Video Game Design Offers a Fresh Perspective for UX

A creative director’s love for interaction design has an unlikely source

A man in a hat playing a first person shooter game at an arcade.
A man in a hat playing a first person shooter game at an arcade.

From his early years in East Germany to his current role as Creative Director at argo, Matthias Dittrich has brought his passion for interaction into every design opportunity. He started his career as a web designer in his hometown of Berlin. Matthias moved to Amsterdam to join frog design where he focused on interaction design and information architecture to help clients in various industries like telecommunication, health care and travel. Later, Matthias and his colleagues started their own consultancy, Raft. In 2019 Raft was acquired by argodesign, establishing argo’s first European studio. We interviewed Matthias about the influence video games have on him as a Creative Director.

How did you become a designer?
Growing up, I was fascinated by video games. I love their interactivity as compared to books or watching TV. When I was a little boy in East Germany, my dad gave me a handheld console with my first game: Весёлый Повар, or Merry Chef. It was a simple game, but I loved it.

After the Berlin Wall came down, I was able to convince my dad to buy our first home computer. A whole new world opened up: MS-DOS games. Those early games might seem basic by today’s standards, but I loved the little worlds and environments they created. I wanted to become a game designer and help create those worlds myself. Ultimately, I didn’t. Coding proved to be much more complex than expected, and my passion for illustrations wasn’t strong enough to become a sketch artist.

A woman playing a shooting game at an arcade
A woman playing a shooting game at an arcade

Interaction design suited me much better. I love to think about engaging systems and environments that allow users to explore and learn. Video games are the origin of my passion for interaction design. Today video games are still an essential source of inspiration for every product I work on.

How would you describe the connection between games and UX?
From my point of view, game design and UX design are not too different; they just have different goals. One tries to entertain. The other aims to accomplish work. Each aspires to create an engaging product. Something that connects with the user on a higher level, and goes beyond the fulfillment of tasks.

In UX design, frustration is the enemy of engagement. Our designs aim to be child-proof. But too often, we simplify applications to an extent where completing a task feels like a chore. Video games take a very different stance; they engage users with choices and freedom.

What was it about video games that engaged you?
I was always the most excited about games that enabled me to decide where to go next, what to do, or how to approach a challenge. Today these traits are synonymous with big open-world games like Grand Theft Auto 5 or The Witcher 3. But we don’t always need to go big to allow for choice.

An alien character from the video game Metroid moves around obstacles on screen
An alien character from the video game Metroid moves around obstacles on screen

Even early titles like Metroid (Nintendo, 1988) and Castlevania II (Konami, 1990) stepped away from a linear design. They created interconnected levels that enabled various routes to reach your goal. Hitman (IO Interactive, 2000) pushed this concept further and created small but open environments. The player, an assassin, could eliminate his target experimenting with the environment. He could cause accidents, poison food, or be a sniper from a vantage point. These games gave me a sense of freedom that previously wasn’t possible.

In design, I sometimes miss this freedom. It is easy to reduce the interaction with an application to linear flow diagrams. Which misses the chance to create an engaging environment, and runs the risk that users perceive them as chores.

“Good UX” is based on user scenarios, which are great tools, but we need to keep in mind that a set of flows only depict one approach of many. Scenarios shouldn’t drive the flow. They should inform our requirements. Help to create a system. And enable us to validate if we met the requirements.

What else do you take from video games?
I love having the ability to play with the system to understand the consequences of my actions. Video games are small sandboxes that invite experimentation. Nothing is permanent. Even the player’s death can be easily reversed.

A curser moves objects around on a screen to form a contraption in the video game the incredible machine
A curser moves objects around on a screen to form a contraption in the video game the incredible machine

One of the first games I can remember was The Incredible Machine (Sierra, 1992). The player had to build a Rube Goldberg device to accomplish a straightforward task. The game gives players an assignment and some objects to complete it; it’s up to the player to figure out exactly how. Portal (Valve, 2007) was a 3D puzzle game that enabled players to create a portal between walls to teleport themself or objects and thereby reach the exit of the room. Both examples invite the player to experiment within the system.

Digital products sometimes miss this opportunity. Often, users don’t dare to try new functionality, because they are unsure about the consequences. They don’t explore possibilities. They are afraid of change instead of intrigued by it.

Exploration and experimentation are great methods to catch and keep users’ attention.

Engagement is one of our core goals as UX designers. Exploration and experimentation are great methods to catch and keep users’ attention. We need to provide a safe environment that allows them to play and try. We should kindle their curiosity to try new things.

How could design invite users to experiment and explore?
I always admired the ability of video games to teach complex paradigms, without me feeling like I am sitting in a classroom. Good video games weave the explanation of core mechanics into their narratives. While the story unfolds, the environment expands, and new skills are introduced.

Games like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (Bethesda, 2006) use the first level as a tutorial. Other games like the latest Tomb Raider (Square Enix, 2013) introduce the player to new skills intermittently throughout the game. Whenever they add a skill, the player has to use it to progress in the level, learning by doing.

One challenge with applying this approach to design is activation. Software users are not familiar with exploration and experimentation within applications. We need to demonstrate the possibilities and give an active invitation to try new ways of interacting.

Two women’s silhouette playing dance dance extreme at an arcade
Two women’s silhouette playing dance dance extreme at an arcade

Even if applications offer multiple approaches to solve a task, it is often not explicit, and therefore gets overlooked. The prevailing mental model is still based on linear flow. We need to rethink our approach to onboarding, actively invite people to play and explore, and introduce applications as a system. We should trust that with proper guidance, users can figure it out.

What did being a gamer teach you about users?
Video games taught me to put more faith in our users. They trusted me to play, to try, to look for alternatives. They encouraged me to explore. They gave me respect as a player and a thinking being.

Looking at UX design, I sometimes miss this aspect. We should not always assume the most immature user. It is okay if users temporarily get stuck, as long as they don’t get frustrated. If we simplify applications too much, flows become monotonous chores. We miss the opportunity to create a respectful and engaging relationship with our users.

I want to advocate for a perspective change. Let’s not make simple applications, but interesting ones. We need to stop thinking in screens and start thinking in environments. We need to stop only streamlining flows and start to create systems that encourage meaningful exploration and experimentation. We need to trust our users and help them to figure it out on their own.

We are a product design firm. We love design – for the technology, for the simple joy of craft, and ultimately for the experiences we create.

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