Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Evolution in Progress

As we've rolled through the age of computers and into the age of the internet, mankind has had to evolve. We've changed the way we work, the way we play, the way we shop... we've changed the way we live as our technology affords us new opportunities and abilities every day.

This evolution becomes evident when you look at various stages of the tools we use. For example, look at computer interfaces... first there are these neat new tools, but they're kinda hard to use unless you know what you're doing. Some learn, some don't. Over time, the user interface got simpler (thank you Steve Jobs!), and suddenly this new technology was accessible to a much wider range of people, as you didn't have to know a; the details about how a computer worked in order to use one. The way we interacted with computers evolved, and as a result, widespread use of these tools allowed mankind to evolve as a whole.

But even though the computers themselves became simpler to use, many applications remained convoluted. I read an article that described how website creators and software developers seem to view the prototypical user as incapable of reading, barely cognizant of what they desire and are best served by products that offer a least common denominator feature set. As such, many web interfaces have also become "simpler" in the name of allowing people to use them without having to know what they're doing. There are advertisements on TV today (for Bing.com) which not only exemplify this, but use it as a selling point.

Doesn't it seem like a better solution would be for mankind to evolve again? Rather than require dumbed down, simplified versions of everything, wouldn't it be better if people learned to master the tools at their disposal? Even if you agree, how do we encourage or accomplish that? I think perhaps Microsoft has found a way to do just that!

Despite the marketing campaign for Windows 7 ("Simplified!"), I saw something today that makes me think Microsoft may be taking steps to help push mankind forward on an evolutionary scale. As described in that Lost Garden blog post, someone at Microsoft had the following idea:

How do you get people to learn a complicated task? Make a game out of it!

Microsoft is testing something they're calling Ribbon Hero, a plug-in for Microsoft Office that turns using a word processor or spreadsheet into a game. You get points for using various features of the program, and if you want to improve your score, you have to dig deeper into the features, and in the process you'll learn how to use them! I haven't fully explored this yet, and indeed I don't think it's fully developed yet, but the idea behind it is solid. Inspired. Ingenious! Rather than remove more complicated features of these neat new tools, or hide them in the background so users can ignore them, why not reward users for figuring out how to use those features and master them? People like to do that, we're built to do it.

If you look around it is easy to see that gaming is a huge part of today's culture. Maybe this is because today's 25-34 year old masses spent their childhood in front of Nintendo, or got hooked on Everquest (and then World of Warcraft) 10 years ago - I don't know. but while the economy falls apart, Xboxes and Playstations just keep on coming. Hundreds of video games for dozens of systems line the shelves at Best Buy while it's tough to find a regular application like InDesign (I just looked the other day). Is this a coincidence? I think not. I think that the way games work factors in elegantly with the way people learn. Humans are hardwired to do the kinds of things that games encourage or force you to do. So it makes sense that the next evolution in learning is tied into gaming. Check out this comic strip I ghanked from Penny Arcade:

Heh, I bet they thought they were kidding!


Seth Jaffee said...

That comic is from October 2007. I think Gabe and Tycho are prophets!

Anonymous said...

Since when did you become such a philosopher? (Dad)

Seth Jaffee said...

Um... since always?