Big Think Interview With Nicole Lazzaro

A conversation with the founder and president of XEODesign.
  • Transcript


Nicole Lazzaro:  Okay, good, so I’m Nicole Lazzaro and I’m president and founder of XEODesign.

Question: What do you and your company do on a day-to-day basis?

Nicole Lazzaro:  Sure.  Well I make games more fun, so I’m the leading expert on emotion and the fun of games and I work with companies, everyone from EA to Sony to Ubisoft to PlayFirst to make their games more engaging.  Essentially I’ve for the past 20 years I’ve studied how to make the screen you know more engaging.

Question: What are the major changes you’ve seen in the video game world during your career?

Nicole Lazzaro:  There has been an enormous amount of changes, which has been really rewarding because back in the year 2000, sort of at the turn of this century, I had this revelation on top of a temple in Egypt.  I was standing on a temple in Dendera looking out over the desert.  It was a hot day and I reached down for my canteen to get that last sip of water when there at my feet someone had carved a game board and I thought, wow, you know, two people had stood where I stood and thought to pass the time with a game.  And I wondered, what were their feelings?  What were their emotions?  What engaged them in that activity you know 2,000 years ago?  And then what would they think of?  How would they respond to the games we play today?  Then putting on my future hat thinking about well what kinds of engagement?  What kinds of games will we play say in the year 2020?  And it was then that I noticed that the kinds of game experiences that I wanted to have were going to have to…  The industry was going to have to go through a significant number of changes to capture that same amount of play and engagement.  In a sense that set me on this train of research for the past 10 years to look at what creates… why people play games and what makes games fun because if you think about it sort of like Newton watching the apple fall, emotions have this invisible pull on human action and it’s present if you see you know in any kind of game play, but if you look at the games that I work on in the industry they have thousands of rules and maybe a handful of emotions, but if you look at a group of kids playing you know you see the whole pantheon, the entire pantheon of human emotions coming from the game with a single rule.  You know, tag.  You’re it.  So it’s been really wonderful over the past 10 years to share with the game industry hundreds and thousands of people who have downloaded our whitepapers and our research to look at the whole spectrum of games evolving, so we’ve saw the entrance of a lot of… the mechanics of easy fun with Wii, you know that exploration and role play.  We’ve got new kinds of games that are both educational and good for you in a sense, so there is a lot of you know Brain Age and you know people playing Dance, Dance Revolution to lose weight.  People playing eco games now to you know make the world a better place and then social gaming is huge… is a huge trend and we see that in something we call people fun that where people really experience more emotions the more that they connect through game play and so that’s a really interesting trend. 

So we’ve seen essentially the industry go from what was a very small percentage of the whole population, roughly about 15%, this hardcore market.  We’re not starting finally to see the games jump the chasm to a more of a mass market product, so if you know “Crossing the Chasm” by Malcolm Gladwell that you get these new kinds of players entering the market space.  They want different products.  They want different kinds of interaction and so now that is what we’re seeing with the games being produced by again, companies like Playfish and Zynga and, you know, Playdom.  The Mafia Wars of the world, the Farmvilles of the world, all of those are really helping people engage in social interaction and it’s that social interaction that they actually enjoy more than the game itself.  In fact, if you see people play at… you know in the same room you’ll see more emotions, a wider variety of emotions, more intense emotions than people playing the same game in different rooms and so what we’re helping our clients do is take those you know multiplayer interactions that might happen in the real world to put them into game mechanics that make, you know, online play, you know, all that much more engaging.

Question: What makes a game fun? 

Nicole Lazzaro:  Yeah, so what I was inspired to do is to really dig down into what makes things fun.  You know why do we play games?  So what I did was I looked across games, so I studied everything from Halo to Tetris, people playing at home, school and work, young and old, all the platforms, cross gender and I noticed that there were a lot of similarities between what the favorite… people… player’s favorite moments in games were and so what I did was I collected those moments on videotape and then I used Paul Ekman’s facial action coding, simplified it for games to measure their emotional responses.  So there is seven emotions you can measure in the face, others you can measure in the body and what I did is I took those favorite moments in games and did a cluster analysis and it turns out that they group into you know four roughly categories of emotion and then looking at those emotions I looked at well what were the similarities of the types of decisions players were making.  What kinds of play styles?  What kind of play mechanics were involved?  And that’s how we came up with the four keys to fun.  So that’s our model with essentially that’s basically the research says is that games create engagement in essentially four ways.  There is the hard fun of challenge and mastery, the frustration that leads to what we call fiero, that yes, I won you know where you get the boss monster.  There is this wonderful feeling in the body that’s on personal accomplishment.  You know usability, making things easy to use won’t get you there at that emotion at all and in fact you have to feel frustrated and so frustrated you’re about ready to throw the controller through the window.  If then at that point you win that’s when you get that feeling like yes, we really did it.  Very, very powerful emotion and players will play hours of games, both hardcore and casual gamers will play hours to get that kind of feeling. 

And then we noticed that well it wasn’t just about the points and scoring you know like basketball.  It’s fun to shoot…  You know it’s fun to shoot hoops for score, but it’s also just fun to just shoot hoops right.  You know it wouldn’t be fun if the basketball hoop were like this big you know.  You know it’s nice that it’s that small right and so it makes it… it makes it more challenging, but players also like other things like just dribbling the ball is fun or playing without a score and so there is this easy fun that goes along with the hard fun, so there is the hard fun of challenge and mastery.  The easy fun is more about exploration and role play, storytelling.  We get mechanics involving ambiguity and detail, so in the Sims you know you can put the Sims in your pool and then pull out the ladders to see what happens.  You can drive a racetrack backwards.  In Grand Theft Auto you can go from point A to point B on a mission.  The hard fun of the game, right, but then at any point in time you can actually also they give you like on Improv Theater they give you a plate glass window.  They give you freeway exit ramp, parking meters and it’s up to you as the player to figure out how those interact and so with that kind of mechanic we really…  they’re very different type of…  They’re very different types of interaction that were going.  And what we noticed is that with the four keys is that bestselling games tend to have three out of the four and players wouldn’t do just one.  They tended to also within a 20 minute session have three out of the four that they played and their favorites were three out of…  you know roughly three out of the four.  So that’s hard fun, frustration or fiero.  That’s easy fun with curiosity, wonder and surprise.  Wonder is this great emotion that actually adults feel very rarely, so that’s wonderful that games and movies you know can give it to us, but games especially. 

Then the third one is what we call serious fun, so in easy fun you get a lot of feedback for you know car, plate glass window, see what happens.  In serious fun it’s actually all about the reward.  So how do you feel before, during and after?  So we find players play to blow off frustration at their boss or at their teacher.  They also play though for you know the feeling of getting smarter or of you know creating… you know making a difference in the world.  There is people playing again Brain Age to lose weight, Dance, Dance Revolution to you know…  I’m sorry, Brain Age to get smarter and Dance, Dance Revolution to lose weight, but we also see stuff that really represents who they are, so there is a lot of…  There is about to be a real surge in eco games, which we are actually making one, which we can talk about in a bit that… our game Tilt and that allow players to express their values in the world, so it’s not just about playing games as a separate, but actually how it reflects on them and what they value, what their motives are, what they like about and want to see happen.  So that’s serious fun.  That’s excitement and relaxation, a lot of other emotions, repetition, rhythm.  You know music can get into that.  We’re using the fun of games to do real work often.  Serious gaming where you’re doing a fire fighting simulator or a nuclear you know power plant simulator to learn.  That’s all part of serious fun.  

And then the last form of engagement is people fun and people fun is really, it’s an amazing area.  You’ve got emotion.  The emotion that we can measure is amusement, so laughter, so you can laugh and whenever you see laughter then you know that you’re getting people to engage with each other and with people fun we have a lot of mechanics, sort of social mechanics that create social bonding, that bring people together.  Everyone has got a friend for example that can make you do the roll on the floor laughing thing, right?  And when you can actually then get up and breathe again you actually feel closer to that person and so what is interesting about that is that there is not a disconnect between…  I mean it actually doesn’t separate.  The game doesn’t separate.  It actually pulls people together and what we get there is we get the ability to actually create social bonds.  I really hate the word social capital.  A lot of folks in the social media space talk about, oh, well, we’re building social capital when in fact what you’re really doing is you’re weaving the social fabric between people. 

So some of the factors that go into it are creating social tokens for example, so if you have mechanics in your game that could then be mutated or changed in a certain way and pass from player to player that can actually increase the social bonding that goes on in the game.  So if I give you a health pack I feel generous.  You feel gratitude and then you know someone else might feel… see that action and say oh, elevation, wow, human kindness and then later on in the game you know that situation may be reversed or you might experience schadenfreude, which is you know the pleasure when someone you… when one of your rivals you know experiences misfortune or Naches, which is this pleasure and pride when someone you help succeeds.  So when you mentor someone and they succeed you feel this emotion around them.  So if you think about what we can do just by adding these different verbs, adding new verbs to the games we can actually change what we call an emotion profile, so just like wine or chocolate has this flavor profile.  You know you have a nose and a head and nice long finish.  Games and other entertainment produce a series of sensations in the body that can be intentionally designed.  They already create… and even media products, other media products create… social media for example, creates… sort of have certain emotional signatures in the body if you will and you can actually intentionally design them to create different things that really go with the task at hand. 

So for example, the social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter all of them have a number of different verbs that really match this profile of friendship and getting closer.  So for example, the bestselling games on Facebook you know are the ones that are about people, plants and… you know people, plants and pets okay and all those have wonderful social emotions.  You know Mafias.  You’ve got Farmville, gardening and you’ve got you know Pet Society or you know the Animal Crossing kind of clones and all of those really revolve around friendship.  You also have verbs, so the verb in Facebook of poke, so by adding that feature poke, that kind of is like well that’s a poke in the ribs maybe, so that’s friendly, so it creates a little bit of what we call amici..  You know it’s Italian for this friendly kind of feeling, but what we do can is with that is you can then actually by adding these verbs or taking them out you can adjust this emotion profile. 

Same thing with Twitter, so Twitter actually has a very… a big challenge for it right now because it’s got a follow you, follow me kind of game going on, so you have underneath your avatar photo you’ve created a game because by putting that hard fun, that score, how many followers I have underneath my headshot, well that kind of encourages certain behavior because people will behave to maximize that score because that is what a score does, right, so what you do then is friend as many people who then friend you back and so then your score goes up, but then what happens to your feed of your following, if you’re following you know a million people are you really following any of them?  Can you really use it to you know stay up or really touch base with them or is it just you know a lot of people have zero tweets and you know a  thousand followers.  It’s like well what is that all about?  And so in a sense that vibe, putting a score there players actually broke the game.  They broke the game a little bit and so the added addition of lists and obviously you know some other mechanics like re-tweeting and DM-ing and stuff, direct messaging and stuff that all helps bind the…  you know bind the game… the game that is Twitter, bind that social experience together.  So you can see how all these actions create… have a sense of cloud of emotion around them and that’s what makes the experience really fill out.  Just like a film would with story and character we’re actually painting in a sense the UI.  We’re actually painting the experience with emotion and attention and essentially by intentional design you can actually color it any emotion that you choose if you know what verb to use.

Question: What kinds of video games are being designed to appeal specifically to girls and women?

Nicole Lazzaro:  Well I think that the experiences that are being designed are definitely much more casual.  In our research what is interesting is that it’s not so much the mechanic, the type of choice that you make in the game or the type of challenge, but the theme tends to have more of a gender skew and what is interesting with…  I’m glad you brought up the gender issue because there is some really interesting stuff.  Not all guys want to have a Rambo fantasy.  Some kind of get tired of it after a little while.  A lot of guys like sports, but not everybody likes sports and if you think about what… if you get two groups and it can be divided by gender or age, you know average **** time, amount of violence in the experience you have to remember that that average is an average of what?  Well it’s an average of individuals and those individuals actually aren’t all on that same line.  Even if there is a statistical difference between the two you actually then have two normal distribution curves and so there is a lot of guys in the girl’s range say and a lot of girls in the guy’s range and what people tend to forget with the… with 50 years of marketing experience behind us now we tend to jump right into the gender as like oh, this is the defining rule, this is how we make our games better because we’re going to target this by gender.  It turns out though if we put everything that people like about games and we just sort of dump it on the table okay and in one hand we gather everything that guys like and only guys like in one hand and if we gather the other hand and everything girls like and only woman like in the other well then what do we do?  Well the game industry well it makes a game for guys and a game for girls, right?  Well what are we forgetting?  It turns out what we’re forgetting is everything that’s still on the table, right and it turns out in terms of our research everything that is still on the table is what players like the most about games and so when we think about how to you know use gender segmentation as a way to make games more fun it’s actually a pretty slippery slope because if you’re looking at a lot of games that have mass appeal you know it’s like 40, 60, you know, male and female and so… and games are almost all played in mixed gendered environments.  So it’s not surprising that the most popular games like World of Warcraft or the Simms or Myst, and we’ve worked on three of the Myst series, is that they actually draw… They actually draw from both pools.  You know there is mechanics and situations and themes that appeal to… that appeal to both.

But in terms of casual games what we find is that there is a lot of very interesting obviously theme stuff, so the whole restaurant simulations, Diner Dash, we’ve worked with PlayFirst on everything since Diner Dash II pretty much on has come through our lab and what we’ve noticed is that there are a number of mechanics and it’s not that they… women absolutely like hard fun.  You might think that it’s the guys that want the real sweaty, kind of like intense experience and the girls want this either very social or very easy time.  Not true at all.  I mean women love as well as men, they really love to work hard for their game.  The harder they work the more rewarding it feels and so it’s not surprising that people will…  You know you play Tetris on time mode and it’s you do work up a sweat.  But what we don’t see is we don’t see a lot of complexity in the controls, so you know women do tend to invest less time in learning a thing.  They also are a newer entrance into the market, so what correlates a lot more with casual and core kind of games is like, you know, how long you’ve been playing games and how often you play because games for the hardcore market have really scaled up in terms of adding additional features over time and the hardcore market really has perfected, you know, the sort of five core games.  There’s five core games that they perfected, whereas the casual space is much more open.

Question: How have you attempted to integrate social values into video games?

Nicole Lazzaro:  Absolutely.  Yeah, so Tilt is a game, and basically it’s Tilt Flip's Adventure in 1.5 Dimensions and it’s an experience on the iPhone.  What we’ve done is the story starts with Flip who crawls out of this polluted ooze that was once Shady Glen and decides to take on this toxic green blight cloud by eating carbon out of the air and gathering water and seeds to replant the forest and Flip is just a tiny little lizardy, you know, kind of froggy chameleon kind of character and can really only move and, you know, in four directions, so it can only have four positions and what we did was we created this, so all you do to…  There are no buttons in the game.  All you do is tilt the game.  You just tilt the iPhone to control it and Flip gathers, you know, water and seeds and eats pollution, and what we found is that we wanted to really capitalize on… or give people the opportunity to express themselves kind of like the Powers of 10 video, if you seen that, IAMS animation where you go from really small to being like way out towards Saturn and then go back down again and we wanted to give players the experience of the power of tiny actions, so if I just you know to make a simple choice between say paper and plastic you know today or I turn off my light switch then you actually… those… you want to see how those decisions add up to a global experience of play and so we’ve got a single player layer for the game where you go through 12 scenes or 60 levels to the game and then you can…  all of your Tilt points are geo-coded to where you can earn them.  So you can actually have on a global scale we can have different continents and different regions you know competing and cooperating against each other, so we you know North America going against China and then in the real world we take it one step further where you can actually take…  do an action in the real world like you change your light bulbs and you or… you know you might use your… reduce your carbon footprint or you know and start a recycling program or an educational program and if you were to share that with… on social media with your friends with the tag for the game the game will actually scrape that and you earn credit for it in the game.  So you can basically do stuff in the real world and through the miracle of social media you actually do better in the game.  So we take it all the way up to that… to a real world experience to make the world a better place and it’s all through game play.

Question: How are mobile platforms changing video games?

Nicole Lazzaro:  Yeah, the iPhone and other…  The iPhone is taking gaming to a whole other level of play because it’s always with you.  It always with you and there are a lot of new sensors, so you’ve got accelerometer and geocoding, that sort of thing, and more importantly I think is it’s also social and so that social interaction that through game play because it has your contact list on it for example, you know, being able to bridge out to your friends and play together in these micro payments of time if you will is going to be a huge thing for the iPhone.  And I say this even though I invented the very first game to use the accelerometer.  The very first version of Tilt I designed with Joe Hewitt at iPhone dev camp about a week after the iPhone came out and we…  It was really fun because we just two web pages, one YouTube video and yet we got 250,000 visits because we mapped the mechanics of the game into the new control set of the iPhone and then also it created that sense of wonder, that curiosity, wonder and surprise and when people who had an iPhone…  They didn’t have an app store, no API or anything like that, so they could play with the things that came on the device, but if they hopped over to our web page they could have a whole new experience to show to their friends.  There was a lot of over the shoulder play as well. 

And so, you know, just sort of wrapping back in what we’ve got is this whole now set of games and it’s not just the control.  It’s not just the micro form that fits in your hand, but it’s that connectedness and the fact that I can asynchronously play with my friends again to sort of weave more social fabric with them.  That’s what is going to be the real killer app if you will you know for the iPhone.  And in fact, you know, with the new… the newly announced iPad, I predict that e-reading isn’t going to be the dominant… You know, reading your newspaper is not going to be the dominant use case at all.  The dominant thing is actually going to be gaming and two player gaming though.  I don’t think many people will, you know, hold that device that that’s large you know in front of them you know for that long to let’s say drive a car.  What will happen though is I could put it down you know in between us and then we have a… then we have a game board between us and then kind of like that Star Wars chess scene, you know, in Episode Three or whatever.  You can actually make moves and we can share that environment or we have it in our lap and we have this Battleship kind of experience where I can see some of your screen, but not.  That’s going to be… For the first time we’re going to have real face-to-face electronic gaming.  I can’t wait.  We’re going to be obviously taking Tilt to the iPad, and I can’t wait to see what developers come up with.

Question: In what surprising new ways will video games be used in the future?

Nicole Lazzaro:  Absolutely.  Well I think what our mission right now is you know with launching Tilt and the consulting that we do with our clients companies is really unlocking you know human potential and improving quality of life through play and it’s not…  I mean there isn’t a game in the world that doesn’t teach and there is no play style even that doesn’t teach, so there is this very human, not a human need, but I mean it’s just a human facility.  This play experience is part of what we do.  So we’re actually going to see, work and play get a lot closer together, so we’re going to be playing more at work.  We’re actually going to be…  you know we’re actually going to have work that feels more like play, so I predict that not only do we have…  We’re going to have more robust you know simulations, training simulation games.  You know so if I hand you a nuclear reactor you know you can play with it.  You can train to… You can do management training that way.  You can do all kinds of social…  In fact, World of Warcraft, if you’re guild leader, you know, you’re learning a lot about management… managing other people, so I think we’re going to see a lot of stuff happening in games coming through.  And I think I’m really hopeful for…  This is why I’m sharing a lot of my research, is that what we’re really hopeful for is to see huge changes in the American workplace and you know actually all around the world because when I go in and you know I’m trained to read emotion on people’s faces what I see and I see that and I see their work styles and their you know what tasks they can actually do and you know I’m in awe and in horror of what I see when I go into the average office space because the work there is so…  I mean it’s so ill-suited to the task at hand.  You know, if this were a zoo or a kindergarten, you know, Child Protective Services or, you know, the Humane Society would be there… down there, you know, to close it down in about an hour because the work environment, the physical space, the types of tasks, the emotions around those tasks are totally ill-suited to accomplishing the task at hand and so by really understanding play and what motivates people and games are self motivating systems, so self motivating systems we’re going to see that self motivation permeate throughout everything from word processing to, you know, the way that your copier operates.

We’re going to see not only that we’re going to see these game mechanics you know embedded in the software that we use, you know in the physical devices that we touch like, you know, a copy machine, but we’ll also see it in this business structure as well, so we’re going to see the way that give feedback, the way that we give out tasks, the way that we manage folks is actually going to be a lot more responsive to game style kind of thinking because in a game what do you have to have?  Well Sid Meyer says it’s got to be interesting choices, right, so you got to have that, but then you also…  You know I think that what we do in games is really we simplify the world.  You know we suspend some consequences.  You know that gives us a little free action and then we then enhance the feedback and enhancing the feedback and enhancing the reward, that easy fun and that serious fun really can then motivate folks, motivate people to explore and extend themselves and when they accomplish something hard that they couldn’t do before then that hard fun comes in and you feel much more well-rounded as a person and much more…  you know, you feel much more… that sense of accomplishment and, you know, really usefulness, you know, in society at large.

And actually just riffing off of that a bit, I think that also the other way that games are changing the way we are as a society is that games have multivariant input, so especially simulation games, so you’ve got multiple things coming in and you have the ability to make a lot of changes.  So in a sense simulation games are really… have the opportunity to change the world, to really educated us as global citizens because what are simulation games are they are a… they have multivariant inputs and multi variant outputs, so when I play Sim City I play a city manager and I, you know, make decisions, you know, and I can make decisions that related to Godzilla or I can make decisions to earthquake or fire or I can, you know, build it up, but when you’re done with Sim City you actually know a little bit more about that.  You know more of that world and what we really need right now are people who can understand multivariant systems to fight things like global warming, AIDS, all of these problems.  We’ve pretty much dealt with a lot of the low-hanging fruit here, and so you know I think that games play a really serious role, a really important role in elevating up our thinking to that next level of play, and I think if we can do that the world will definitely be a better place.

Question: What was your favorite video game as a kid?

Nicole Lazzaro:  Okay, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.  So I think growing up as a kid one of my favorite…  As a kid the thing that had me drop the most quarters was Star Wars, the Star Wars Flight Sim.  I love the feeling of flying.  I love that whole experience.  I felt like I was this, you know, fighter pilot and I was you know racing and I never got past level seven, but you know I loved the way the audio came in.  I was in that universe, even though it was only wireframe at the time.  It was a wireframe kind of, you know, flight sim and that experience allowed me to extend my love of the whole Star Wars universe, which again was this…  you know this inspirational fantasy, so it really connected it you know for me.  And I think that would be...  Yeah, that would definitely be my favorite game. 

Recorded on February 16, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen