Definition: Affordance

Affordance  (Also:  Usability, Discoverability, Intuitiveness)

The quality of an object or environment that allows a Player to intuitively discern and perform the gameplay action associated with that object or environment.

In his most profound philosophical work Being and Time, Martin Heidegger makes a distinction between two types of attitudes that we can have toward an object.  First, an object can be “present-to-hand”, which means that it exists and we can observe it and theorize about it.  Heidegger claims that this is an uncomfortable mode for us, that it is inferior to the more natural second attitude where an object has an immediate purpose, which he calls being “ready-to-hand”.

Imagine you are walking through a Home Depot and see a collection of hammers hanging from pegboard in the tool section.  Let’s say you are an English major and you have never seen a hammer before.  You might assume that you had stumbled into an unusual art gallery and start admiring the variety of colors and shapes the artist had created.  Clearly they are a phallic representation of our patriarchal history…

In this example, you would be treating the hammers as if they were “present-at-hand”.  In a game, every time the player is forced to stop and think about the possible actions an object affords they are forced out of their flow state.  If this happens too often they will never be able to relax and enjoy the game.

Killer Queeeeeen

Chess - A terrible example of percieved affordance

Now imagine you are in a burning building and the only exit is blocked by a flimsy plywood door.  This time when you see the hammer on the wall you do not perceive it as an object, but as a tool with a clear purpose.  There is no hesitation because there is no analysis.  The hammer is “ready-at-hand” and that door is “ready-to-smash”.  There is no break in flow because both the hammer and the exit door have clearly perceived affordances.

This is especially important in games, because the player cannot even begin to play until they understand what actions they can take.  The faster they can understand what is possible, the earlier they can get past the theorizing state and into the flow state of proper play.

7 thoughts on “Definition: Affordance

  1. I apologize if your intention is not to have a discussion here, but I wondered if there might be a set of techniques that a game designer could use to shift the player’s perception of a game bit back and forth between the ‘ready-at-hand’ and ‘present-at-hand’ states. (Incidentally, I first came across this bit of Heideggerian terminology through your exceptional “Design In Detail” lecture slides.)

    The reason I ask this is because although it seems as though you need to get to ‘ready-at-hand’ to get cracking with a new piece of the game, it is ‘present-at-hand’ that allows the player to use something in an innovative way.

    To give an example, I (coincidentally) recently taught a good friend of mine to play chess. She was a complete newcomer and it was necessary to explain what each of the pieces were and how they moved and captured other pieces. We then played half a game before she had to leave, but a bit later I realized that I hadn’t explained castling to her.

    Now in this situation, the next time I see her I can shift her perception of the rook piece back to ‘present-to-hand’ rather easily, just by saying, “By the way, I forgot to tell you, this piece here has something different that it can do in certain situations …” and boom there we go, I have her ready to see that piece in a slightly different way. Or the first time a friend of mine explained grenade-jumping in Marathon, I must have had a puzzled look on my face, but I got it after a bit, and could get to that teleporter on my own after that.

    I’m just wondering if there’s a set bag of tricks you’re aware of that would facilitate this. Or is this best handled on a case-by-case basis?

  2. I definitely appreciate any comments, questions or feedback from anyone reading the site. I just wanted to reserve the right to crackdown on any trolling or off-topic posts that might be a distraction. And I’m glad you enjoyed the Design in Detail talk. I’m presenting the sequel this year (assuming I finish my slides in time.)

    This is a very interesting question. My first reaction is that even when a player is using a game element in a new way, it is still ready-to-hand. In fact, most “innovative” uses are probably the result of the player giving the develper too much credit and assuming an element will work as they intuitively expect. They don’t realize that the electricity in Bioshock had to be programmed to travel through water and damage enemies, they just assumed it would because that is what “real” electricity would do.

    In a well-designed game like Half-Life 2, even the puzzles don’t require you to consider your tools as present-at-hand. You are using the Gravity Gun as a tool, moving things around and trying solutions, not theorizing about what its purpose is. (This breaks down a bit in later puzzles that rely on unfamiliar alien technology. A ball of energy in a tube or a gland from a giant insect are not ready-to-hand.)

    So let’s see, bag of tricks… Well, you don’t need any tricks to put someone into a present-at-hand perspective. It happens any time you are confronted with an object you cannot intuitively understand. If you find yourself thinking “I wonder what the game designer wants me to do” you are not having a flow experience.

    However, transitioning players from that state to a ready-to-hand state is harder. It needs to be a low pressure situation; you won’t be comfortable using a new weapon for the first time while taking fire, for instance. The best way to achieve an intuitive grasp of an element is to see someone else using it, or at least be given the opportunity to experiment freely with it. Using real-world objects (or at least close analogs) helps. And presenting new elements in small, simple chunks. If a player is confronted with too much complexity at one time, they will always drop out of their flow state.

    I actually think the process you descibe of having a coach sitting next to you, pointing out how an element can be used in real-time, is one of the best ways to teach someone a game without letting them get bogged down in present-to-hand analysis. You can substitute the coach’s advice for your own intuition and keep moving. If you look at the training instruction in the Halo games, very little of it is done in the explicit tutorial. Most of it happens in contextual pop-ups designed to provide a key bit of information and then smoothly get your right back into gameplay.

    It’s an interesting topic, though. I’ll make a note to address it at some point. Thanks!

  3. You’re very welcome, and I am very excited about the sequel to the Design in Detail talk! I’m far too new to the game design industry to be able to see it in person, but I hope to be able to either watch video of it or read slides.

    Unfortunately when I got my philosophy degree there were very few classes that looked at Heidegger’s writings in much depth (I know mostly about enframing and dasein), so forgive me if I am not grasping the differences between ‘present-at-hand’ and ‘ready-at-hand’. What I have read online regarding these terms seems to indicate that ‘present-at-hand’ is what we might call an ‘unlabeled’ state, where the object in question is not categorized, at least not in such a way that would allow it to have a purpose assigned to it, while ‘ready-at-hand’ is a ‘labeled’ state, where the object is identified with a purpose and is understood as a type of a particular category.

    I also recently taught my parents to play Mario Kart Wii, and although they quickly got (on using if not before) what the banana peel and bullet did, it was more difficult for them to grasp the shells, the star, or the lightning bolt. I think this is directly related to how close the purpose of these objects is to the labels and categories that they belong to in the real world (or maybe I should write, the tropes and cliches they belong to). It was a very good example of how not to explain to someone what how a game works, as they were introduced to these various abilities in an extremely high-pressure environment, often while having control issues, and sometimes even with little or no feedback (e.g. using a blue shell when far back in the race). Someone who is already motivated to learn the game will take the time to look these up in the manual, but someone who is on the fence or already unmotivated will be confused and/or demotivated to become better at the game – as my parents were.

    Finally, your mention of flow states makes me wonder, is there any way to present the transition from ‘present-at-hand’ to ‘ready-at-hand’ a flow activity? It would probably depend heavily on the player (an Explorer Bartle archetype might be the only one who could easily reach flow here) but perhaps a (optional?) sandbox environment could be presented when giving the player access to a new item/ability in order for them to experiment with it as they wish.

    (I hate to be the guy who is all “Hey look at my blog,” but I did recently make a blog post that is relevant to this last point, although from a different direction. If anyone cares to look at it, though, the relevant section is very brief, just scroll down to “Suggestion: Smooth out the learning curve.” to see it.)

  4. Rather than seeing the transition as part of flow, I believe that whenever a player encounters a game element as present-to-hand they take a perpendicular turn into a mental cul-de-sac, ending flow. When you see the Banana Peel (to use your excellent example) you either immediately understand what it is for and react, or you are broken out of the game and have to re-orient yourself toward the Banana Peel and start thinking about it. A good tutorial (or a helpful son) will try to anticipate that moment and explain what it is for before flow is broken, because once a player is caught in the cul-de-sac they will have to stop, re-integrate the use of an object into their understanding of the game, and then start building flow again from scratch.

    Even the act of exploring is a flow activity. A well-designed environment is ready-at-hand (ready-at-foot?) because there is always a way forward, there are loops and clear landmarks and hints about where to go. If the player is confronted with a dead end, or it appears that they have explored an entire environment without finding their objective, they break out of flow and suddenly the environment is brought to the forefront of their thoughts as an object that needs to be explained. “If it isn’t here for me to find may way through it, why does this environment exist?” Ideally the player would just continue exploring without being forced to consider if there even was an exit, or if they had made a mistake somewhere.

    And don’t worry about not really understanding Heidegger, nobody does. I’ve learned a lot more about what he thought by reading commentaries than I have actually understood from his writing. For someone so obsessed with presence and avoiding breaks in existence, he certainly isn’t intuitive or smooth to read. 8)

  5. Thank you very much for your responses – having this discussion with you on game design is a very encouraging experience for me and I deeply appreciate it. And thank you for your kind words, it was a memorable series of events and am glad that you think it illustrates this issue well.

    I apologize for this digression, but I remembered it in the last few days and wanted to mention it in the context of this discussion. I had a short exchange with Greg Costikyan a few months ago on the matter of flow and he made the surprising (to me) comment that it was not in fact a particularly important aspect of game design – his point was mostly that if it was a state of mind that could be entered by something as simple as chewing gum, then it was too broad a category to really be useful in game design. Instead, he looked at the ‘oh sh*t’ moments (where flow is established and then yanked away) as being those which a game designer should actually strive to reach.

    I expect it is obvious why I bring this up, but just to belabor the point: This reads to me as though he is advocating a transition from ready-at-hand (flow) to present-at-hand (oh sh*t!) as being the really crucial part of game design. I’m curious to know how you might respond to him on this point.

    Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not looking to start an argument here, personally I am not convinced by his stance as I think he might see flow differently from the way I see it. But I am wondering how a practicing game designer who (I think) has a different perspective of the flow state sees things.

    My suspicion is that Costikyan has a subtly different end-goal in game design than you have. He’s looking to make games where the best part doesn’t exactly (or maybe ‘fully’) occur in-game, but rather the game is a way to manufacture experiences that stay with the player even after the game has finished. This is crucial in the tabletop gaming experience (where he started), but not as important in the (more-immersive) video gaming sphere.

    Personally, most of my most important experiences in gaming over the last several years are ones I barely recall, when I played an endgame raid tank in WoW. These were incredibly powerful and enjoyable, and I think that is because when I felt most successful as a tank was when I was completely immersed in the experience and in a very strong flow state. The ones I tend to remember afterwards are the ones where something went wrong, and we either wiped or nearly did so, but they are also among my more negative tanking experiences.

    (The exchange took place here on Costikyan’s “Play This Thing” blog.)

    As for Heidegger, the few pages I’ve read of Being and Time have definitely given me that impression. (; What can you say? he is unmistakably a German philosopher.

    I was able to read the remainder of your posts over the last few days, and I have to say it is very engaging and enjoyable to read (although some of it is a struggle to understand as a neophyte game designer, though I think I am perhaps not your target audience). I eagerly anticipate further posts you will be making! And finally I have to thank you for the suggestion of Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, which I read this week and greatly enjoyed. I’d known much of what he wrote from his appearances on Radiolab (and have put several of the mental techniques he promotes to good use in my own life) but it was very satisfying to have his full picture of recent developments in medicine on this topic.

  6. Well, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the psychologist that first used the word “flow” to describe the state of self-absorption in a task, and he says that the flow state requires clear goals, total concentration and a balance between the ability of the person and the challenge of the task. So unless you are in the Gum Chewing Olympics, you are unlikely to be in an uninteresting flow state. In fact, the main theme of his book is that you should take “routine” aspects of your life and find a way to set goals and improve your skills so they become fulfilling flow activities, so if you had to chew gum, training for the Gum Chewing Olympics might be something he would approve of…
    It is totally possible to have an “oh sh!t” moment without breaking out of flow, like hitting a homerun or suddenly having to deal with a grenade at your feet. What you want to avoid is “What the f*ck?” moments where you don’t know how to react and you have to stop what you were doing and theorize. If someone said “Will you drive me to the airport?” your car would be ready-to-hand, a tool you were using as part of a plan. But if someone said “What kind of car should I buy?” you would be forced to address the object as a collection of attributes in a present-at-hand attitude. Some games do this successfully, like how you need to evaluate loot in Diablo, but only by clearing separating them. You usually don’t pick up loot during a fight, and if you do it just based on the item color, not because you examined it and found it better than what you were using.

    I really need to write some posts on flow; life is hitting hard at the moment, but maybe next week…

  7. A brief follow-up; Costikyan said he came across the notion of gum-chewing as a flow activity in a paper on flow during web browsing, which referenced Csiksentmihaly’s first book (published in the 1970s, if I remember right) as explicitly mentioning gum-chewing as a activity that could result in flow. A quick keyword search of the text of that book in Google Books did confirm it was mentioned but didn’t really give any more information, and the paper is at the top of a stack that I hope to get to this week but haven’t yet.

    My suspicion is that, although it is possible some individuals might find chewing gum (perhaps while involved in another activity) a challenging enough activity to result in flow, it would not be practical to develop mass-market video games aimed at this population, nor would the challenges that they find compelling extend to much more than a tiny segment of the overall gaming population. I actually have read a few of Csiksentmihaly’s books and do vaguely remember an offhand reference to gum-chewing in one of them (so either Flow or Finding Flow) but I don’t seem to recall him thinking it was worth discussion.

    That said, I don’t mean to say that I think flow at this level can be dismissed entirely in game design, as a first-time player of a video game (especially if it has an unusual premise or interface) might correspond awfully well to someone with a comparatively (permanently) low challenge-ability level, at least for a while.

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