Playing with UI

Once upon a time, I kept up with video game release cycles, Steam sales, and games Twitter fads enough to be aware of what games out there I should be playing. These past few years found me receding away from all these, and in conjunction with the exponential growth of individual creators out in the world, the ways games come across my plate is increasingly arcane. It’s a mix of (fleshspace) word of mouth, festivals, and student showcases that present a wide variety of ideas, audiences, and scale. So it stands out to me whenever I feel like I see a pattern coming emerging from a view of games not dictated by the press and whatever indie darling showed up that week.

In particular I’ve been thinking about a trend in metafictional use of familiar, pervasive UI that’s cropped up in games that catch my attention. Think Her Story, Cibele, and Killing Time at Lightspeed or even more close to what I’d like to talk about, Replica, Project Perfect Citizen, and Mystic Messenger. What all these games have in common is using the interfaces of technologies we’re familiar with as the the interface and setting of play. In Replica you’re playing with an iPhone interface (pity Apple probably wouldn’t let this game exist on its store) while Mystic Messenger mainly utilizes messenger apps like Line. Besides lending familiarity to a game that probably would prove more accessible to those who don’t consistently consume mainstream games, there is something innately more personal to these games by their very form.

This is useful to look at considering the particular brand of UI/UX craze that’s going on in design fields and now even seeping into games, despite the fact that the definition of game design should be designing experiences but, I digress. UI in games is largely taken for granted as just what’s necessary in order for players to operate the game. Meaning, it’s rare to play with UI in a way that it allows us to play in digital areas that are not usually considered ‘games,’ such as our computer desktops and mobile phones. In a way, UI might be the ultimate defining feature in digital games that signals what we play with, and to understand how to further engage with the world we have to think less of the content first but of how we can use UI to create unusual experiences.

What makes these types of games successful to me is the inherent transgression and indulgence of the public/private split in experience. A digital UI often designates a personal space only the user can see and therefore a place where private information is kept. There is something pleasurably invasive about these games that use non-game UIs because we are either making a new space our own or we’re looking into the private belongings of someone else. Intimacy, security, vulnerability, surveillance, all of these issues naturally reside when we use UI to knowingly create a private space for play that resembles actual ones we have in our lives.

These games, by effect, imply that there are hidden experiences or stories in our everyday uses of technology. Kinds of experiences that the current UI/UX designer isn’t really planning for because they aren’t considering their work as part of the playful act. In the height of experimental theater in the mid-20th century, happenings elevated the everyday lives of people to a more perceivable aesthetic plane. Performance artists who used happenings wanted to draw from life not just for content but for the form as well, to better relate the viewer who was almost always a participant, whether they realized it or not. I see something similar in the future of these UI games, where people are interacting with digital interfaces in a way they don’t realize is designed for playful experience or something other than pure functionality.

One could make the argument that video games often feel so much a like because UI design is strongly codified and similar between genres. Maybe the UI of a game has a stronger influence on what the game is going to be like than what conversations currently address. Why don’t more creators use the UI of other kinds of software to create their experience? Too meta? I feel like there’s a tendency in digital games that they perceive themselves as born out of nothing, when most people today encounter games within the UI of other experiences. In this way, loading up a video game might be serving the same function as walking into a museum, going in for a particular experience and leave ‘art’ inside and away from the rest of the world. But I think these ‘UI games’ (please don’t let that term become a thing) threaten that sacred space of games in only a good way. We should be thinking of the politics of the software and platforms we use everyday, and there should be art that complicates our uses of technology from the inside. Those who understand how experience is crafted in technology can undermine how top-down forces exert power through these sorts of interventions. And the idea of using a hack for a game, to actually alter the literal UIs we use themselves, has to be saved for another time. But I recommend you check and look out for these kinds of games because they have the potential to hold a unique creative power in games, that is, injecting play into spaces carefully crafted to hide their mechanisms from those who use them.

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