Tag Archives: gamification is a word now?

A Thousand Cuts: Cognitive Fatigue in the Warcraft UI


Kathy Sierra returned to blogging with Your App Makes Me Fat, a thought-provoking post about the effects of decision making and cognitive fatigue on our willpower.

Like all good posts, this one doesn’t have an easy interpretation. It’s a simple fact – mental effort consumes willpower – with complex implications. Kathy looks at the related effects marketing and application UI design have on users; by reflecting upon what brand engagement and gamification mean for the overall quality of customer’s lives. When is your application or service adding real value, and when is it stealing cognitive resources?

I like that there are no easy answers here. It’s not that branding, marketing, or gamification are bad per se, but rather that there are additional consequences when employing them on users. If you drain their willpower to buy your goods, that has an impact on their life. Even seemingly innocuous interactions add up. The cognitive implications of brand engagement are worth further consideration and study.

My best man got one of his undergrad degrees in Cognitive Science, and he frequently joked that “Marketing is the Dark Side of CogSci.” Learning how people think and behave in non-rational ways gives you a toolkit to manipulate them. By itself, the manipulation is amoral – you could uplift as easily as you exploit – what you do with it is what matters. Pushing a public health program, selling a well-made car that provides utility and creates good memories, or creating an app that empowers your users to create new things all need marketing, too. But more often than not marketing is used with less noble goals in mind.

Matt Siber’s The Untitled Project explored urban landscapes with all text removed from signage. The effect is eerie – immediately a normally hectic environment becomes calmer, almost serene. Blocks of colors form patterns but don’t demand attention. Details are easier to spot quickly because there are fewer things competing for your attention. Take a few minutes to look at his work and let it all sink in.

To be honest, the self control studies referenced in Kathy’s post left me thinking much more about World of Warcraft’s user interface and game design than Blizzard’s marketing strategy. My hand injury and related break from WoW has forced me to find diversions with substantially simpler input systems. I’ve started thinking that 17-button mice and game pads are like regular expressions; when you think that the best solution to controlling your character is dedicated input hardware, now you have two problems. You’ve added hardware complexity to UI complexity to solve the problem that it takes 8-12 buttons to attack something in Warcraft.

I think this idea is more subtle than the cognitive limits that the Warlock class explored in Cataclysm, though. This is more about the small inconsistencies in the user interface that require conscious effort to address and the cumulative effect of those choices. Games with simple interfaces can still be extremely complicated and challenging, yet they feel more light and fun than those with more intricate controls.

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At the simplest end of the interface spectrum are one-button side scrollers like Tiny Wings and Badland. Press anywhere on the screen to make yourself move vertically (dive down in Tiny Wings, flap up in Badland.) That’s it, the whole screen is the entire UI. It does one thing. These are challenging, fun games, but the UI doesn’t present any choices or cognitive challenges. Either you press the screen or you don’t.

Slightly more complicated games often still have but a single UI mechanic – Frisbee Forever takes advantage of the phone accelerometer to turn right or left by the user tilting the phone (Tilt steering) but allows the user to tap small buttons on the side of the screen as well (Tap steering). It’s the only preference in the game.

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Dots, which my 3-year old daughter made briefly famous on my Twitter feed, is a masterpiece of minimalist game design. You draw lines between dots of the same color and they disappear. The only cognitive dissonance I have seen is when someone tries to do a diagonal line, which doesn’t work. Players who make that mistake quickly adapt and then the game interface becomes a non issue. Dots is seriously relaxing fun.

Games don’t have to have simple interfaces, but they do need to be tight. Reducing choices and setting limits helps focus users, which is another way of saying it reduces cognitive leaks. Take a complicated iOS game like Infinity Blade. Stunning graphics for a fighting game on a mobile device, innovative use of touch screen swiping, won a bunch of awards for good reason. Press center button to block, side buttons to dodge, swipe to attack, swipe against an attack to parry, draw a glyph to cast a spell. By the time you’re on the 4th opponent you’ve learned all the basic controls. And even though this game has a gear grind that puts WoW’s endgame to shame, I was solidly engaged in many, many, many repetitions of the same storyline, honing my skills and dexterity.

I’d started playing IB before my hand injury, and attempted to continue after it, but eventually it became clear that thumb/index finger activity of any kind introduced small, incremental strain on the ligaments and nerves. Hundreds of swipes and taps add up on already inflamed tendons, much like hundreds of small decisions take a noticeable toll on willpower. I put down IB and IB II about two months ago, and even Dots only gets played left-handed these days.

I suck at playing Dots left-handed.


The idea of cognitive fatigue helped me understand why I liked the original Infinity Blade so much more than its technically better sequel, Infinity Blade II. Infinity Blade II has more stuff than the original – two new styles of combat, hundreds of new items, more options within each mechanic, gems to customize gear – and I frankly don’t like it as much. Instead of “press right or left to dodge,” now you have to consider if you’ve already dodged too much in this fight and have fatigue. Parrying now has three different levels, blocking too, all depending on your timing. Each style of weapons introduces more changes, like 2-handed weapons allowing only parries or blocks, while dual-wielded weapons replace blocking with a duck button. (Duck as in to dodge downward, not turn into a waterfowl. Or quack like one.) And the gems add another layer of irritation, do I have the right gems for this drop, do I save or reforge this one, etc.. This is all before I can comment about the new story and content!

My 8 year old son and I disagree on the relative value of the two Infinity Blade games. He loves the sequel precisely because it has all kinds of neat new stuff. I’m old and crotchety, but my reflexes are good and I enjoy the simplicity of the original design because it’s easier to work within.

Also, the main character of IB II turns out to be a bit of an idiot. But I digress.

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To get a frame of reference, I gave World of Warcraft a try on my iPad. I fired up Splashtop with the Gaming Pad Addon to remotely connect to my computer, designed a left-handed interface, then signed up for a F2P account so I could tinker around with no distractions. This is a bad idea. The Warcraft UI is a product of a full keyboard and mouse design philosophy – and with all those keys available, they get used. Simple, basic tasks like moving around while not losing control of the camera become major challenges. In a way, they are fun challenges, because they require ingenuity to overcome. I had fun trying to balance the needs of my hands and the screwy, lag-filled interface.

But after a while those challenges became irritants. Cognitive leaks. Ugh, moving. Click to move does part of what you want, but then you sometimes spiral around when you reach your destination. Joystick-style controls are too sensitive, so my toons wandered around spinning like drunken children’s toys. Sometimes when you click on the screen you spin your camera wildly and can’t manually readjust it. It’s super frustrating. The actual game content takes a backseat to just making your avatar do what you want it to do.

I’ve talked privately with friends about how the inability to move well is one of the biggest reasons for me canceling my sub and taking a break. In a MMO your hands are both your body and voice, which has been something gamers understand but has required some conversations with medical professionals. Doctors immediately grasp the professional impacts of not using a computer well, but the psychological impact of digital disability sometimes takes a bit longer to explain. Mostly I don’t bother.

But an unexpected benefit of my hand injury and experimentation is that it jolted me out of the context of users who can master a UI as complicated as a fighter jet cockpit. Have you asked a non-gaming friend to watch you play and give honest feedback? It’s like drinking from a pixel firehose. There is an incredible amount of information pouring onto the screen in a MMO. Raiding, PvP, chatting, whispers, AH trading – questing is the simplest activity, and even then there’s the potential for 3-5 tasks going on at once. Pet Battles and Gathering are possibly the calmest activities you can undertake in the game and yet they still require motion and positioning. It is super frustrating to go from playing fluidly to stumbling around a starting area, but it’s humbling, too. You become aware of small issues with the game interface that perhaps you didn’t see before, or which you’d ignored and accepted years ago.

Take targeting. Targeting a mob in Warcraft is a relatively simple matter; click on the mob, hit start attack, or hit tab. A relatively simple matter with three separate, different methods to accomplish it.

Irony runs deep.

Once you’ve got the mob targeted, then you have to consider range – on a Warlock, your ability to target something with tab or /startattack corresponds with the range of Shadow Bolt or Corruption, so if you target them they’re in range. Priests have Smite. Smite has a shorter range than Shadow Bolt. So the exact same function (basic ranged magical attack) now has two checkpoints to use correctly – is the mob targeted and is it in range? If it’s not in range, now you have to reposition yourself to attack. Repositioning takes effort. It doesn’t matter if this makes sense at the endgame, these are little cognitive drips on a baby priest.

Why do some abilities grey out when you change form while others stay available? Why do some stances or shapeshifts change your action bars, while others do not? Why do some abilities light up when they are usable while others don’t? Why do Cats and Bears have different abilities which do the same thing? Why isn’t auto loot on by default? (Seriously. Why is auto-loot not a default?) Why isn’t @mouseover casting an option in the UI?

Drip, drip, drip.


Mastering any computer program requires deep knowledge of its quirks. Those little gotchas in the UI, the little glitches in process, the places where parts don’t fit together seamlessly – experience teaches us how to overcome them, to make the decision the same way every time to modify and adapt. We move into range, we circle around back, we set up our bars, we set alerts for Shadowburn that we don’t need for Execute. Pick a standard and stick with it. Execute abilities (those usable at low target health) currently a) do nothing, b) activate but don’t flash, c) activate and flash the button, or d) throw out an aura. Yes, they’re all different spells – they all do the same thing. Make their UI the same. This is like having Windows and Mac versions of the same program behave differently, or use a different menu structure. Why do you do that to us, Adobe? Why?

But though we master those quirks and overcome those imperfections, the cognitive drain is still there. It’s almost unnoticeable, but it’s there. A thousand little cuts.

This isn’t something unique to World of Warcraft. When Outlook acts up or your calendar suddenly syncs to the wrong time zone, it’s stressful. Navigating transit systems to work and home involves thousands of little decisions. A badly constructed subway map, an unclear traffic sign, a confusing promotion – all these things drain our willpower. We have to take care of ourselves, drink fluids, eat small meals, and keep our energy up through the day. We have to do things which we find fun and productive, satisfy Maslow’s hierarchy. Our goal is to thrive, and that requires activity. There’s a constant cycle of replenishment in our lives.

But we should also slow down and realize that sometimes, there are a lot of little drains on us. Changes to a video games’s UI to make things less confusing are going to have effects beyond just the game. Good effects. Making a game subtly easier to interact with leaves more mental juice for the good stuff.

Not everyone can fly the fighter jets.


Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual