Previous entry: IA Summit 2006: Day Three

Lost, Gaming, and Immersive Information Architectures

by David Sturtz

Andrew Hinton gave a great presentation at the IA Summit on “Clues to the Future: What the users of tomorrow are teaching us today.” He described several aspects of video games and other digital playgrounds that the “users of tomorrow” have absorbed, and which need to be considered in creating systems for their use:

  • Information Complexity — people are becoming more accustomed to multitasking, working with sophisticated interfaces, teaching themselves by doing, and exploring nodal/social spaces.
  • Media Literacy (prosumers) — individuals are becoming less interested in passively devouring media, they expect to be able to create and contribute back. This makes them both active participants, and more sophisticated consumers.
  • Ubiquity — “always on” and wireless communications are changing the contexts in which information is accessed and consumed. Users have begun to expect information to be available whenever they need it and wherever they are at. (See also this interview with Adam Greenfield or chapters from his book, Everyware.)

Hinton also touched on alternative reality games (ARGs), made famous by the ilovebees game, about which MIT Comparative Media professor Henry Jenkins writes:

“These ARGs teach participants how to navigate complex information environments and how to pool their knowledge to solve problems.”

This seems like something that information architects should be very interested in: What makes an information environment fun, and absorbing? How can we apply these engaging, immersive information environments to “serious” uses? How do we encourage collaborative problem solving?

Lessons from Lost

After watching last week’s episode of ABC’s Lost, and subsequently exploring the Lostpedia wiki to learn more about the hidden map revealed in the episode, it occurred to me the show is fundamentally a sort of game*. With elements like the Oceanic Airlines realistic website and the book Bad Twin (explanation), Lost even seems to be crossing the line into ARG territory.

I also began thinking about how Lost relates to Andrew’s points about the users and information environments of the future. Along the same lines, Steven Johnson (who has previously written about Lost) recently pointed to a post on “Why Lost is genuinely new media,” which begins to consider the implications for web design:

“What Lost should indicate for media creators working on the web is that the amount of useful interaction off-site should be far greater than that on your own website. The amount of content produced about your content should be of far greater weight than the originating content itself. This in turn creates a new kind of content, forged from a social process of collaboration with users, viewers, listeners.”

Further clues about designing a truly immersive information environment can be taken from ARG expert/ilovebees designer Jane McGonigal’s “The Curious Interface: A Design Manifesto in Favor of Play” [PDF]:

“Ambiguous displays invite interpretation.
Mysterious signals demand investigation.
Curious interfaces provoke play.”

Building on that, here are a few ways that Lost may be able to inform the design of user experiences:

  • Mystery — There can be a right time to not give your user all of the answers. Find those moments when it can be enticing, rather than frustrating, to create or preserve the mystery. (And make sure the answers live up to the anticipation.)
  • ConnectionsLost plays off of obscure links between characters and the gradual unfolding of answers to the many mysteries. Think about that feeling you get when all of the pieces fit together, or the solution to a problem becomes obvious, and find a way to let your users get that feeling.
  • Repetition — The basic building block of themes and motifs, it is worth pointing out the way in which Lost uses the repetition of objects, phrases, and numbers to suggest meaning, create mystery, and allow connections.
  • Graduated Depths — One of the great things about the show is that there are several levels to the narrative which allow the complexity to exist without being essential to enjoying an episode. The drama between the characters on the island and in the flashbacks can be entertaining without the need to enhance screen captures and translate Latin phrases. There is a continuous gradient of content to engage everyone from “beginning” to “advanced” viewers.
  • Community — There is a huge online community following the show, creating fan fiction, fake websites, videos, etc. Lost’s creators seem to be very encouraging of this, as they should be.
  • Multigenre ContentLost encompasses a TV show, character blog, fake websites, a novel, and possibly other media. These are actual venues for the narrative, not (exclusively) product tie-ins. How can you expand, or reinterpret your information using different genres?

So hopefully that’s some food for thought. I’d love to get anyone’s reactions to these ideas, or suggestions for other examples.

* Game or puzzle? I think game implies an interactive element, while a puzzle suggests one-way communication from the creator to the player. Does a puzzle become a game when a group works to collectively solve it? How do we know when a puzzle has been sufficiently affected by the collective solving process to achieve interactive status?

I also wanted to link to Jane McGonigal’s paper “‘This Is Not a Game’: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play” [PDF] which is excellent reading on the subject of ARGs.

And this is for anyone who may have “lost the game,” as I did.

Next entry: Boxes and Arrows: Summit Summaries


andrew hinton | April 6, 2006 1:32 PM

Hey thanks for the comment on inkblurt; and very interesting expansion of the Lost idea. It’s amazing how looking at other media/genres can help us see whole new spectrums of design patterns.