Journal tags: games




Fourteen years ago, I gave a talk at the Reboot conference in Copenhagen. It was called In Praise of the Hyperlink. For the most part, it was a gushing love letter to hypertext, but it also included this observation:

For a conspiracy theorist, there can be no better tool than a piece of technology that allows you to arbitrarily connect information. That tool now exists. It’s called the World Wide Web and it was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

You know those “crazy walls” that are such a common trope in TV shows and movies? The detectives enter the lair of the unhinged villain and discover an overwhelming wall that’s like looking at the inside of that person’s head. It’s not the stuff itself that’s unnerving; it’s the red thread that connects the stuff.

Red thread. Blue hyperlinks.

When I spoke about the World Wide Web, hypertext, apophenia, and conspiracy theorists back in 2006, conspiracy theories could still be considered mostly harmless. It was the domain of Dan Brown potboilers and UFO enthusiasts with posters on their walls declaring “I Want To Believe”. But even back then, 911 truthers were demonstrating a darker side to the fun and games.

There’s always been a gamification angle to conspiracy theories. Players are rewarded with the same dopamine hits for “doing the research” and connecting unrelated topics. Now that’s been weaponised into QAnon.

In his newsletter, Dan Hon wrote QAnon looks like an alternate reality game. You remember ARGs? The kind of designed experience where people had to cooperate in order to solve the puzzle.

Being a part of QAnon involves doing a lot of independent research. You can imagine the onboarding experience in terms of being exposed to some new phrases, Googling those phrases (which are specifically coded enough to lead to certain websites, and certain information). Finding something out, doing that independent research will give you a dopamine hit. You’ve discovered something, all by yourself. You’ve achieved something. You get to tell your friends about what you’ve discovered because now you know a secret that other people don’t. You’ve done something smart.

We saw this in the games we designed. Players love to be the first person to do something. They love even more to tell everyone else about it. It’s like Crossfit. 

Dan’s brother Adrian also wrote about this connection: What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon:

There is a vast amount of information online, and sometimes it is possible to solve “mysteries”, which makes it hard to criticise people for trying, especially when it comes to stopping perceived injustices. But it’s the sheer volume of information online that makes it so easy and so tempting and so fun to draw spurious connections.

This is something that Molly Sauter has been studying for years now, like in her essay The Apophenic Machine:

Humans are storytellers, pattern-spotters, metaphor-makers. When these instincts run away with us, when we impose patterns or relationships on otherwise unrelated things, we call it apophenia. When we create these connections online, we call it the internet, the web circling back to itself again and again. The internet is an apophenic machine.

I remember interviewing Lauren Beukes back in 2012 about her forthcoming book about a time-travelling serial killer:

Me: And you’ve written a time-travel book that’s set entirely in the past.

Lauren: Yes. The book ends in 1993 and that’s because I did not want to have to deal with Kirby the heroine getting some access to CCTV cameras and uploading the footage to 4chan and having them solve the mystery in four minutes flat.

By the way, I noticed something interesting about the methodology behind conspiracy theories—particularly the open-ended never-ending miasma of something like QAnon. It’s no surprise that the methodology is basically an inversion of the scientific method. It’s the Texas sharpshooter fallacy writ large. Well, you know the way that I’m always going on about design principles and they way that good design principles should be reversible? Conspiracy theories take universal principles and invert them. Take Occam’s razor:

Do not multiply entities without necessity.

That’s what they want you to think! Wake up, sheeple! The success of something like QAnon—or a well-designed ARG—depends on a mindset that rigorously inverts Occam’s razor:

Multiply entities without necessity!

That’s always been the logic of conspiracy theories from faked moon landings to crop circles. I remember well when the circlemakers came clean and showed exactly how they had been making their beautiful art. Conspiracy theorists—just like cultists—don’t pack up and go home in the face of evidence. They double down. There was something almost pitiable about the way the crop circle UFO crowd were bending over backwards to reject proof and instead apply the inversion of Occam’s razor to come up with even more outlandish explanations to encompass the circlemakers’ confession.

Anyway, I recommend reading what Dan and Adrian have written about the shared psychology of QAnon and Alternate Reality Games, not least because they also suggest some potential course corrections.

I think the best way to fight QAnon, at its roots, is with a robust social safety net program. This not-a-game is being played out of fear, out of a lack of safety, and it’s meeting peoples’ needs in a collectively, societally destructive way.

I want to add one more red thread to this crazy wall. There’s a book about conspiracy theories that has become more and more relevant over time. It’s also wonderfully entertaining. Here’s my recommendation from that Reboot presentation in 2006:

For a real hot-tub of conspiracy theory pleasure, nothing beats Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

…luck rewarded us, because, wanting connections, we found connections — always, everywhere, and between everything. The world exploded into a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else…


I noticed something interesting recently about how I browse the web.

It used to be that I would notice if a site were responsive. Or, before responsive web design was a thing, I would notice if a site was built with a fluid layout. It was worthy of remark, because it was exceptional—the default was fixed-width layouts.

But now, that has flipped completely around. Now I notice if a site isn’t responsive. It feels …broken. It’s like coming across an embedded map that isn’t a slippy map. My expectations have reversed.

That’s kind of amazing. If you had told me ten years ago that liquid layouts and media queries would become standard practice on the web, I would’ve found it very hard to believe. I spent the first decade of this century ranting in the wilderness about how the web was a flexible medium, but I felt like the laughable guy on the street corner with an apocalyptic sandwich board. Well, who’s laughing now

Anyway, I think it’s worth stepping back every now and then and taking stock of how far we’ve come. Mind you, in terms of web performance, the trend has unfortunately been in the wrong direction—big, bloated websites have become the norm. We need to change that.

Now, maybe it’s because I’ve been somewhat obsessed with service workers lately, but I’ve started to notice my expectations around offline behaviour changing recently too. It’s not that I’m surprised when I can’t revisit an article without an internet connection, but I do feel disappointed—like an opportunity has been missed.

I really notice it when I come across little self-contained browser-based games like

Those games are great! I particularly love Battleship Solitaire—it has a zen-like addictive quality to it. If I load it up in a browser tab, I can then safely go offline because the whole game is delivered in the initial download. But if I try to navigate to the game while I’m offline, I’m out of luck. That’s a shame. This snack-sized casual games feel like the perfect use-case for working offline (or, even if there is an internet connection, they could still be speedily served up from a cache).

I know that my expectations about offline behaviour aren’t shared by most people. The idea of visiting a site even when there’s no internet connection doesn’t feel normal …yet.

But perhaps that expectation will change. It’s happened before.

(And if you want to be ready when those expectations change, I’ve written a Going Offline for you.)

Design systems

Talking about scaling design can get very confusing very quickly. There are a bunch of terms that get thrown around: design systems, pattern libraries, style guides, and components.

The generally-accepted definition of a design system is that it’s the outer circle—it encompasses pattern libraries, style guides, and any other artefacts. But there’s something more. Just because you have a collection of design patterns doesn’t mean you have a design system. A system is a framework. It’s a rulebook. It’s what tells you how those patterns work together.

This is something that Cennydd mentioned recently:

Here’s my thing with the modularisation trend in design: where’s the gestalt?

In my mind, the design system is the gestalt. But Cennydd is absolutely right to express concern—I think a lot of people are collecting patterns and calling the resulting collection a design system. No. That’s a pattern library. You still need to have a framework for how to use those patterns.

I understand the urge to fixate on patterns. They’re small enough to be manageable, and they’re tangible—here’s a carousel; here’s a date-picker. But a design system is big and intangible.

Games are great examples of design systems. They’re frameworks. A game is a collection of rules and constraints. You can document those rules and constraints, but you can’t point to something and say, “That is football” or “That is chess” or “That is poker.”

Even though they consist entirely of rules and constraints, football, chess, and poker still produce an almost infinite possibility space. That’s quite overwhelming. So it’s easier for us to grasp instances of football, chess, and poker. We can point to a particular occurrence and say, “That is a game of football”, or “That is a chess match.”

But if you tried to figure out the rules of football, chess, or poker just from watching one particular instance of the game, you’d have your work cut for you. It’s not impossible, but it is challenging.

Likewise, it’s not very useful to create a library of patterns without providing any framework for using those patterns.

I would go so far as to say that the actual code for the patterns is the least important part of a design system (or, certainly, it’s the part that should be most malleable and open to change). It’s more important that the patterns have been identified, named, described, and crucially, accompanied by some kind of guidance on usage.

I could easily imagine using a tool like Fractal to create a library of text snippets with no actual code. Those pieces of text—which provide information on where and when to use a pattern—could be more valuable than providing a snippet of code without any context.

One of the very first large-scale pattern libraries I can remember seeing on the web was Yahoo’s Design Pattern Library. Each pattern outlined

  1. the problem being solved;
  2. when to use this pattern;
  3. when not to use this pattern.

Only then, almost incidentally, did they link off to the code for that pattern. But it was entirely possible to use the system of patterns without ever using that code. The code was just one instance of the pattern. The important part was the framework that helped you understand when and where it was appropriate to use that pattern.

I think we lose sight of the real value of a design system when we focus too much on the components. The components are the trees. The design system is the forest. As Paul asked:

What methodologies might we uncover if we were to focus more on the relationships between components, rather than the components themselves?

Collective action

When I added collectives to Huffduffer, I wanted to keep the new feature fairly discrete. I knew I would have to add an add/remove device to profiles but I also wanted that device to be unobtrusive. That’s why I settled on using a small +/- button.

The action of adding someone to, or removing someone from a collective was a clear candidate for Hijax. Once I had the adding and removing working without JavaScript, I went back and sprinkled in some Ajax pixie-dust to do the adding and removing asynchronously without refreshing the whole page.

That was the easy part. The challenge lies in providing some meaningful and reassuring feedback to the user that the action has been carried out. There are quite a few familiar devices for doing this; the yellow fade technique is probably the most common. Personally, I like the Humanized Messages as devised by Aza Raskin and ported to jQuery by Michael Heilemann.

I knew that, depending on the page, the user could be carrying out multiple additions or removals. Whatever feedback mechanism I provided, it shouldn’t get in the way of the user carrying out another addition or removal. That’s when I thought of a feedback mechanism from a different discipline: video games.

Super Mario Bros. Frustration Speed Run in 3:07

Quite a few arcade games provide a discrete but clear feedback mechanism when points are scored. When the player successfully “catches” a prize, not only does the overall score in the corner of the screen update, but the amount scored appears in situ, floating briefly upwards. It doesn’t get in the way of immediately grabbing another prize but it does provide a nice tangible bit of feedback (the player usually gets some audio feedback too, which would be nice to do on the web if it weren’t to likely to get very annoying very quickly).

It wasn’t too tricky to imitate this behaviour with jQuery.

Collective action

This game-inspired feedback mechanism feels surprisingly familiar to me. Sign up or log in to Huffduffer to try it for yourself.


Here’s an interview with the makers of the game Geometry Wars, a game I find utterly fascinating for the way its very simple rule base quickly results in complex hallucinatory visions of beauty that are simultaneously mesmerising and baffling to watch.

After reading the interview, I moved on to the next tab I had open in my browser courtesy of Tom’s always excellent links. This was a post by Simon Wistow describing the iPhone version of the game rRootage. There I came across the word 弾幕 or meaning :

…a sub-genre of shoot ‘em up video games in which the entire screen is often almost completely filled with enemy bullets.

Next time I’m trying to describe Geometry Wars I think I’ll just say It’s kind of danmaku.


Andy has become the gaming world’s equivalent of uncovering the Tutankhamun’s tomb of a hard drive from Infocom containing details of the never-released sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy game. In his post, he picks out the salient points from the Lost in La Mancha-like story. In the comments, much hand-wringing ensues about what is and isn’t journalism (answer: who cares?).

I missed the Hitchhiker’s game when I was growing up. I cut my teeth on 8-bit computers; first a and then an . While I didn’t have the chance to play Douglas Adams’ meisterwerk, there were plenty of other text-only adventure games that sucked me in. I recall some quality stuff coming from the studio.

I remember learning BASIC specifically so that I could try create my own adventure games complete with mapped-out locations and a simple verb/noun parser. Adventure games seemed like the natural extension to the but far more open to exploration (even if that openness was just a cleverly-crafted illusion). Hypertext—a term used these days almost exclusively to refer to Web-based documents—seems an entirely appropriate way to describe this kind of interactive fiction.

Later this year, I and my fellow adventure game geeks will be able to wallow in nostalgia when the documentary Get Lamp is released. The film will feature interviews with some of the Infocom movers and shakers featured in Andy’s archeological treasure trove.