XXIV.6 November + December 2017
Page: 20
Digital Citation

Games and play leading the way to better shared experience

Katherine Isbister

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If I could wave a magic wand over our field, I would have our community decide that we will truly value quality, in-the-moment shared experience, and commit to using our expertise in the service of supporting it better. Then I'd have everyone study what great game designers already know and do to help make this happen.

We know social connection is important. Research has found correlations between social isolation and health concerns such as inflammation, altered immune systems and sleep patterns, cognitive decline in older adults, and risk of heart disease and stroke [1]. Social isolation is a risk factor for depression, and there is some evidence that it can increase vulnerability to addiction as well [2]. Humans evolved in situations in which most of our day was spent in the presence of community members and loved ones [2]—not getting this seems to contribute to unhealthy outcomes.

Are the technologies we've been building supporting us in forming quality social connections and having positive shared experiences? Social media use has exploded in the past 10 years, but there are some concerns about the long-term impacts of these platforms. For example, Jean Twenge's piece in the The Atlantic points to abrupt changes in teen behavior patterns that she correlates with the rise of cell phone technology and social media [3]—teens are moving about independently in the world far less, socializing more online than in person, and are more likely to report depression than previous generations. Twenge sees the loss of in-person connection and mutual exploration of the world as a problematic aspect of doing more socializing via social media. Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, writes of myriad ways in which technology subtly narrows social encounters, for example by offering limited menus of choices: " 'Who's free tonight to hang out?' becomes a menu of the most recent people who texted us (who we could ping)," or by turning looking for a companion into a slot-machine-like interface such as swiping left and right on Tinder [4]. In building these applications and services, we are doing some quite dramatic experimentation with our own collective connection with one another. Harris argues that we're not questioning these design choices enough.

So what do games and play have to do with this? As someone with a foot in both HCI and games research, I can tell you that game designers have been building engaging and satisfying technology-enhanced shared experiences for a long time. If we include non-digital games in our reckoning, parlor games and board games extend the history of in-person engagement by hundreds of years. Present-day gamers report playing digital games with friends, family members, and spouses, and say games help them connect with friends and help their family spend time together (

To give a mundane example of how game designers have been ahead of the curve on thinking through augmenting quality in-person shared experience with technology, consider console-based gaming (e.g., Xbox or Playstation in the living room). Game-console developers created a model for sharing a screen (the TV) and doing very involved and enjoyable shared activities back in the 1970s; these platforms have been popular ever since. Players can take fine-grained, interesting actions, employ subtle strategies, and engage in pleasurable shared experiences. Some may object to the content of certain gaming worlds, but it's hard to argue they don't produce highly engaging and pleasurable co-present shared activity.

Game designers have been building engaging technology-enhanced shared experiences for a long time.

One fundamental strength of the game designer's approach is rooted in the premise that what they create needs to be engaging in the moment. The longer experience arc of any game is made up of the myriad small moments of gameplay—a player will abandon a game pretty quickly if it's not experientially satisfying. So game designers have developed frameworks for understanding and shaping what they build in ways that emphasize moment-to-moment as well as overarching felt experience. One example is the mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics (MDA) framework, in which game designers use aesthetic end goals as a compass to help them shape core mechanics (actions that can be taken in the game) and resulting dynamics (emergent experiences that occur with the combination of multiple layers of mechanics). For example, an aesthetic goal of fellowship "can be encouraged by sharing information across certain members of a session (a team) or supplying winning conditions that are more difficult to achieve alone (such as capturing an enemy base)" [5]. MDA's creators offer strategies for extensive tuning of mechanics and dynamics to achieve target aesthetic goals.

In my research, I've looked at how game designers use tactics, such as clever avatar affordances, to get people to deeply enjoy working together and feeling co-present. For example, the console game Little Big Planet gives players the ability to puppet exaggerated vaudeville-esque facial expressions and gestures in their avatars, leading people to use the avatars to communicate, even when in the same room. Here's a player's description:

Helen calls them the "Hurrah!" buttons. L2 + R2 + both analog sticks held upwards. Whenever she wins the most points on a Little Big Planet level, she presses these buttons, and her grinning Sackgirl lifts both arms in the air in wordless celebration. My Sackboy, meanwhile, tends to scowl and storm off the side of the screen, fists clenched. Or, after a particularly stressful level, he might pull out a frying pan and hit Helen's Sackgirl over the head. Helen tends to take losing slightly better. She will drag my Sackboy away from the camera, mid-disco dance, in a vain attempt to take the spotlight. Either way, nigh every level ends in a comical scuffle between our characters without a word spoken between us in the real world (

These avatars heighten the social experience for the players, adding to the pleasure of playing together.

But let's move beyond the screen and into the realm of wearables and ubiquitous computing. Experimental game designers are currently taking up the aesthetic aims of connection and mutual presence, and producing imaginative prototypes for how we might support these goals with technology. For example, I collaborated with indie game designer Kaho Abe, who created a wearables-based game called Hotaru. Abe built two unique and interdependent wearables for the game that required close physical coordination and collaboration from players [6]. Playing Hotaru brings players closer together both literally and figuratively. This is a very different experience to many current-generation functional wearables, which support personal data monitoring and keeping track of social networks, rather than heightening in-person interaction.


If we value social connection as a social good, we need to ensure it isn't lost as we move toward a highly technology-infused, networked world. We don't have to sacrifice quality of shared presence, but we do have to value it and work hard to achieve it. We can learn a great deal from game designers.

back to top  References

1. Khullar, D. How social isolation is killing us. New York Times. Dec. 22, 2016;

2. Ilardi, S. Social isolation: A modern plague. Psychology Today. Jul. 13, 2009;

3. Twenge, J.M. Have smartphones destroyed a generation? The Atlantic. (Sept. 2017);

4. Harris, T. How Technology is hijacking your mind: From a magician and Google design ethicist. Thrive Global. 2016;

5. Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M., and Zubek, R. MDA: A formal approach to game design and game research. Proc. of the Challenges in Games AI Workshop, Nineteenth National Conference of Artificial Intelligence. 2004;

6. Isbister, K., Abe, K., and Karlesky, M. Interdependent wearables (for play): A strong concept for design. Proc. of CHI 2017, 465–471.

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Katherine Isbister is professor of computational media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and director of the Center for Games and Playable Media. Her research is at the intersection of games and HCI. She is the author of How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design from MIT Press. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2017 ACM, Inc.

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