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The Skewed Design

There has been a shift, as of late, within the interaction design world. It was once a feud between those that supported the practice and those that decried it. It was pretty straightforward; either you were for it or you were against it. Now it has become plain ol’ admonishment. Instead of a line being draw in the sand, it has become either you know of the line or you are blissfully ignorant, likely coming into interaction design from graphic design.

I’m talking about skeuomorphism. Skeuomorphism is the practice of maintaining old interactions with a product for reasons other than pragmatism. This is a term that originated from physical items, such as when a hubcap on a car’s tire has fake wire spokes even though there’s an underlying rim that is actually supporting it. In interaction design, it has come to mean when some sort of interaction is attempting to imitate its real world analog, like in Apple’s Notes app for OS X. Or Apple’s Find My Friends app for iOS. Or really most of Apple’s apps nowadays.

It is essentially form over function taken to the extreme. Look at this audio controller from Crysonic. That’s not a physical product you can buy; that’s a piece of software you download and install. What is the point having rotary dials that take up all that space when you could fit everything onto sliders that would accomplish the same thing in a smaller space? This actually obfuscates the functions of the program rather than enhances it.

Video games, as it turns out, are a lot of interaction design. You press some buttons and you achieve an onscreen goal. That is your objective. The game designer’s objective is to make that as fun and entertaining for you as possible. But could it be that skeuomorphism is as big of a problem in video games as it has become in other interaction designs? That was the question posed to me by a designer friend of mine.

The most obvious comparison can be drawn within the concept of the uncanny valley, or the hypothesis that there is a point in robotics and computer graphics where human replicas become similar but not quite similar enough to the real thing and disturb, frighten, or repulse an actual person. A prime example in the realm of CGI would be the 2004 film adaptation of the book The Polar Express. A solid chunk of people found the characters right in that uncanny valley and were too unsettled to watch the movie.

For the most part, reversing over to function over form, video games would need nothing more than a smiley face representation of characters. Video games are already an abstraction of real world interactions, so why not have an abstraction of human beings (or aliens or whatever)? All you really need is two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth all within a circle and you’ve got a face.

However, video games have mostly achieved a sweet spot to date. They are right on the cusp of the valley to where you achieve maximal realism with the least amount of creepiness. Games generally considered cinematic for their expressive characters and plot-driven stories like Uncharted 3 make the argument that skeuomorphism is not a problem to be found in this facet (at least if you ignore things like the hilariously but appropriately disturbing Deadly Premonition).

Then perhaps it is found elsewhere. If not the people, then what about the world? I don’t know about you, but I’ve caught myself more than once staring at the mini-map in the corner of GTA IV instead of actually watching the road. At blazing speeds with unfamiliar territory, it’s a lot easier to discern the proper path you’re supposed to take on the mini-map of discrete roads and walls than looking at the realistic representation in the RAGE engine. I can’t tell if that’s an alley or a road or even just a divot in the median barrier, but with the clear-cut road/not road mini-map, I know exactly where to go. Is this another case of presentation taking precedent over performance?

Probably not. The increased graphical complexity actually aids us in most cases. For instance, we can tell more easily the actual 3D location of pedestrians and objective markers. We can tell how our vehicle is handling at any given moment just by looking at it such as which tires are intact and if we’re actually flipping through the air, headed for certain trouble. The discrete display of paths and non-paths is necessarily boiled down for navigation because we don’t need all that other information for that. For everything else, though, we do need the depth-wise display to fully grok any particular predicament in a video game.

But then, of course, the riposte would be that you could just as easily distill every object to their polygonal form. Cars become boxes and people become a series of boxes. It achieves the same purpose without all the extra graphical fluff. And in this case, that is very true. Games didn’t necessarily need to evolve beyond wireframes and some shading technology. There is no proper response to this except that, well, design is important, too. Websites don’t necessarily need anything more than their wireframes, either. Posters and brochures could just be memos on company letterhead. At a certain point, you fulfill the interaction, and now you want the design. Non-detrimental design, that is.

Menus aside (they fall under traditional user interfaces and have their own can of worms), the methods with which you interact with a game are entirely abstractions. In no way whatsoever does moving an analogue stick compare to the complex interweaving actions of actually walking. But is that something someone would want to do all the time? Do people really just want QWOP? Perhaps that is the skeuomorphism problem analogy of video games.

I would counter, though, with another analogy. Websites are very intricate systems. When you press that button on Amazon to buy your Dunkaroos, more happens than a box falling off a truck and onto your doorstep. API calls have to be made between their fulfillment system and their credit card transaction gateway and their shipping framework. You could easily do that yourself (and by “easily,” I mean you could theoretically get that all set up and try it yourself but please don’t), but that is the QWOP-ing of e-commerce. So it makes sense that these simplified abstractions of movement and shooting are there to facilitate your pleasures and eliminate your pains.

So to answer my friend, no, I’ve yet to find the same problem of skeuomorphism in video games as I have in interaction design. Skeuomorphism is a specific representation of a greater problem: things taken to the extreme. I don’t mean skateboarding and the like (that’s XTREMEEEEEEE), but rather things in excess. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with being pretty, but when those looks get in the way of being a functioning car or a usable iPad app or a contributing member of society, then we’ve got a problem. Fortunately, video games usually just get in their own way when it comes to be a working piece of entertainment.

And by “fortunately,” I really mean kind of unfortunately. Making things that are fun is hard.

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