'Gamify' This: Games Remain The Frontier Of Mobile Creativity

“You’re writing!”

“How can I be writing?” I tell my wife. “I am here out to dinner with you. We are in a lovely vegan-mostly restaurant. I can’t pronounce anything on the menu, so I know it must all be good for me. And I have my favorite person in the world across from me. How can I be working?”

“You know the more crap you pile on here, the worse it gets. You are writing something in your head. Why don’t you just pull out your iPhone and write it down to get it out of your system?”

According to my wife and daughter, an obvious glaze comes over my face when they know they have lost me to some idea or column I am working through in my head.

“Oops, he is gone,” my daughter often chides at dinner. “You didn’t hear the last five minutes of this conversation, did you?” Sometimes they set traps for me and slip in a question when I am not expecting it just to see if I am in the moment.

Many of you fellow workaholics and persistent daydreamers are probably off on summer vacations right now fighting the tug to get back to work. For you I offer this easy way of cheating. Grab a mobile game. There are lessons to be learned and inspiration to be found in one of the most imaginative sectors of the mobile economy. You can look to all around you as if you are in fact kicking back and relaxing, when in fact you are researching how to make that next app genuinely pleasant for users. Play to learn.

If you haven’t played the magnificent M.C. Escher-like "Monument Valley," grab it now to learn how fully immersive and mind-bending a mobile screen can be. You traverse visual puzzles that play with the virtual 3D space of a 2D screen. Our stick figure hero with a dunce cap traverses a puzzle whose planes shift in much the way Escher played with the flat plane.

But it is the way the game uses the mobile screen space that is especially instructive. Each chapter moves you further up the screen in what feels like an enormous vertical space. This is upward scrolling made to feel like climbing. And so much about this game involves the pacing and tempo of how things move. It controls mood by making both the character and the changing puzzle scenery obey a slow pace that is relaxing. And the visual motif combines very plain, flat planes with small touches of high-res detail. It is a wonderful example of multiple aesthetic elements showing how a small screen an immerse you in a mood.

But if you want a game that shows how mobile multimedia can get inside your head, put on the earbuds and play "Papa Sangre II." You are dead, and this audio-only game makes you turn and move according to 3D sound cues. As a game I found it a bit too daunting, but it uses the internal motion sensors on the iPhone to make you move in different directions to make you way through he levels. The use of ambient sound here shows how developers can use the soundstage for unique and jarring impact.

But the game also demonstrates how much the personal narrator addressing the mobile user can achieve a kind of conversational realism. Actor Sean Bean ("Game of Thrones," "Lord of the Rings") will make you want to wring his neck as he prods you through the moves. It is an exercise in sensory focus -- removing the visual and usual touch modes of interaction to heighten reliance and impact on aural and physical cues.   

That role of personal address, paring down design elements to heighten others, and narration in mobile gaming are also central to "Thomas Was Alone." This variation on a platform game strips down visual styling to flat 2D blocks that  you move up and along a featureless geometric plane. It is brought to life aurally by the cloying voice of a narrator who seems to be teasing the main character, addressed in the third person, but obviously you. This game too urges you to use headphones to immerse yourself in the soundscape provided by a haunting piano and sound effect score by composer Michael Housden.

All of these games explore in various ways mobile media’s unique ability to isolate, immerse and control mood. As we know from the popularity of video replay networks like Twitch and the rise of multiplay, traditional console and online gaming is a much more social affair than early gamer stereotype allowed. Console games, of course, are designed for the big and shared TV screen. And while the PC format always had a more personal and individual scope that favored casual gaming, mobile screens seem to open new paths for intimate designs. The personal address of the narrator voice, the highly abstracted (even absent) visual environments, all speak to a higher level of involvement -- the irony of the small screen -- that it is more immersive than many larger enveloping screens. And the touch interface, that first invited playing with physics (Angry Birds, Cut The Rope) has now inspired developers to play with the flat plane that we engage with touch. These are all fascinating and useful marriages of technology and aesthetics, a new medium fining its native qualities and the source of its impact.

And these unique games all succeed in making most of the branded app experiences and certainly most of our advertising feel frowsy and out of touch with the technology. Most mobile marketing that strives to “gamify” experiences focuses on the simplest Pavlovian interactions -- rewards, challenge, achievement. This preoccupation with “engaging” the user through shallow interactions misses so many other layers of mobile aesthetics that game developers are tapping well ahead of everyone else. They build environments, visually, aurally and through voice, pacing, mood and tone that connect with users by enveloping them, not goading them.

Speaking of which… .

“What did I just say?” my wife challenges as we push around something on our plates that is gruel-like but of some kind of benefit to the planet.

“Saw a cute kitten. Irritating person at SuperG today. Car is making a funny noise.” I am playing the probabilities, but like facing certain doom in "Candy Crush," I play on despite knowing it is hopeless.

“Okay, game over. You win. I was writing a column in my head.”

“I knew it!...Did you mention me in it?”

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