Informatics Research Institute, University of Salford, M5 4WT, U.K.
I began playing computer games 20 years ago. In those days, the big money had not entered the computer games discipline, and there was still much activity by creative individuals, often amateur. Creative ideas emerged about technical issues, like computer graphics, how to get the computers to do things fast enough, or novel styles of user interface, creative ideas emerged about what a computer could mean in the life of a human being and about social aspects of computer use. Unfortunately academia showed little interest in these creative ideas, partly because they did not fit the fashionable theories of computer science or information systems. I knew there was something special going on and wanted to understand it. So I gradually developed my own ideas, and eventually a conceptual framework emerged, which seems able to help us understand and evaluate not just computer games, but other 'everyday' use of computers too, such as in social network sites. This paper reflects on how we might understand everyday experience and use of information systems (IS), as distinct from professional or business use. First it examines the everyday experience of playing a computer game and using Facebook. Then it briefly reviews some standard ways of understanding and evaluating these, finding them wanting; they are too narrowly defined. Three issues are separated out. This points to the need for a way to understand and evaluate the diversity and richness of everyday experience, which points us towards philosophy. A small part of one philosophy is then used as a practical tool help us understand what is going on in everyday use of information or computer systems. The use of two small case studies means that what emerges from this discussion has no statistical validity, but this is not the purpose of the article; the purpose is to draw attention to certain issues and motivate interest in them, upon which more statistically valid research may be carried out if desired.
Why is it fun and engrossing? This is because, in playing it, I explore, find things, make discoveries, overcome challenges, and undertake quests, and also there are a lot of nice touches which make the virtual world of the game 'real'. 'I' refers to a fictitious character, called Mindorf, which the real I 'controls'. Mindorf is a high elf, a chaos warrior, who has gained enough experience to achieve the status of mercenary (experience level 15). Mindorf is underground, amidst a maze of passages and rock-cut rooms. In some rooms various objects are strewn on the floor, such as magic scrolls or potions, various weapons left by other characters, and the occasional corpse of those which have been killed. Mindorf has the eventual quest to descend to level 100 of the underground 'dungeon' and kill the Serpent of Chaos, but in order to do so, on level 99 he must kill Oberon, King of Amber. On the current dungeon level (10) he has the quest of killing seven umber hulks, and has already killed two. To achieve these quests he has gathered bits of armour, a sword and various items like potions of boldness, magic wands that do various things, and so on. Some of these he has yet to identify; all he knows at present is their colour and material. Mindorf has very good strength and intelligence, good dexterity, constitution and charisma, and reasonable wisdom. He has a maximum of 170 hit points, which are lost when he is hurt during fights or when he falls into a pit in the dark; currently his hit points stand at 146, but resting will restore them to 170. If they are reduced to 0 he dies and the game ends. Such statistics are listed down the left hand side of the screen as numbers.
C Currently Mindorf is standing at the junction of three passages (shown in plan form on the screen), but not far away the screen is blank, indicating an unexplored area. So he moves a step towards this area to explore it. As he does so, he notices that something is happening to the rock wall not far away. He waits. Out of the rock emerges an umber hulk, intent on fighting him (umber hulks are non-material beings that can move through solid rock). Mindorf uses one of his special powers (laser eye) aimed at the umber hulk, which dies. Every time a hostile creature dies, Mindorf gains experience, and this kill gives him enough to get to level 16 of experience. Immediately, the Voice of Arioch roars, "Thou needest worthier opponents"; Arioch is a deity that, as far as Mindorf is concerned, has authority to arrange the game, either rewarding or chastising him.
With that, a number of other hostile creatures appear, surrounding Mindorf - mainly spiders, but one looks rather different. On looking, this new opponent turns out to be Robin Hood, the Outlaw. (What Robin Hood is doing in a game inspired by Tolkien!) Mindorf begins fighting the surrounding spiders, killing a wood spider, but getting bitten by a giant spider. This bite poisons him, which is bad news because he will lose hit points faster if he cannot cure the poison. Then Robin Hood pushes his way through the spiders to reach Mindorf and begins hitting him. Also, he 'touches' Mindorf to steal coins, but Mindorf's high dexterity allows him to protect his money pouch. Robin Hood touches Mindorf again, and manages to steal a Wand of Wonder - and then vanishes, fleeing.
So the game continues, much faster than it takes to write it. Increasing levels of experience and dungeon depth bring new challenges and interest, and sometimes humorous things. On what basis may we understand this experience of gaming that does it justice?
The genius of Facebook is that it has become what it is by harnessing the creative ideas of thousands of people who have written applications for it. In just a few months 14,000 applications were created, 6,000 of them being 'just for fun' [Brewis, 2008]. Bith currently uses the following applications: Top Friends, Photos, Circle of Friends, Testimonials, Hug Me, Groups, Compare People, Fun Wall, Superlatives, Growing Gifts, Super Poke, Define Me, Water Globe Gifts, Visual Bookshelf, Art, Characteristics, Causes, Lil' Green Patch, For The Love Of Walt Disney. 'Define Me' asked her a number of questions, and then assigned a colour:
Using the 'Superpoke' application, she can do things to her friends, and they to her:
If we take into account how heavy sheep are, Bith must have got rather tired throwing all those sheep! Notice the list of things she can do to friends at the bottom, which range from throwing and hitting, to licking, kissing, winking at and worshipping. To poke a friend involves just a couple of clicks of the mouse.
Bith has received gifts from friends using two other applications, one 'Waterglobe Gift' and four 'Growing Gifts':
They work in similar ways. Once the gift is received, Bith looks at it, but for the first few days cannot see what it is; the waterglobe is just a swirling snowstorm and the growing thing is just a small green bud in the flowerpot. After a few days of delicious anticipation, the gift reveals itself.
Bith uses Facebook for fun and to keep in touch. But she told me that at one time, she felt a strong urge to return to it several times a day, to see if someone had sent her anything. As Tanya Goodin, quoted in Brewis  remarked, "It really sucks you in." This meant that Bith found herself spending rather more time on Facebook than was healthy in her life, and later she remarked to me that a lot of it was rather meaningless.
Such central concepts or criteria are not appropriate, however, for several reasons. One is that most of them are oriented to what is important in business, educational or organisational applications - whereas the game playing and social networking illustrated above are domestic, everyday use. This limitation, however, rests on two other problems.
All of these (and perhaps others) need to be taken into account in understanding and evaluating everyday use. First, it differentiates the more technical issue of user interface or HCI from its importance in our lives, but without implying any gulf between them. Second, it provides a basis for differentiating issues. For example, in attempting to understand what is happening when Bith was sent a Waterglobe Gift and a Growing Gift, we need to be able to account for both the similarity and the difference between them:
Davis' TAM perceived ease of use and usefulness correspond approximately to HCI and HLC respectively, and our taxonomy on its own merely adds a third variable, ERC. This does not take us as far as we might. For example, we want a sound basis on which to account for the difference between Waterglobes and Growing Gifts. In both account above we find a diversity of issues, and this diversity demands respect.
All human activity, according to Dooyeweerd, involves all aspects, though to varying degrees and in varying ways. Each of HCI, HLC and ERC are multi-aspectual in this way. To Dooyeweerd, the aspects have a modal character as spheres of meaning and law that enable the cosmos to Be and Occur [Basden, 2008], but here we will employ them mainly as a checklist. By employing them as a checklist we obtain a useful practical tool for analysis, which, because aspects are more than mere categories, possesses depths that might be explored if necessary. This provides a framework for addressing the diversity of each of HCI, ERC and HLC.
The following tables show the multiple aspects of HLC, ERC and HCI of my use of ZAngband and Bith's use of Facebook. They have different purposes. In the technical issue of HCI, the comparison is between the two IS, and also serves as an introduction to the reader on how comparative aspectual analysis might be carried out. Note that it mixes together what the user sees and what the user does). The two tables following do not compare the two IS, but rather attempt to reinforce understanding of the distinction between ERC and HLC by placing them side by side. Thus one table shows aspects of the ERC and HLC of ZAngband and the other does so for Facebook. Placing ERC alongside HLC also facilitates later discussion on the link between ERC and HLC below.
|Quantitative||Three main areas (layout, stats, message line up top)||Varied number of areas (one per application used)|
Layout of items on small screen |
(Note: layout of dungeon is ERC)
|Items on screen in several columns; long screen requires scrolling|
|Kinematic||Limited animation||Much animation, e.g. swirling flakes in Waterglobes|
|Physical||Force needed to hit keys||Force needed to move mouse and hit keys|
|Biotic||Use of sensory-motor organs of user||Use of sensory-motor organs of user|
|Sensitive||Seeing and hearing screen||Seeing and hearing screen|
|Analytical||Simple screen and distinct shapes and primary colours aid distinguishing things on screen||More sophisticated colouration and more complex screen can make it difficult to distinguish and locate what user wants|
Simple screen structure. |
Action achieved via keyboard.
Complex screen structure assisted by chunking. |
Action via mouse control.
|Lingual||Simple, direct symbols (each cell on screen provides information).||Complex text structures can be used, and sophisticated graphics.|
|Social||UI is culturally old-fashioned.||UI is latest fashion [will it become quickly dated?]|
Limited screen area. |
No download issues.
Larger screen area, enhanced by scrolling. |
Much to download on each page, so requires broadband.
|Aesthetic||Simple, elegant, functional UI, but not beautiful.||Complex, sometimes wasteful UI, but much more beautiful and 'exciting'.|
| Juridical |
Enables all that needs to be done; extensive range of commands. |
Commands can be tailored to suit user.
Standard UI followed by all applications enables basic things. |
User can select applications they want.
| Ethical |
|Feels rather a 'mean' UI.||Feels a 'generous' UI.|
| Pistic |
(vision of who we are)
|User is someone who wants to play this game ("no messin'")||
User is college-like individual who wants to link up with others, but needs to be attracted to use Facebook and 'sucked in'. |
Facebook sees itself as in competition with other social networking sites; its genius is to harness the creative efforts of thousands of bright developers by encouraging competition among them for popularity.
|Physical||Walk through walls?|
|Biotic||Health, Constitution, Poison|
|Formative||Quests; Intelligent adversaries|
|Lingual||Messages, Scrolls, Runes|
|Economic||Time-wasting||Limit on weight carried; Purchasing|
|Aesthetic||Fun, relaxation||Charisma, Surprise|
|Physical||Throwing, Hidden by snow|
|Biotic||Sheep, Growing things|
|Sensitive||Feel happy, annoyed|
|Analytical||One friend to be 'special'||Distinction: which colour|
|Formative||Plan what to send them||Solve a puzzle|
|Social||Keep in touch||Friends|
|Economic||Wasting time; should be working!|
|Aesthetic||Fun, usually with friends||Beauty of flowers|
|Juridical||Giving friends their due, or not|
|Ethical||Want to please.||Hug; Send gifts|
|Pistic||Addiction to FB||Worship|
Several things may be noticed. First, very few aspects have been identified as pertaining to the use of ZAngband, while almost all except the earliest aspects have been identified for the use of Facebook. The latter is what Dooyeweerd would expect; the emptiness in the former arises from ZAngband being relatively unimportant in the life of the player except as a bit of fun. One might also add, under the analytic aspect, "Analysing gameplay for research purposes (this paper)", but have refrained from doing so in order to highlight that it is not necessary to fill in all aspects when treating them as a checklist.
Second, the later aspects are post-social, and inescapably involve some social aspects. Though ZAngband is a one-player game, and the social aspect of its HLC comes through in the shared background values of what constitutes fun and that time should not be wasted. Facebook is inherently social, and so we see many post-social aspects are important in understanding its use.
The ability to distinguish HLC from ERC (and from HCI) offers the following benefits to IS researchers and developers:
The use of multi-aspectual analysis helps to redirect the researcher's gaze from these three issues in themselves, outwards to how they manifest themselves in the everyday experience and lifeworld of their users - the multiple aspects of their lives, multiple aspects of what is represented, and multiple aspects of the UI. It is the aspectual suite that is the key element in enabling us to understand everyday use. This is because of:
What is the link betwen HCI, ERC and HLC? To answer this question, we must make reference to other parts of Dooyeweerd's philosophy as well as his suite of aspects. The following summarises a longer discussion found in chapter IV of Basden [2008. The most immediate everyday experience that a user has of using computers is HCI, which involves many aspects. In this, the lingual aspect is the most important in expressing why we partake in HCI (what Dooyeweerd called a qualifying aspect): in partaking in HCI we interpret what symbols that are presented to us on screen (or via speakers etc.) signify, and we signify our own meaning to the computer. This signification is of any type of meaning we (designers and users) wish, and constitutes the content with which the user engages in ERC. The meaning thus signified is meaningful in relation to the life of the user, which is HLC. To complete the circle, the activity of HCI is one activity within all those that make up HLC.
What this implies is that on one hand there are grounds for distinguishing real from virtual, but on the other hand they cannot be separated from each other fully and in everyday experience they remain intertwined. Thus, for example, real friendship (so-called offline) does differ from virtual friendship (so-called online) as mediated via social networking sites or guilds in MMORPGs for example. Real friendship involves all the aspects of HLC, including the ethical aspect of self-giving; Brewis [2008:19] emphasises the cost of true friendship ("when someone buys you a gift, or helps you move house, it has cost that person in resources, time or effort") whereas "a person who's being 'poked' recognises that it's cheap". Of course, once this is pointed out, the designers of friend-based applications could install some cost factor, but this does not invalidate the Dooyeweerdian distinction, because not only would the installation be rather arbitrary, but it depends on reference to real life (HLC) to know that it needs to be installed.
What kind of philosophical approach is needed for understanding and evaluating everyday use and experience of IS? From our brief discussion above, we can state that at least the following are necessary:
The main stances of a philosophical nature which have been appealed to in the discipline of information systems are unable to fulfil all these requirements. Subjectivist stances provide a sound foundation only for epistemology, reduce meaning to subjectivist attribution, and explicitly deny both ontology and normativity. Objectivist stances provide some foundation for ontology, but are very weak on epistemology and either deny normativity or attempt to reduce it to ontology coupled with an assumed functionalist ethics, and they deny meaning. Critical social theory stances allow for epistemology and normativity (the overriding norm of those deriving from Marxist thought being emancipation, and that of those deriving from Habermasian thought being rational social action) but they provide no account of ontology and little for diversity (though Habermasian thought provides some). Critical realism purports to support both ontology and epistemology, but its account of normativity is very weak, and it provides no account of either meaning or diversity. Postmodernist stances claim to embrace diversity, but they reduce meaning to the story of the individual.
Dooyeweerd's philosophy, by contrast, provides all of these [Basden, 2008:116]. The reason why it does so is because it self-consciously begins from different presuppositions than those made by most Western thinking. It ability to embrace, and provide a sound account of, all of these is why it is being explored in this article as a basis on which to make strategic plans for research into the use of social networking sites, games and other virtual environments. This article does not claim that Dooyeweerd is the only fruitful approach, but it does make the simple suggestion that Dooyeweerdian philosophy should be seriously explored.
Created 19 June 2008. Last updated: