Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Blips: The Lovin' Spoonful

Source: UX Week 2013 / Ian Bogost / Fun
Author: Ian Bogost
Site: Vimeo (Adaptive Path)

At this year's UX Week conference, game designer and professor Ian Bogost gave a talk about the meaning of "fun." The context is worth noting here, which Bogost does early on in the video you can see above. This is a conference for "user experience" designers, which is seen as a separate industry from games, except where game companies hire UX designers to work on parts of their games (i.e. the menus). The backstory is that because of gamification initiatives and the creeping notion that making anything into a game makes it more fun, folks from non-game industries are looking to game people to show them how to make their products more game-like and thus more fun. Sounds pretty good, if things actually worked that way.

Bogost's core analogy is how the old Mary Poppin's jingle, "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," is like when a company applies game elements (fun) to something that is perceived as not fun. A spoonful of sugar with medicine doesn't make it seem like you're just eating a bunch of sugar, at best it just makes the medicine taste slightly less terrible. It doesn't make taking medicine something that you enjoy, and it might even sour your taste for raw sugar by association. The same goes for gamification. If you're told that the menial task you need to accomplish is now a game, your mind might be distracted enough by the game elements that you forget that you actually hate what you're doing, but the notion that that task will be miraculously transformed into something fun is highly unlikely.

I'd encourage you to check out the whole presentation where Bogost goes on to dissect what we're actually saying when we call something "fun." It's a shorthand, often delivered as a formality for identifying something as satisfactory, but unremarkable. It's a word with an ambiguous referent, the same way saying "I'm fine" doesn't, on it's own, tell use very much about your current condition. Ultimately fun is born out of a respect for what you're doing and being allowed the space to be playful within that activity. If one behaves as if "at play," but they have no respect for the activity or the greater purpose for which they're doing what they're doing, then that person won't have fun doing it. The larger lesson is not to make things games to make them fun, but to present things as what they are, in hopes that the respect for the medium at hand can be fun for those who elect to make it so.

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