Why I’m Interested In Computer Games Research

Just before my inaugural lecture at University of Erlangen, a broad panel of scientists was debating the merits of computer games. Except for a computer games researcher and a games professional, all participants thought that computer games are of no particular interest. When I asked: “But isn’t there anything to learn from computer games?” I got a full rebuke by the M.D. on the panel: “No, there is no recognizable value whatsoever.”

This is a common perception, and in my opinion, a wrong one. First, the numbers speak well for computer games; there is obviously value that computer game users find in games. However, it is easy for scientists to dismiss that value. Nevertheless, I believe that beyond being a huge industry, we can learn a lot from computer games. Of particular interest to me are user interaction paradigms and the stickiness computer games create.

User interface paradigms evolved roughly in this order:

  1. Batch processing — highly delayed feedback to any interaction
  2. Hierarchical UIs — modal, hierarchical, and little visual feedback
  3. Windowing systems — still a lone soldier, but a bit more feedback
  4. Social software (“Web 2.0”) — other people, interactivity, and stickiness
  5. Computer games — immersive interactive high-performance collaboration

This is obviously not a very thorough review of user interface paradigms, but it should be sufficient to make my point. Batch systems are largely gone, but there are still plenty of old-school hierarchical UIs where you navigate on text screens, typing codes to get to a menu item and trigger a function. Windowing systems improved over this by reducing the cognitive burden of knowing where is what and helping users find functions more easily. Most traditional business software, in particular SAP’s Business Suite is somewhere stuck between hierarchical UIs and genuine windowing-system-based UIs.

For quite a while, makers of business software have been trying to enter the social software world, enhancing their user interfaces with more interactivity and feedback, including adding awareness of other people, in particular colleagues. When I worked at SAP a couple of years back, everyone wanted SAP’s UI to be like the Facebook UI: Sleek, fast and efficient, social and collaborative, and aesthetically pleasing.

I contend that this falls still a step short of where we should be. That next step will take us to the UIs pioneered by computer games. These UIs are inherently social and focussed on high-performance collaboration. They are immersive and require attention from their users. Anyone who has ever teamed up with other World-of-Warcraft players to slay a dragon knows what I’m talking about. (I actually haven’t but I’ve looked over a gamer’s shoulder. And I watched the first season of The Guild. So much for my ivory tower.) For anyone pointing to casual gaming, I’ll concede that there are UI variants that don’t have to be immersive, but that they’ll nevertheless need to have the right stickiness and allow for collaboration. My prediction for the future of business software is that it will require immersive, attention-demanding, high-performance collaboration and that much of this will take place in virtual worlds.

Over on my research group’s blog I posted a short description of a Ph.D. thesis topic around “gamification of business software” and quickly found interested parties. Gamification of business software uses gaming user interface elements and practices to help create a social community around and increase the stickiness of the business software being enhanced. So stay tuned as to the results of this research.

Last but not least, it seems the state of Bavaria, Germany, is waking up to the significance of computer games: Just today did I receive an RfP for computer games research. (Better late than never.) Such research would befit the city I live in, Nuremberg, which has long been known as a city of (traditional) games, and which is hosting a major toy fair every year.

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