The player never covers every possible interaction, even over multiple play sessions. Instead, think of gameplay as a kind of pseudo-choreographed dialogue between the player and the game itself. It doesn’t matter whether the possibility space is confined to the 64 squares on a chess board or whether it spans countless cubic kilometers in a Minecraft sandbox, a player does not feel a necessity to fully understand the system or predict all of the outcomes before embarking on a new experience, because the process of exploration itself is what is fulfilling.

Each Oreo Trending Vending machine allowed users to explore a vast possibility space in a controlled and surmountable way. When designing the interface, we knew we needed users to be able to “get it” in a matter of seconds, to navigate through thousands of potential combinations, and to feel capable of crafting a perfect, personalized cookie, all while using a never-before-seen consumer paradigm. One of the biggest challenges—aside from the obvious technical problem of creating a vending machine that takes Twitter data and 3D-prints thousands of different Oreo combinations—was creating an interface that could convey this potential to users who’d never seen anything like it before. We needed to turn users into experts and have them designing and printing new cookies, all within about a 30- to 60-second window.

Player collaboration

By envisioning this experience as a playful and unbounded one, the interface did not push users to seek a comprehensive top-down perspective, but rather invited them to take part in an exploratory exercise, where each user could carve out a personalized and emergent path, discovering new and uncharted fragments of a system that was much larger than any individual session. As such, each user felt part of a massively multifaceted community, even though each discrete experience might have exercised less than 1% of the total possibilities and lasted no more than a minute.

Lessons from game design allow interfaces such as the Trending Vending machine to promote serendipity. Instead of requiring a user to first grasp a holistic picture of the complete possibility space before making a choice, the interface instead implements familiar game mechanics, such as chance and mystery, to encourage users to stumble onto new, funny, and pertinent combinations and to remix them with the combinations created by other users. Festivalgoers could not only share and compare their unique Oreo experiences with one another; they could literally use each other’s designs as building blocks in an ongoing collaborative creative process that was woven through the community. In this way, hundreds of people navigated an unfamiliar, totally new experience—potentially fraught with confusion or uncertainty—with curiosity, confidence, and joy instead.

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