Built-in playfulness: What technologists can learn from game design

Avatar photo

Peter Griffin

Xbox’s head of research and design is pushing for a new design philosophy that moves beyond the endless scroll and creates a sense of anticipation and fun.

When Chris Novak started in the video game industry in the late nineties, it was still considered a niche and geeky industry.

“If you told someone you make games, they just looked at you and asked, ‘that’s a real job?’” says Novak who after 17 years at Microsoft has witnessed firsthand virtually the entire evolution of the Xbox console. 

As head of Xbox design, he’s also had an oversized role in influencing the design of both numerous generations of Xbox consoles as well as the blockbuster games that run on them.

Xbox design head, Chris Novak.

Now, video games are an industry that is bigger than Hollywood, generating over US$100 billion in global sales annually. Games are played by everyone from Mindcraft obsessed teens hunched over their keyboards for hours on end, to business executives slipping in a game of Candy Crush on their phones between meetings.

Gaming may be written off by some as frivolous time-wasting, but for Novak, the act of ‘play’ in its digital incarnations and everything that came before, embodies what makes us human.

“Play brings us emotion, mastery, and storytelling. Gaming is just structured play, rules and rewards,” says Novak, who was beamed in live from the US earlier this week to address a Kiwi audience as part of Spark Labs’ Future of the Future series.

“The interesting thing about gaming is that there are lots of people who play games who don’t consider themselves gamers, even if they play for hours a day,” adds Novak. 

“Much of what I’ve discovered about great games harkens back to very basic human needs played connected us locally for hundreds of generations.”

What works in the context of a video, Novak argues, offers rich lessons for those designs, apps, programs, online services and user experiences for humans in general. After years of exploring the psychology of gaming, Novak has some advice for an industry where capturing and retaining users’ attention is everything.

Give people memorable experiences

Any gamer remembers their favourite video games from childhood as a series of flashbacks. But it may not be the key narrative moments that stick in the mind – beating a ‘boss’ character to finish a level or amassing the most digital gold.

“What you remember are the events which were outliers, the things outside of the expected patterns,” says Novak.

He points to a recent game he worked on, which sought to replicate real cities in the world of the game. 

“We’ve taken photos of every storefront and map those cities out in incredible detail. When we had that game in the play test lab, I noticed a few individuals driving around slowly, not actually racing,” explains Novak.

Asking the players what they were doing, Novak received a touching reply.

“They said they were remembering their trip to that city,” he said.

Those so-called episodic memories are powerful and emotional, more so than the “semantic” memories that are more fact-based. 

“It’s those feelings captured in episodic memories that make for passionate storytelling, passionate games.”

Many social media platforms have sought to tap into episodic memories with timeline features designed to remind users of old friendships, events and key life moments.

Novak admits this is powerful and engaging. But in the context of the endless scrolling newsfeed, he urges a better balance between evoking memories and looking to the future.

Foster a sense of anticipation

Research, says Novak, shows that humans value the future more than we value the present or past. We are wired to be constantly thinking about the next task, event or experience, despite how often we are told to “live in the moment” and “be present”.

“Thinking about future events tend to produce stronger, more positive effects than thinking about past events,” says Novak. 

“It is the anticipated enjoyment of events, not the actual enjoyment that drives people to act.”

Anticipation is its own reward, literally triggering a dopamine response in the brain. As the anticipation of something increases, the work people are willing to do to accomplish it also increases. That’s powerful, says Novak, particularly in the context of online communities, where likeminded people can come together to learn from each other, collaborate and share in the achievement.

Anticipation is baked into most good games, he adds.

Whether it’s showing the next tile it Tetris, the tantalizing remainder of an experience bar about to go ding, or the slow down during the windup of a punch animation, each of these juices up the brain to anticipate what is to come,” he says.

Building that sense of anticipation into user experiences in innovative ways could lead to better interaction in the digital world, says Novak. 

But attempts to do so tend to centre around the practicalities of scheduling and events with apps, calendaring widgets and event notifications.

Catalyse, don’t predict

Other tools, informed by data collected about users, attempts to predict their preferences, desires and needs, serving up options and content based on finely-tuned algorithms.

Again, it is the bread and butter of social media giants and e-commerce operators. But Novak says predicting what people want is not like predicting the weather. People don’t want to feel like they are not in control, that a software program knows them better than they know themselves.

“Obviously, we can’t change the weather. But we can build interfaces where we’re less focused on predicting what someone is going to do, and rather choose to focus on catalyzing what they wish would happen,” Novak explains.

“This empowerment allows the user to do what they really wanted to whether that’s a snowball fight because it’s cold, or sunbathing because it’s hot.”

The future of successful user experience, he argues is therefore about enabling people to do what they want to do, work towards their goals, with less of a backward glance over their shoulder or fixation on what everyone else is doing.

Says Novak: “Rather than seeing the good time someone had in Vegas last weekend, isn’t it more powerful to feel confident that you’re going to be there this weekend?”

Untapped potential

With so much digitized content in existence, all available at the tap of a button and a “billion little channels to tune into”, via social media, interface and user experience designers now had careful choices to make about how they present content to users. 

“From a creative standpoint, it’s an explosion of content to work with,” says Novak.

As video game design evolved and created more immersive and engaging experiences by evoking memories, a sense of anticipation and empowering gamers to make their own choices, so too should all aspects of technology design, says Novak.

“Some will be extensions of things like an activity feed, and some will be entirely new applications and experiences. But I believe this is a hugely untapped area to make technology do even more for people.”

Watch Chris Novak’s full Spark Labs Future of the Future presentation and Q&A here.


Avatar photo

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin has been a journalist for over 20 years, covering the latest trends in technology and science for leading NZ media. He has also founded Science Media Centre and established Australasia's largest science blogging platform, Sciblogs.co.nz.


See Profile

Microsoft is a technology company whose mission is to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more. We strive to create local opportunity, growth, and impact in every country around the world.

You might also like

[ajax_load_more id="9462509724" container_type="div" post_type="post" posts_per_page="6" post__in="" pause="false" placeholder="true" scroll="false" button_loading_label="Loading" button_done_label="No results" no_results_text="No results"]

Our Vendors

Subscribe to
Built-in playfulness: What technologists can learn from game design - Umbrellar Connect

Get the latest news content in your inbox each week