Ian Bogost, Edward Tufte, and Gamejunk




When I had lunch with Ian Bogost a couple weeks ago in Seoul, he railed venomously against gamification, startups, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and pretty much anything with a pulse. Having never read any of his work, I charitably attributed his attitude to a raging case of jetlag. When I later read his scathing takedowns “Gamification is Bullshit” and “Shit Crayons”, I realized that he is even more cantankerous on a full night’s sleep. I subscribed to his RSS feed hoping something constructive would come down the pipe. Today I got my reward.

Ian’s latest post, “Notes on Loyalty”, is wonderful. He contrasts two types of interactions as a frequent flyer of Delta Airlines. In the negative interactions, the airline tries to placate or manipulate him by awarding loyalty points as meaningless, generic, and asymmetric gestures. In the positive example, the customer service representative understands his problem, helps him solve it, and thoughtfully reimburses him for the inconvenience.

During our lunch, Ian was vocal about things that he thought were unfair, dishonest, or otherwise in poor taste, but much less forthcoming on what he saw as “good”, and I appreciate that Loyalty contains such an example. The first thing that came to mind as I read is the old adage that “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Writing incendiary posts overflowing with bile (intellectualized trolling?) might garner pageviews, but does little to convince people. Focusing on a positive example does wonders for persuasive power.

Loyalty‘s message made me think of information visualization guru Edward Tufte. Like Bogost, despite being a proponent of information visualization in general, Tufte spends tremendous effort railing against poorly-executed visualizations, and against Powerpoint in particular.

Tufte also advances his own principles of what makes for good visualizations. Among these, my favorite are the notions of chartjunk and data-ink as introduced in the 1983 classic, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information:

The interior decoration of graphics generates a lot of ink that does not tell the viewer anything new. The purpose of decoration varies — to make the graphic appear more scientific and precise, to enliven the display, to give the designer an opportunity to exercise artistic skills. Regardless of its cause, it is all non-data-ink or redundant data-ink, and it is often chartjunk.

Above all else show the data.

To make the principle concrete, Tufte proposes the data-ink ratio, which is the ratio of ink used to convey the information in a graphic to the total ink in the graphic. As an illustrative example, he conducts a sequential redesign of an information graphic in which ink is removed in steps until there are no more removals possible without eliminating data from the graphic:

A visualization redesign example from Tufte's Visual Display of Quantitative Information, in which he successively removes ink from an original diagram on the left until all that is left is data ink on the right.

I wonder whether, at some level, Ian is trying to make a Tufte-esque point about game-like interactions in business systems, which is that user interactions which don’t contribute to the core purpose of the task – in this case, serving the customer – are wasteful at best and dishonest at worst. In the spirit of Tufte’s chartjunk, I wonder whether he would approve of the term gamejunk for systems interactions that distract from or obscure the underlying transactions. Or whether he would blast it for trivializing something that is complex and nuanced. Either way, I appreciate his sharp perspective.

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