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The User Interface Continuum: A Study Of Player Preference
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The User Interface Continuum: A Study Of Player Preference

April 12, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

The Systemists. They see the game as a formal system of rules and regard understanding the system as the most central and interesting game activity. They see the fictional environment as an overlay to the game system, and find the fiction to be present only as a supportive feature that is mainly unnecessary and only there to represent the system beyond. They accept the interface without question since it provides contact with the game system and presents information necessary for controlling and understanding the system.

"Isabel" is a representative of the Systemists. She played Diablo II in the study, a game that she enjoys quite a lot partly due to its superficial treatment of fiction and story. She doesn't care about immersing into the fictional world, but is interested in getting good gear and cool abilities. She claims that she has the same attitude when playing other games as well, and doesn't have any need for explaining the interface as part of the fictional world. She is consciously emphasizing that she doesn't see the game as a fictional story world, and she sees the setting of a game as irrelevant:

I don't immerse myself into these games as much as others perhaps do. Even though it's a typical part of playing games, I don't care so much about it. I play it just as if it were Super Mario, in a way. It's not that important for me where it's set.

"Isabel" accepts any user interface features as a way for the system to communicate information to her, regardless of whether they are added as overlay features or buff icons above the avatar's head.

When discussing the degree of realism or trustworthiness of the game environment, she finds it absurd to see the game environment as any kind of environment that one is supposed to immerse in or believe in as if it were just another story world.

She laughs out loud, then states that "in this world you can define whatever you want there to be, it's not like things are very trustworthy in themselves."

The Relativists. They are in the middle ground between the Fictionalist and the Systemist, and appreciate both the fictional and the game system layers. They see attempts at integrating the user interface or fictionalizing it as elegant solution, but accept that certain kinds of information may be hard to include.

The Relativists accept the presence of overlays and other interface features as long as they provide the necessary information, but find them disturbing if they are overused. The ability to provide appropriate information makes it acceptable to include features in the game environment that would not be appropriate in a cinematic environment.


"Eric" played both Crysis and Command & Conquer 3 in the study. He puts emphasis on the difference between cinematic and gamic environments to explain why clear interface communication is needed:

Regardless how cinematic a game is there needs to be... Since you make all these decisions yourself, issue commands and move things, you need to have some kind of feedback on what's going on.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the players in my study were representatives of the Relativist attitude. They explain the user interface as a necessary tool that has become conventional to video games as a media genre. They explain that this is the way game worlds work, and that they in most cases don't question the presence of the interface unless being asked to reflect on it.

In a gaming situation, interface features provide information that eases gameplay and they are therefore enhancing more than hindering immersion. However, once a feature doesn't serve its purpose and function anymore, the feature becomes annoying and risks ruining the sense of involvement in the game.

Necessity is therefore an important explanation for the Relativists. Although it may be more elegant to present all interface features as natural to the fictional game environment, there are many game system features that cannot be represented as such. For instance, verbal messages such as World of Warcraft's "I cannot cast that yet" and "Not enough rage" would appear as a negative intrusion for the Fictionalists, as they would argue that it makes no sense that the avatar would say that out loud, but for the Relativists this is perfectly acceptable. In such cases, "James" argues,

[t]here is no other way they could have done it without also removing a great part of the game mechanics.

Although some otherwise intrusive uses of interface are included as necessities and not the most elegant solutions, the Relativists do not see overlays as necessary evils. On the contrary, they have become so accustomed to them that they have accepted them as conventions of the media genre.

They know that video games communicate in this manner, and that user interfaces have become a stylistic feature of the medium. Like the cuts and montages of cinema, the user interface is not seen as a technical shortcoming, but as a technique that may be used to the designer's advantage. "Oliver" makes a clarifying comparison between game user interfaces and cartoons:

It's like cartoons, right? [...] We accept the speech bubbles because that's the way cartoons work.

Like other media, games have their own conventions that they relate to. Although the Fictionalists regard cinematic and televised storytelling as the template that they regard video games on the basis of, and the Systemists only sees the formal system beyond and not the interplay between fiction and game mechanics, the Relativists have a high degree of understanding and literacy of how video games communicate as a unique media genre.

The figure shows that there is also variation between Relativists. Some lean towards the Systemists by emphasizing that the system is what matters and that the fiction only is an addition that that, while others lean towards the Fictionalists by seeing a coherent fictional environment as the ideal that the user interface should adapt to.

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