• House Rules, Intent, and Affordances

    by  • April 9, 2012 • Essays • 1 Comment

    I keep telling myself this isn’t a post series about affordances. That’s probably a lie, but please allow me to keep my illusions a bit longer!

    So, here’s something I elided over last time. In my previous post, I said affordances are about design meeting human capacity in the service of a goal. Then I had a throwaway example about people using an object for purposes it wasn’t designed for – for example, chewing on a pencil. Well, it turns out that goals and intent aren’t so simple. The more I think about it, the more I think the issue needs unpacking.

    Affordances can be split into two types: designed affordances and perceived affordances.

    Designed affordances are what the designer intended. As a designer, you have a story in your head about how people will use the object (or rule!) you’ve created. You imagine what their goals may be, and how they see what you’ve made as providing opportunities for use, and how they will use their body (or mind!) in collaboration with the thing you’ve created.

    Perceived affordances, on the other hand, are about what the user sees. When they look at the thing you’ve designed, how do they see it in relationship to their current goal? Do they know how to behave in collaboration with the thing you’ve designed in order to achieve their goal? What goals do they even have in the first place?

    No matter how good a designer you are, you have to take perceived affordances into account.  “But why?” you’re probably thinking. “I’ll just be such a great designer that people will only use my creation the way I intend! I’ll do lots of research and careful observation and I’ll make the perfect thing for my intended audience!”

    It’s a nice sentiment, but that almost never works – even if you’re designing something much less complex than a collaborative, improvisational, narrative game. People are quite different from each other, even if you’re targeting a fairly narrow audience. Something that seems clear to one person may be quite confusing for another. Worse, people vary from moment to moment, particularly in terms of their goals. For example, I was taking some notes during a phone meeting yesterday. Halfway through, my cat jumped up on the table. In between jotting down ideas, I dangled the pen I was using in front of her and let her swat at it. In the space of five minutes, my goals for the pen shifted back and forth between “writing things” and “making my cat amused.” This is what happens when you release your designs into the world.

    So how do we start to understand the interaction between designed and perceived affordances? Please enjoy my handy-dandy chart!

    Perceived  Not Perceived
    Designed  People use the thing you made in the way you intended.
     You spent your time and effort designing something that people can’t identify or use.
     Not Designed People are using the thing you created in unexpected ways.
    Possibly awesome!
    Also possibly a disaster!
    You didn’t intend it, and people don’t see it. People aren’t getting the wrong message from your creation.
    Nice job!

    As you can see, there are two squares where there’s a match between perception and design. Maybe there’s something you designed that gets correctly perceived and appropriately used – a pencil for writing, for example. That’s great! But you also want people not to use it in ways you didn’t design. That’s the lower-right quadrant, where we get things like “People don’t try to eat your pencil.” Again, you’ve succeeded as a designer 1.

    Then there are two squares where you’ve got a mismatch. In the upper right, you’ve spent your time and effort designing something, but people aren’t using it. This seems relatively harmless, but it’s actually quite problematic. First, you, as a designer, clearly thought the interaction you were designing for was worthwhile. If people can’t see the possibility you created, they won’t interact with your product the way you hoped, and they’re missing out on whatever important thing you were designing for 2. Second, you’ve probably compromised other elements of your design in order to add this additional element. Design isn’t entirely zero-sum, but adding constraints for one purpose can interfere with another. For example, something that makes your pencil a better razor (sharp blades!) probably makes it less good as a writing instrument (potential disfigurement!). Ultimately, though, this case is relatively easy to handle. If you find you aren’t communicating elements of your design, you can either work on communicating it better, or take it out, depending on how central it is to what you’ve created.

    The lower left quadrant is the one that interests me the most, though: people using the thing you created in unexpected ways. This is where you get all kinds of neat emergent game-play. For example, take a look at the Paragon Taxi Service in the MMORPG City of Heroes. The designers introduced a teleportation power set, and a group of players decided to use it to create a taxi service that helps people get around the game world.  It wasn’t a designed feature of the teleportation powers, but it uses them in a rich and interesting way. Whether or not such creative repurposing is awesome or disastrous depends, to a large extent, on the designer’s framing. Are you willing to accept that some people may use your game in ways you didn’t intend? Or do you hope to enforce a very tight set of acceptable behaviors?

    So what does this perspective let us see differently? It gives us a tool for understanding the function of house rules. House rules, to me, fall into the lower left quadrant. The group has a goal that isn’t being met by the game, as the designer created it. However, they have found a way to manipulate that game in order to achieve their goals as a play group. When I moved from writing with my pen to making it a cat toy, I changed the grip I had on it, made different motions with it, and used it in the context of different objects (cat, not paper). This is how I see the process of creating house rules. Players seek a different “grip” on your rules, so to speak, in order to do something different with them than you intended.

    I often see a certain amount of hostility to house rules, but to me, house rules are one sign of a healthy group. It suggests that the group has successfully generated goals of its own that go beyond what you, the designer, expected. For example, my group finds it very important to minimize time spent on rules-handling in combat; we prefer fast-paced, narratively charged, and dramatic action scenes. Not every game is designed with that goal in mind! It’s not the most important goal for our group, so we don’t use it as a make-or-break criterion for the games we play – nor would we want to. Instead, we trust that we can manipulate the game system to achieve all our goals at once.

    That isn’t to say house rules are always good for the group. Sometimes groups have goals that are confused or that don’t make them happy – just like people sometimes do. If your goal isn’t actually satisfying, then the changes you make to achieve that goal won’t be satisfying either. You might not even be clear enough on what your goals are to have your house rules help you get there! Similarly, house rules don’t always reflect a deep understanding of the original game. I’ve seen groups start throwing together house rules because they were too impatient to figure out what the original rules were doing 3.

    Remember, though, that people’s goals are always fluid and contextual. Not every group has the same goals; a given group’s goals may change from session to session, or even within sessions; individuals within the group may have goals that don’t match the group’s larger mission. This means that no matter how genius a designer you are, the P.T. Barnum rule applies. You can meet some of a group’s needs all of the time, and you can meet all of a group’s needs some of the time, but you can’t meet all of a group’s needs all of the time. That’s just not how people work.

    If your game is meaningful to a group, they’ll modify it when it stops meeting their needs, instead of tossing it out the window and trying something new. That means the first question to ask when you see someone modifying your game isn’t “How I can I stop them from doing this?” The first question to ask is “Why?”

    Next up: silverware, elementary school, and learning to play new games.

    1. Unpacking this quadrant is a much longer topic. People will do all kinds of random things with your designs, given the chance; why does this happen, and what can you do about it?
    2. Also in this category: they could see what to do, but couldn’t figure out how to do it. The canonical example? Programming a VCR.
    3. Though I’d argue that’s poor design, not a failure of the group.


    Game scholar, game design educator, game designer, and most of all enthusiastic game player!


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