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The User Interface Continuum: A Study Of Player Preference

University of Bergen senior lecturer Jørgensen studies gamers' responses to HUDs, and whether or not the need to preserve the fiction or the gameplay is paramount to players -- and delivers the results of this investigation, along with suggestions.

April 12, 2011

18 Min Read

Author: by Kristine Jørgensen

[University of Bergen senior lecturer Jørgensen studies gamers' responses to HUDs, and whether or not the need to preserve the fiction or the gameplay is paramount to players -- and delivers the results of this investigation, along with suggestions.]

During the last several years we have seen designers being drawn towards integrating the user interface into the game environment in different ways.

Examples that are often mentioned as particularly elegant ways of doing this are Dead Space, where the health bar is substituted by a tube running down the spine of the avatar, and Meteroid Prime, where the HUD gives the impression of being part of the avatar's helmet due to shaping and the reflection of the avatar's face.

Along with this trend, there has also been a debate in the developer community about whether or not this ideal of transparency is desirable.

Greg Wilson argued strongly in 2006 that the standard HUD approach to interface design hinders players from immersing into the game world, and that it is an intimidating and intrusive technical feature that turns potential new players off.

On the other side of the fence we find Luca Breda who argues that the above approach has pitfalls, since a total lack of interface leaves the player without any information relevant for play. Instead he believes that HUDs don't harm the players' involvement in the game, but on the contrary provide information that helps them become more closely attached to the game world.

In between these extremes there is a middle ground. This middle ground represents the argument that the goal of in-game user interface design should be to communicate all necessary information in a clear and consistent manner, while also making it elegant, aesthetically pleasing, and integrated into the game environment whenever this may be done without losing necessary information.

This is the approach taken by Erik Fagerholt and Magnus Lorentzon in their master thesis [PDF] on the design of FPS interfaces. Following from this line of thought, minimizing the interface may be an ideal, but this doesn't indicate that complete transparency is desirable.

The arguments supporting either view come from experts such as game developers, game students, or game journalists. Although the developers may take their conclusions from testing with target group players, there are no references that indicate this. With point of departure in four PC games belonging to different genres (Diablo II, The Sims 2, Crysis and Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars), I have in my research done 22 studies of players regarding their attitudes concerning game user interfaces.

In my study, the general tendency was that players accept the user interface regardless of whether it are present as overlays or made invisible or parts of the natural environment as long as it provides necessary information at the appropriate moments. However, although this is the attitude of most of the players in my study, there were those with different attitudes towards the presence of the user interface.

The Study

The study was a qualitative study where the aim was to understand players' general attitudes towards game user interfaces. In the study I observed players while they were playing one of the games in question, followed by an interview where we discussed a recording of their gameplay with special attention towards the user interface. A group of five was subjected to a group interview where they discussed screenshots from all the four games, with which they all had previous experience.

The games were selected based on popularity and diversity and technological and time-related constraints only allowed me to use PC games for the particular study. The players were recruited through the use of web forums of game communities and posters at game stores.

During the study, the players were free to also talk about games other than the ones selected, and they provided several examples of games where they found the user interface to be interesting for different reasons. This means that the study is not based on the above mentioned games only, but that these titles were the primary, but not exclusive, focus of the conversation.

The conclusions were based on careful categorization and analysis of the interviews, and for the sake of illustration I have in the figure below grouped the players according to the different attitudes they presented towards game interfaces and the integration into the game environment. Of course, this is a simplification for the sake of presenting the data as clearly as possible, and the illustration shows the general attitude that the individual players were presenting in the interview.

Different Genres, Different Conventions

Of course, the degree of interface acceptance is a matter of personal preferences as well as the conventions of user interface design related to a certain game genre. Some genres allow the players to interpret the HUD as part of the fiction, and therefore as something that exists objectively in the game environment.

Futuristic or science fiction-themed games typically allow the player to interpret the HUD as something that the avatar sees due to technological enhancements, and first-person view games are particularly good at presenting this interpretation as likely. Crysis, for instance, explains the HUD as a part of the avatar's technologically advanced nanosuit.

However, in other genres the player's positioning or interaction with the game is not set up as "realistic" at all, and in such cases it may be hard to explain interface elements as part of the fiction.

Top-down perspective games such as strategy and simulation games are typical examples of this. In The Sims 2, most players interpret interface elements as information meant for the player only, and it is not seen as something that the sim figures are aware of.

An interesting finding was that the way the game addresses the player affects the interpretation of the interface. Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, for instance, addresses the player specifically as commander during the cutscenes.

Here NPCs provide the player with information on the next mission by speaking directly into the camera. By using this technique, the game provides the impression that the player is a character in the fiction.

Being addressed as if the game was played from the first-person perspective, many players were inspired to see the overlay interface as belonging to a computer screen in a military centre, and therefore as part of the fiction.

In this situation, the interface supports the sense of involvement and immersion into the fiction instead of being intrusive and alien to the situation. Here we see that how the designers have chosen to explain the interface often is important for how it is interpreted.

The Sims 2

If we take a look at the figure on page 1, we see that the players had a tendency to emphasise the system over the fiction in connection with Diablo and Command & Conquer 3, while fiction was emphasized over the system in Crysis and The Sims 2. The means that there was a tendency for players of Crysis and The Sims 2 to prefer a user interface that could be explained as part of the fictional environment, while the Diablo and Command & Conquer players tended to see this as less important.

Player Preferences: Three Archetypes

However, very many games don't try to explain the user interface at all, and this doesn't seem to bother most players. While they see any way of explaining the interface as a part of the fiction as an elegant way of presenting the interface, it is not necessary to make the players accept it.

In the following I want to separate three groups of players according to how they interpret and accept the user interface. These groups are archetypes that illustrate three different attitudes that game user interface designers must consider when designing game interfaces. The archetypes correspond to the attitudes to user interfaces presented in the illustration above, and emphasize that the presence of the user interface in itself doesn't ruin the sense of immersion and involvement in a game.

The Fictionalists. They see the game's story and fictional world as the most central aspects of video games, and want the game worlds to look and sound exactly like the fictional worlds presented in film. They are negative to all features that disturb the illusion of a coherent world existing separately from our own. They want to immerse into the story world and find all interface elements to be disturbing for the ability to suspend disbelief.

"Peter" represents the Fictionalist view, and his attitude colors his interpretation of all four games that he is discussing in the focus group interview session that he was part of. He is a strong supporter of games as a fictional medium of storytelling, and for him this is a feature that heightens the play experience.

He wants system information to be integrated into the gameworld and made part of the fiction. He claims that first-person shooters are the "closest you get to virtual reality these days" and celebrates their non-intrusive inclusion of the player, as well as the genre's tendency to integrate the user interface seamlessly into the world:

It's so nonintrusive. The focus is always on first-person [perspective], it's you who're looking out. If a score appeared above the monsters' heads when you shot them down [...], then the immersion would disappear immediately.

"Peter" doesn't want system information to reveal itself in the game environment, and argues that such information is unwelcome as it ruins the sense of immersion into the game fiction. Using this argument, he is supportive of Greg Wilson's view that the interface only can lessen immersion.

The Systemists. They see the game as a formal system of rules and regard understanding the system as the most central and interesting game activity. They see the fictional environment as an overlay to the game system, and find the fiction to be present only as a supportive feature that is mainly unnecessary and only there to represent the system beyond. They accept the interface without question since it provides contact with the game system and presents information necessary for controlling and understanding the system.

"Isabel" is a representative of the Systemists. She played Diablo II in the study, a game that she enjoys quite a lot partly due to its superficial treatment of fiction and story. She doesn't care about immersing into the fictional world, but is interested in getting good gear and cool abilities. She claims that she has the same attitude when playing other games as well, and doesn't have any need for explaining the interface as part of the fictional world. She is consciously emphasizing that she doesn't see the game as a fictional story world, and she sees the setting of a game as irrelevant:

I don't immerse myself into these games as much as others perhaps do. Even though it's a typical part of playing games, I don't care so much about it. I play it just as if it were Super Mario, in a way. It's not that important for me where it's set.

"Isabel" accepts any user interface features as a way for the system to communicate information to her, regardless of whether they are added as overlay features or buff icons above the avatar's head.

When discussing the degree of realism or trustworthiness of the game environment, she finds it absurd to see the game environment as any kind of environment that one is supposed to immerse in or believe in as if it were just another story world.

She laughs out loud, then states that "in this world you can define whatever you want there to be, it's not like things are very trustworthy in themselves."

The Relativists. They are in the middle ground between the Fictionalist and the Systemist, and appreciate both the fictional and the game system layers. They see attempts at integrating the user interface or fictionalizing it as elegant solution, but accept that certain kinds of information may be hard to include.

The Relativists accept the presence of overlays and other interface features as long as they provide the necessary information, but find them disturbing if they are overused. The ability to provide appropriate information makes it acceptable to include features in the game environment that would not be appropriate in a cinematic environment.


"Eric" played both Crysis and Command & Conquer 3 in the study. He puts emphasis on the difference between cinematic and gamic environments to explain why clear interface communication is needed:

Regardless how cinematic a game is there needs to be... Since you make all these decisions yourself, issue commands and move things, you need to have some kind of feedback on what's going on.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the players in my study were representatives of the Relativist attitude. They explain the user interface as a necessary tool that has become conventional to video games as a media genre. They explain that this is the way game worlds work, and that they in most cases don't question the presence of the interface unless being asked to reflect on it.

In a gaming situation, interface features provide information that eases gameplay and they are therefore enhancing more than hindering immersion. However, once a feature doesn't serve its purpose and function anymore, the feature becomes annoying and risks ruining the sense of involvement in the game.

Necessity is therefore an important explanation for the Relativists. Although it may be more elegant to present all interface features as natural to the fictional game environment, there are many game system features that cannot be represented as such. For instance, verbal messages such as World of Warcraft's "I cannot cast that yet" and "Not enough rage" would appear as a negative intrusion for the Fictionalists, as they would argue that it makes no sense that the avatar would say that out loud, but for the Relativists this is perfectly acceptable. In such cases, "James" argues,

[t]here is no other way they could have done it without also removing a great part of the game mechanics.

Although some otherwise intrusive uses of interface are included as necessities and not the most elegant solutions, the Relativists do not see overlays as necessary evils. On the contrary, they have become so accustomed to them that they have accepted them as conventions of the media genre.

They know that video games communicate in this manner, and that user interfaces have become a stylistic feature of the medium. Like the cuts and montages of cinema, the user interface is not seen as a technical shortcoming, but as a technique that may be used to the designer's advantage. "Oliver" makes a clarifying comparison between game user interfaces and cartoons:

It's like cartoons, right? [...] We accept the speech bubbles because that's the way cartoons work.

Like other media, games have their own conventions that they relate to. Although the Fictionalists regard cinematic and televised storytelling as the template that they regard video games on the basis of, and the Systemists only sees the formal system beyond and not the interplay between fiction and game mechanics, the Relativists have a high degree of understanding and literacy of how video games communicate as a unique media genre.

The figure shows that there is also variation between Relativists. Some lean towards the Systemists by emphasizing that the system is what matters and that the fiction only is an addition that that, while others lean towards the Fictionalists by seeing a coherent fictional environment as the ideal that the user interface should adapt to.

What Does This Mean?

Not surprisingly, one of the conclusions from the study is that game worlds don't operate in the same way as traditional fictional worlds. This is related to the fact that game worlds are interactive, while the worlds of film and literature not being interactive. Game worlds are designed for a specific gameplay and the players therefore have other expectancies from the game environment than they have from the environments represented in films. But this is only part of the explanation.

The media scholars J. David Bolter and Richard Grusin argued already in 1999 that digital media genres, among them video games, are technology fetishist at the same time as they try to mask their own mediation. They may be right, at least when it comes to video games. Although there are games that try to mask their own mediation by implementing user interface features into the fictional environment, we have seen that this is not necessary for capturing the players' involvement and sense of immersion. Instead the players accept the user interface as conventional.

The reason why accepting the interface is so easy for the players, is according to game designer Matt Weise due to the fact that there is no fourth wall in video games. Using a theatre metaphor that describes the invisible wall that separates the audience from the world on stage,

Weise emphasizes that the player's interactive involvement makes the absence of the fourth wall very obvious in video games, and that this allows games to play with self-reflexivity and the very mediation of games. This theory is also appropriate for explaining why the user interface is accepted as a convention.

New media scholars such as Janet Murray have argued that in interactive or participatory media such as games, immersion is empowered by something different from traditional media. It is not the audiovisual realism that creates immersion, but instead it is the interactivity itself.

From this perspective, having the power to act within the game environment is the most important support for immersion. As long as the user interface is able to provide the player with the most effective tools for doing this, immersion is not compromised by overlays, HUDs and the presence of icons. In this sense a good interface which is both elegant and functional will help the player immerse.

But What Does It Mean For Game User Interface Design?

In practice, this means that game user interface designers should not be too worried about ruining the players' sense of involvement when using overlay interfaces and visual elements that don't fit into the fictional environment. However, although most players out there tend to fall into the category of the Relativists, designers should also be aware that there are many out there who are either Systemists or Fictionalists. These groups should also be catered for.

In practice this means that user interface designers should not worry if interface features are not integrated as natural to the fictional environment, but also strive towards making the user interface as elegant as possible to make it stylistically appropriate. At the same time they must keep in mind that the user interface provides necessary information as clearly as possible. This is particularly important for appealing to novice users that may be confused and feel lack of control if gameplay information is not communicated in a direct manner.

Of course, in making evaluations of how the user interface should be represented in a game, the genre in question and the specific game mechanics must be considered. While it may be appropriate to integrate the HUD as a natural part of the avatar's suit in a modern FPS, it is probably better to have substantial overlay information in an MMO, in which the monitoring of a lot of simultaneous processes are crucial, for instance in raids and PvP situations.

The user interface may be implemented in a range of different ways, and as long as the designer follows principles of communicating the game system in a clear and understandable manner, one is free to play with the border between fiction and game system. The designers should utilize the interface for what it is worth and not be afraid that it might disrupt the sense of immersion. One should see any degree of integration of the interface as an enhancement of usability; something that provides the player with more options for interaction in the gameworld, and not something that removes immersion.

Further reading

Bolter, J. David and Grusin, Richard (1999). Remediation. Understanding New Media. MIT Press.

Breda, L. (2008). "Invisible Walls". Game Career Guide. Feature, Aug 19. Available: http://gamecareerguide.com/features/593/invisible_.php?print=1

Fagerholt, Erik and Lorentzon, Magnus (2009). Beyond the HUD. User Interfaces for Increased Player Immersion in FPS Games. Master thesis, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg. Available: http://publications.lib.chalmers.se/records/fulltext/111921.pdf

Murray, Janet (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck. The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. MIT Press.

Weise, Matt (2008). "Press the 'Action' Button, Snake! The Art of Self-Reference in Video Games". Game Career Guide. Feature, Nov 25. Available: http://www.gamecareerguide.com/features/652/press_the_action_button_snake_.php

Wilson, Greg (2006). "Off With Their HUDs! Rethinking the Heads-Up Display in Console Game Design". Gamasutra, Feature, Feb 3. Available: http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20060203/wilson_01.shtml

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