Michael Ryan Skolnik’s workblog
Studies in Games and Performance

The good fortune of bad design

I’m looking to start chronicling some teaching exercises and experiences with a view toward improving my overall teaching practice.


I teach into an introductory course on game studies, from a culture and design perspective.  Someone else has made the course and set the readings, and while I have a degree of autonomy in terms of going off script, I’m still playing to somebody else’s script.


We’re about to move from the theory component of the course into a more design lab oriented set of tutorials, which raised some interesting issues for me. Foremost, amidst all the talk about community and ideology and how games are cultural artefacts, we haven’t done much to give our students a concrete idea about what design is, or the many ways they could go about doing it. That’s more for the second semester course, even though we have a design assessment in this one. Institutional requirements, organisation issue, I’m not sure anymore.


I am in class with an hour to spare after going over the week’s material and all discussions seemed to be exhausted. I started teaching at 8:30 AM and two things that I remember about being a student in 8:30 AM classes were that staying awake was a herculean effort in itself, and the experience sucked. I opt for the gamble.


“OK, everyone, we’re here to eventually design games, so let’s talk about design, starting with everyday objects, and moving on to games.”


Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things is an amazing resource for game designers, or anything designers, for that matter. A manual of user-centric design, it discusses the concept of perceptual affordances (stuff we can intuit that we can do with an object from looking at it), and how well-designed objects communicate these affordances to the user straightforwardly.


I work in my university’s newest (for now) building, a $60M hulk with a 6 star green energy rating and cheap furnishings. As it happens, I’m fortunate that the architects neglected user-centric design on virutally every door in said building. In the first week of class, students struggled with whether to push or pull on the door to enter it. Granted, the first class is 8:30 AM. Anyone could botch that at 8:30 AM, especially when the doors have identical handles on both sides, and the hinge is only visible inside the room.


From inside the room you can figure out, by looking at the hinge, that you pull on the door to leave the room. From the outside, you are clueless.


“We’re sitting in a 60 million dollar building with a 6-star green energy rating and a deliberate design, except for every door on this floor, each of which is terribly designed. Let’s gather around the door to our room, figure out what the problems with the door are, and take a walk around the floor looking at other door designs.”


It’s 9:30 AM and a bunch of students who were laying head-on-desk got up and thus began one of the most animated discussions around our door. Students suggested things like putting a metal plate on the outside of the door to signal that you needed to push it from that side, but also noticed that that would interfere with the handle/locking mechanism that presumably was worth preserving. Another suggestion was to put a horizontal bar with a big, horizontal button on the door that would control the latch. Brilliant. When we see a button, we know to push on the button rather than to try to pull it. Problem solved, well played.


Someone also suggested labelling the door with push/pull on the given side of the door. In response, we walked down the hall to another door, with a long vertical u-shaped handle, that was labelled push/pull on each side. One student rebutted that people screw up opening the door frequently even if the door is labelled that way, and yet another added that if we go by the idea of perceptual affordances, it shouldn’t have to be written down, we should be able to tell just by looking. There were similar ideas for fixing that door – the metal plate for pushign was fine since that door didn’t have a lock/latch. The horizontal push button bar would also work there. Making the hinge more visible could work. All sorts of solutions, that students were all too eager to throw out.


To move on to games, we looked at a Snakes and Ladders board. To my amazement, some students had never played this game, so the discussion of the board’s affordances was particularly interesting.

“So what are the affordances of the game’s board?”

“There are numbered tiles so you know how to progress.”

“Good! And…”

“There are ladders and snakes on some of those tiles that have some effect.”


The actual effect was suddenly up for debate. One student offered the following. The ladders are for climbing. If you land on the base of one, you can climb up to the top. If you land on a snake’s head, it eats you and it’s game over for you. And, in terms of expectations, that makes more sense than sliding down a snake.


We looked at an image of a Chutes and Ladders board, which actually goes a long way toward solving this problem of perceived affordances. It was the first Google Image Search result for that, and was from a relationship advice website proposing a more erotic version of Chutes and Ladders. Oops. It looked like this:




Chutes are more perceptually intuitive than snakes to conjure up the image of downward motion. So Chutes and Ladders is more communicative of its perceptual affordances than Snakes and Ladders is. There was a separate discussion about how the text on the tiles was very poorly communicative. Who kisses who on the neck? Who gives and receives the massage? My choice of what?


When stalled out, I was somewhat fortunate that the university gave me awful doors to work with. When one poorly designed door closes, a good discussion sometimes opens.

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