Utopian Entrepreneur, by Brenda Laurel

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A few weeks ago, somebody on Facebook linked to this great long interview with Brenda Laurel who is one of the original interaction designers, developing game designs based on user research. A representative quote from the interview, of her experience teaching game designers now:

once [these game designers] talk to real people about their lives, the way I teach them to interview and really learn as much as they can about what is going on inside a person’s head, their lives are changed. They are no longer imitating what happens to be the biggest hits this year in terms of the play pattern or the mechanic. Now they have a completely different vision of how one goes about developing a game, which might have to do with talking with people who aren’t you. The more we can get them to do that, the more they’re gonna build games for people who aren’t like them. And pretty soon they aren’t going to be like them or like they were.

So it was suggested that I should read her books, and I picked up Utopian Entrepreneur, about her experience building Purple Moon, a company under Interval Research Corporation that wrote games for girls in the late 90s.

The book itself is designed in that 90s-Wired style, with fonts changing in the middle of sentences, and gratuitous page design, which is annoying. But once you get past that, the content is excellent (and concise! The book is 100 pages.)

Laurel describes what she does as “culture work”, rather than art or political activism. In her own words, “Our work relies on our understanding of perception, cognition, and how people construct meaning. Culture work also functions as research. We are continually informed about our time and out nature through the responses of people to the artifacts of popular culture.” (p. 11) She believes in humanism, which she describes as “the belief that humanity’s power to shape its own destiny through the application of knowledge and reason is a good thing. (p. 14)

In the case of Purple Moon, they wanted to use games to empower girls, and looked to research to help guide the way. What I liked about Laurel’s description of research is that it wasn’t an end in itself – it was meant to drive action: “Doing research and paying attention to your findings can simply better the odds of success by illuminating the space of possibility and focusing creative energies.” (p. 37)

She also provides what she calls “four tricks for good design research” (p. 42):

  1. “The first trick is to define your research goal appropriately” (the goal shouldn’t be “to prove that” (that shows that “you have already foreseen your conclusion and biased your results”) but instead “to find out”)
  2. “The second trick is to expend the greatest energy going deep, even if your samples are small” (prefer ethnographic work and field observations over statistics and quantitative studies)
  3. “Trick number three is transforming what you find out into design principles you can actually use” (actionable design suggestions)
  4. “The fourth trick is to pay attention to what you learned, even if it doesn’t match your personal taste or the prevailing truisms about your audience” (she used the example of Mattel executives generalizing their experience of what girls want based on what girls wanted when they were children several decades earlier even though the world had changed)

But once you have done the research, you must choose how to use it. “Now you have another really important decision to make: what are you going to do with what you know? Once you understand your potential customers, for example, how are you going to use that knowldge – to cater to their insecurities and cravings, or to find ways to make their lives more satisfying and productive? To exploit them or to love them?” (p. 44) It seems all too often today that business owners are focused on exploiting their users under the theory that a company’s job is to increase shareholder value. Laurel notes that “Humanistic values alone do not a business make… Utopian entrepreneurs must understand the fundamentals of business practice, organization, and economics.” but she advocates for businesses that both make money and promote humanistic values.

Given my long standing interest in stories, I loved Laurel’s digression on stories: “We construct ourselves out of two deeply intermingled kinds of material: our life experiences, and our cultural context. In other words, who we are is the product of both the stories we hear and the stories of our lives. … Stories are content; storytelling is relationship.” (p. 59) Love it. When we tell a culture’s stories as our own, we are creating and maintaining the web of community – we become the same people through our stories.

Laurel makes a similar case for the responsibility culture workers have in promoting values. “Values are everywhere, embedded in every aspect of our culture and lurking in the very natures of our media and our technologies. Culture workers know the question isn’t whether they are there but who is taking responsibility for them, how they are being shaped, and how they are shaping us and our future.” (p. 62). And the way culture workers can do that is via stories: “Stories are tools for knowing and judging. Change the stories, and you change how people live.” (p. 65)

She goes on to share some of the lessons she learned from the eventual failure of Purple Moon as a business (although it lives on in the hearts of the girls who played and loved the games). I particularly appreciated her conclusion that “Business innovation is as important as technological invention. We face a crisis in content – who will make it, how will it be paid for, and what will it be worth in a new media world? Content is inseparable from its economic frame.” (p. 93). Laurel’s hard-nosed truth here is appreciated – there are many idealists in the world who believe that just saying the right thing or creating the right content is enough, and don’t want to sully themselves with thinking about dollars and cents. I may be biased since I’ve spent the last ten years learning about business and economics, but I agree that technology alone is not enough. The most powerful technologies have been those that also found a business innovation to spread their influence (e.g. Larry and Sergey early on tried to sell Google’s search engine technology to Yahoo for a million dollars – once they figured out pay-per-click advertising as a business innovation, it turned Google into the business powerhouse it is today).

One last thought from the end of the book: “Culture and technology exist in dynamic reciprocal relationship. Culture comprehends technology through the means of narratives or myths, and those narratives influence the future shape and purposes of technology. The culture-technology circuit is at the heart of cultural evolution.” (p. 102) I love this description of how technology and culture can create a virtuous circle. It’s most commonly seen in how sci-fi influences engineers and scientists – what was once pure fiction can become reality when the children who read that fiction try to invent it. But this culture-technology interplay is at the core of what has made humans successful – we have created a positive feedback loop where culture enables technology which enables culture and so on faster and faster, where we have a world that is changing so fast that “future shock” continues to be a risk.

I really enjoyed reading this book – it was a quick read, yet dense with insights and observations from Laurel’s time in the trenches as a utopian entrepreneur. There are many great stories and thoughts I wasn’t able to capture here – I highly recommend reading it.

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