August 31st, 2012 / 3:31 pm
Craft Notes

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.

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  1. marshall mallicoat

      “The number of arm rests in a given row of seats is the number of seats plus two. (The extra two come from the ends of the row.)”

      it’s the number of seats plus one. n+1, dog.

  2. marshall mallicoat

      one idea about the key thing…

      suppose every tenant had one key that opened their apartment door and also the front door. if the locks on the front door had to be changed, a new key would have to be made for every tenant, and each of these keys would be unique.

      suppose, instead, that every tenant has a key that opens their apartment door only and a second key that opens the front door only. if the locks on the front door had to be changed, a new key would have to be made for every tenant, but each of these keys will be identical.

      it’s probly cheaper to cut 100 copies of the same key than cut one copy each of 100 different keys.

  3. Trey

      I don’t know who down-voted this, but this is true. for example, if you say that each seat has only one arm rest and the arm rest is on the right side, then the arm rest on the far right is a natural arm rest, and only the arm rest on the far left is “extra.” obviously the same is true but reversed if you say that the natural arm rest is on the left.

      not to be overly pedantic or anything, but this is a post on design, and it was interesting for me to think through and interesting for me to type out, so I guess this comment is more for me than for anyone else.

  4. Mike Meginnis

      Fair enough!

  5. Mike Meginnis

      Yep! He’s right. I’m tempted to just silently fix my error, but I’ll leave it in and make the correction as an edit…

  6. A D Jameson

      Consider yourself lucky: I have six different keys for my apartment gates/doors/mailbox. (And it would be seven, but we never lock one of the doors.)

      I kinda like that, though. It’s a very old building.

  7. Trey

      by the way mike I didn’t say it before but this is a great post, thanks. have been semi-consciously investigating the design all around me since I read it.

  8. Mike Meginnis


  9. JosephYoung

      Q: what did the man at auschwitz say to himself
      on the way to the gas chambers?

      A: that poorly designed door makes me feel unloved and insignificant.

  10. deadgod

      Audience hate isn’t made present just in arm-rest wars, either. (This problem is easily solved, albeit at a cost: double-wide arm-rests in the interior of the row. If one ‘needs’ a cup-holder for a drink and for popcorn (or whatever) – well, hell…)

      How about the way seats are lined up with respect to the screen? Why isn’t it normal to pull the rows half-a-seat off a straight columning of seats as they march back from the screen? I mean, so that directly in front of each seat is an armrest between seats in the next row closer to the screen (or at the end of a row), rather than the back of a seat–and the back of a head in front of and just above it. The aisles on the sides of the rows would have a zig-zag line away from the walls of the theater – would that be a problem?

      Also, there are plexes in my area that have small and even medium-sized rooms with the aisle to get to the seats running right down the middle of the theater. –so the straightest-on perspectives of the screen are taken up by the aisle to get to the seats. ???

  11. deadgod

      Also, in marshall’s first case, each unique apartment key – that opens only one apartment front door – also opens the building’s front-door lock, right? When the building’s front-door lock is changed, they’d just have to put in a lock that’s also opened by each of the apartment keys. It’d have a tumbler scheme that also was tumbled by each of the apartment keys, as the previous building front-door lock did, but that the key just for the previous building-front-door lock would not open.

      My question is, why would they have to change the building’s front-door lock? Is there such a key out there that gets someone into the building but not into a particular apartment? like a super’s key? Because, as I say, they could still change the building’s front-door lock so that the new one also accommodated every apartment key – marshall’s point – and the super would have a new key that just worked on the building’s front door. No?

      I think you’ve got the psychology of the layers of locks backward. You feel that getting into your apartment entails one’s – your – presence already in the building. –‘so why did I need a different key to get to my front door?’

      But the perimeters aren’t layered from your door outward, but rather, from the street–where the burglars and stalkers and hermit crabs are–in. The super and the mailman and delivery people and repair people and so on need to get in generally, then to get to a particular door (or not). So: a key for each barrier from outside in. ?

  12. deadgod

      Joseph makes the point that function is never experienced outside of context: some particular design works well or poorly to what end?

      That’s fair; there are always values that work in and through the design of mechanisms, techniques, processes–work in a ‘larger’ sense and yet immanently.

      But I don’t think this perspective dissolves Mike’s. Generally, even given the need to relate a mechanism or technique to larger purposes, better design is still immediately and locally virtuous–‘better design’ is such a value that the phrase can be considered to be redundant. To design means ‘to make a thing or process or relation work optimally‘ – as Joseph suggests, ‘optimally’ in accordance with priorities, values, goals.

      I think it’s reasonable to have it – that is, to try to have it – both ways: to subject each “design” to the question(s) ‘what is this mechanism or technique or process for?’, and also to orient each “design” towards achieving its immediate, local end as well as possible (in whatever ways ‘well’ is evaluated).

      Joseph’s point is sharp, though: ‘aestheticizing politics’ has proven, as a matter of privileging immediate, local design over systemic evaluation, to be terrifically destructive.

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