Games Taught Me to Care About You

When presented with bad design, I often become irrationally, almost violently angry. The first time I was exposed to the class registration system at NMSU, I was seated at a university computer, in a public place, with my wife. None of these things stopped me from thumping the desk with my fist after twenty minutes of trying and failing to make the goddamn thing do what I wanted. I have said that bad design actually makes me more angry than the Holocaust; this is true. Obviously the Holocaust was worse than bad design, but I have no direct experience of its horrors. Bad design is with us every day, corroding us inside and out. It feels more immediate, to me. It feels oppressive.

Bad design makes me so angry because it is a message from the world, a whisper. It says: “No one cares about you. No one knows that you exist. No one knows what you are like. No one has taken the time to imagine you. No one wants to think about what you need or want. You are profoundly unimportant.”

Here is what I mean: You know how sometimes you try to open a door, a simple door, and you get it wrong? You push but it doesn’t budge, because you were supposed to pull — or you pull, but it doesn’t budge, because you were supposed to push. You feel like an asshole. You’re sure that everyone is staring. How could you fail to open a door? Well, it was badly designed. They put a push-bar on the wrong side. You didn’t even think about it: you knew you had to push that bar, because life has taught you to do that. Why didn’t the door’s designer put a handle on instead if they wanted you to pull? Because it didn’t occur to them. They didn’t give it a moment’s thought. They didn’t give you a moment’s thought. And now, because of their negligence, you feel like an asshole, just because you tried to use their stupid door. This is the sort of casual indifference to other people that makes life hurt so much.

Here is another example: arm rests at movie theaters. This one is so obvious that I’m certain the designers actually did think it through, and that the results are not merely negligent but actively malicious. We are meant to go to the movies together. We are meant to sit among friends and also strangers. The number of arm rests in a given row of seats is the number of seats plus two one. (The extra two come one comes from the ends of the row.) Where is your other arm supposed to go? And what if you’re left-handed? What if you’re seated next to a left-handed person? What if the person next to you decides to use both arm rests? What if you really, really want to use both arm rests? And it’s painfully clear, because of the hollow bulbous end of the arm rest, if you have an arm rest, that they have only allowed you this one arm rest so that you have somewhere to rest your cup. If they didn’t want to sell you the cup, they wouldn’t give you room enough for even one arm. What I am saying is that movie theaters hate you. Their design spurns your body.

I feel that my apartment building is poorly designed. The problem is a small one. I have three keys; this is one more than I should have. The first key is silver. It opens only the front door to the building. The other way to open the front door is to use a four-digit code. I like being able to choose between the key and the four-digit code because the code is something I can give to guests and delivery men. The second key is the one I use for my mailbox; it is small and brass, with a round grip. It does not fit easily into the mailbox on the first floor, but it works. I need this key because my mailman has a matching key. This means that the mailman can open my mailbox, and so can I, but the mailman cannot open my apartment. The third key is normal in size and shape. It is brass but looks more like gold. It is very nearly identical to the silver key (I suppose this one is probably mostly nickel or aluminum or something) that opens the front door. Now here is where I get frustrated.

Obviously the silver key that fits the building should not open my front door. And I accept that the gold key to my apartment can’t work for the mailbox. But why can’t my golden key open the front door to the apartment building? It’s possible to design a set of locks and keys such that all of the keys to individual apartments also work for the building door, but not the other individual apartments.

Why do I want this? Because the golden key represents my right to access my apartment. If I can access my apartment, then of course I should be allowed to access the building. The silver key is redundant; it doesn’t mean anything that the golden key doesn’t also mean.

But I also want this because of video games. There are some games where there are different kinds of keys, usually color-coded, with some keys being better than others. In these games, often a silver key will only open one door (any door of your choosing, but only one) while a golden key will open more doors, or possibly all of the doors. Sometimes also there are mundane doors that can be opened by any key (again, these are probably silver) and special doors that can only be opened by specific keys (probably gold, or color-coordinated). This is why I never try to open my apartment with the silver key but I often try, without thinking, the same way you try to push a door open when it has a push-bar, to open my apartment building’s door with the gold key. It feels like it should work.

Again, the bad design in my apartment building is not really that bad. I bring it up because it shows how games have taught me to design for others.

I think I am an okay designer — sometimes, in the right circumstances, a pretty good one. And I think it’s because I like games. (Video games and those with physical components.) Games are made for humans. The creators of games, if they are good at what they do, are good at thinking about human beings: human bodies, human desires, human needs. You can often learn about what you need and want by thinking about why the games you love are made the way they are.

There has been a push to argue that video games, especially, are good for the intellectual development of children. They teach us math and economics. These things are more or less true. But I also wonder if well-designed games are also good for the emotional development of human beings generally. By designing an environment and/or a set of rules such that they suit human needs, the designers teach their players about what human needs are. And they are also practicing a form of love: the love that is thinking about — imagining — others.

I get so mad at bad design because good design has spoiled me. It showed me how an object or a space can whisper love.