Marie Jasmin: Hi. So yes, my name is Marie. I’m a UI design­er in video games. And today I’d like to address the issue of time well spent, in games and beyond, with a very small yet pow­er­ful idea. 

So, imag­ine a per­son emerg­ing from a long play ses­sion in her liv­ing room. She turns off the screen and maybe the room has gone dark, and she’s won­der­ing how three hours have gone by? Often these days we hear peo­ple describe their screen time as a vor­tex. My friend told me the oth­er day, I fell in a YouTube hole,” as an excuse. 

But, games aren’t meant to be pro­duc­tive. How are we to mea­sure time well spent in a prod­uct with an enter­tain­ment com­po­nent? That’s a very sub­jec­tive ques­tion. So, here’s a very per­son­al answer. 

If our play­ers emerge from an expe­ri­ence inspired to cre­ate their own story—to draw, to write, to dress up maybe. Or just to talk about it with friends. To share. If our play­ers feel enriched, trans­formed by an expe­ri­ence. If they form mem­o­ries, fond mem­o­ries, then yes I think the time invest­ed has worth. 

Now, for an expe­ri­ence to be mem­o­rable let alone trans­for­ma­tive, the brain—the human brain—has to be pushed out of default auto-pilot mode into con­scious thought. And that push nec­es­sar­i­ly involves some lev­el of dis­com­fort. Now for the sake of pre­sen­ta­tion, here’s my def­i­n­i­tion of it. Discomfort has four major forms: lack of con­trol, nov­el­ty, unpre­dictabil­i­ty, or threat to the ego. But what it all boils down to is that the brain needs to leave its com­fort zone for an expe­ri­ence to be mem­o­rable. Small moments of dis­com­fort. Not trau­ma, but small moments of dis­com­fort sprin­kled like spice through­out an expe­ri­ence are the birth­place of good sto­ries and fond memories. 

Your every­day design­er knows a lot about dis­com­fort because it is our job to pre­vent it from ever hap­pen­ing. And this includes inter­face design­ers. We are here to make the world a lit­tle more flu­id, a lit­tle more usable, a lit­tle more acces­si­ble. The craft of design is about remov­ing friction. 

But think about it: it fol­lows that if we know the heuris­tics of usabil­i­ty, we know how to vio­late our own rules. We’re dis­com­fort experts. And I have for you today three exam­ples from inter­face design and video games where discom­fort was added on pur­pose for mem­o­rable impact. 

So my first exam­ple is also the first game project I ever worked on. It’s pret­ty old. Assassin’s Creed 2. So for this game, the inter­face design team was tasked with mak­ing the play­er feel like they are inter­act­ing with a machine that is cutting-edge future tech­nol­o­gy that lets you relive the mem­o­ries of your ances­tors. So basi­cal­ly we were told that for nar­ra­tive rea­sons our play­ers need­ed to feel like grand­pa using a remote, a mix of curios­i­ty and insecurity. 

So we vio­lat­ed the rule to match the sys­tem and the real world by pur­pose­ful­ly not using famil­iar terms in our label­ing sys­tem. So the the main menu was called the ani­mus, and the replay menu was called the DNA menu. There is no match in the real world what­so­ev­er for a DNA menu. We knew that our play­ers would just need to click all the but­tons to find out what they did. 

The ani­mus became undoubt­ed­ly mem­o­rable if not quite usable. To my bewil­der­ment actu­al­ly, it still comes up in best game UI lists over ten years after the game’s release, which in game indus­try time is an eternity. 

Here’s anoth­er exam­ple, a pret­ty bold one actu­al­ly. This is the pow­er armor that play­ers will encounter at some points in the Fallout fran­chise. And as its name indi­cates, it pro­vides our play­ers with great pro­tec­tion. Obviously, there are caveats. And here inter­est­ing­ly, one of the major costs of using the armor for the play­ers is a cost in usability. 

So upon enter­ing the armor, the inter­face ele­ments that the play­er is famil­iar with, which are in green in this screen, are com­plete­ly reshuf­fled and the same infor­ma­tion is sud­den­ly pre­sent­ed in a dif­fer­ent way, forc­ing the play­er to expend con­scious men­tal effort to relearn a new inter­face in exchange for a game­play advantage. 

This ele­ment of dis­com­fort makes the choice to use the pow­er armor, or not, an inter­est­ing choice. In fact games often become icon­ic for their abil­i­ty to offer mem­o­rable choic­es that become the basis for peo­ple to cre­ate their own stories. 

My last exam­ple is pulled from the recent cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non Untitled Goose Game. Here, our play­er is a goose. They walk a bit clum­si­ly. They honk. And they can also bend their necks. The neck-bending con­trol is mapped to the left trig­ger. Meaning that the fin­gers of each hand need to move inde­pen­dent­ly to con­trol dif­fer­ent parts of the goose. This con­trol scheme is usu­al­ly reserved for a bit more advanced play­ers as it can cause strug­gle in casu­al play­ers or children. 

However, in Untitled Goose Game the strug­gle itself is fun; it’s part of feel­ing like a goose. So here effi­cien­cy of use is being sac­ri­ficed on the altar of game feel. It’s very well done. It does feel like a goose. 

I want to take also this oppor­tu­ni­ty to state that any inten­tion­al, pur­pose­ful sac­ri­fice in usabil­i­ty can and should be test­ed in the lab. Like, it’s UX as usu­al. It’s just an extra set of con­straints for which suc­cess cri­te­ria can be estab­lished, mea­sured, and weighed against oth­er goals. 

I can’t help but won­der how all this could apply to inter­ac­tion design beyond video games. Should we all be keep­ing a clos­er watch on the mem­o­rable” met­ric? Can we mea­sure sto­ries cre­at­ed and shared about an expe­ri­ence? Can we rede­fine engage­ment to include emo­tion­al involve­ment? Creative inspi­ra­tion? What should engage­ment become? 

Design is a gar­den of sto­ry­telling. If we fer­til­ize our users with just enough dis­com­fort, their sto­ries will take root and grow.

Further Reference

Interaction 20 web site