Design Teaches Us Without Words

Do you ever wonder why when you walk up to some doors, you don’t know whether to push or to pull to open them? Whereas with other doors, it just seems natural how they’re supposed to open. That’s often because of how they are designed.

The next time you are at a public building, look at the doors. If both sides of the door are the same, it is confusing, but if one side of the door has a bar that goes horizontally, and the other side has a bar that goes vertically, you intuitively know what to do. This is because your body knows how to interact with these two objects. The vertical bar is just natural to grip, and it’s much more ingrained to pull something we’ve grasped with one hand than it is to push it, especially if it is the size of a door. Conversely, the horizontal bar matches the breath of your body and practically asks you to put both hands on it. Once you’ve done that, the only intuitive thing to do next is to put the weight of your body into it and push, rather than try to back up ad pull with both of your hands fixed on the door.

So, why do we care? Because that’s what we call an affordance, and they are an important part of game design. You see, affordances in traditional design are things built to be naturally, almost physiologically intuited. The most common example is the handle of a teacup or a tea pot. Without being taught it is the part of the object you’re supposed to grasp, it is the first place a persons hand goes because, well, in the simplest terms, it is a hand shaped hole. Clearly for something meant to contain hot liquid, that is an important feature. That is just something you need people to get. Well this is a concept we have taken in game design and run with, extending far beyond our physiological understanding.

“You see, affordances in traditional design are things built to be naturally, almost physiologically intuited.”

We’ve had to work hard to get players to intuit things in a virtual world by trying to link them to their understanding of the real one. This pervades every part of game design, from controls, to mechanics, to narrative. The first, and the most obvious example, is simply modern controllers. We’ve tried to do everything we can to get players to naturally put their hands in he right place on a controller in order to play games based around moving, looking, and shooting simultaneously in a 3D environment because, while this may be second nature to most of us at this point, getting 3D shooters to feel even remotely right on the console was a huge challenge at one point. In fact, I would argue that most of modern controller design is based around that problem. Look at how the shoulder buttons have evolved to make it more intuitive to rest your fingers there instead of gripping the side of the controller. Look at how the thumb sticks went from being bowed out, to being curved in so they naturally seem like the place to rest your thumbs.

The concept of affordance in games goes well beyond this. We use it anywhere where form implies function. How do you know that those crazy sci-fi guns in your game, set in the distant future, even are guns? Well, they share a shape we already have associations for. How do you know to drop that boulder in that hole? Because the hole is boulder shaped and heck, getting back to controls, how do you know that the right trigger is used to accelerate and the left trigger is used to break in pretty much every game with vehicles there is? Because they are matched to the petals in your car. This is just the most basic level of affordance. It is important, and if you don’t think of it as a designer, you’ll fail to produce intuitive games. It is completely essential for puzzle design, and the lack of it was one of the biggest stumbling points for old school adventure games back in the day, but that’s just the beginning.

Let’s blaze through some of the more interesting uses. First, navigational affordance. We’ve talked about this a little in a previous episode, so I’ll keep it short, but how do you get your player to go where they need to? By making it the natural place to go; by implying where to go with a path, or a doorway, or a break in the barbed wire, or a brightly colored carpet, or whatever, directing a player down a specific path. Then there is environmental affordance. This is one of the most fascinating ones and I can’t take any credit for it. Harvey Smith turned us onto it a few years ago at a South by Southwest. Before the generation of super high res video gaming, designers often had to get you to understand what blurry textures or awkward graphics were supposed to be. In fact, the player has to intuit those things to stay immersed in the world.

Even today with third person games, we’ll often have objects that are simply too small for the player to see clearly, and yet, they’re the little details that make the world feel whole. So how do you get someone to understand what these things are? Affordance. Green rectangles and silver circles mean nothing to a player on their own, but if you put them next to an overturned cash register, wallah! Suddenly, they become dollars and coins in the mind of the player. Understanding how to use the objects in your environment to give definition and to make distinct the pieces of the environment that might not otherwise make sense, is a huge boon as an artist or a designer.

Lastly, let’s talk about systemic affordance. Spearmen beat horsemen, horsemen beat footmen, footman beat spearmen. How do you know? Because it just makes sense! Of course you could use a system like this without calling the units spearmen, horsemen and footmen. Technically the systems would be the same no matter what you call them. They could be broccoli, bean sprouts and a beluga whale, but no, you call them horsemen, spearmen and footmen because simply by labeling them in this manner, we offer the player an affordance. Instead of having to understand all of the math underlying your game upfront, the player can instead intuit how they should play.

There are hundreds of other examples of affordance in games, I’m sure you’ll easily pick out as you play, because as designers, we’ve got to do everything we can to make this inherently strange and remote task of playing a character on a screen, feel intuitive, and even natural. It has become even more important as we explore the uncanny world of touch-screens and motion games. We can’t do the concept justice here, but I hope I get you thinking on how to use it and how it’s been used on you in games. If you want to dive a lot deeper, I recommend a reading, The Design of Everyday Things. It is about physical design, but I think it’ll get you thinking about game creation in whole new ways.

SCHOOL OF GAME DESIGN