Gimme Sticky Friction

It’s time for me to come clean. In a move that’s likely to surprise no-one, I’m outing myself as a gamer. From the early days of ColecoVision, I’ve beena long-time fan of pushing buttons in order to make stuff happen. For better or worse, it’s had a dramatic effect on my approach to task management, social interaction, and libraries in general. And I’m not the only one whose brain has been warped in this way.

Gaming has continued to mature as a medium, and people are beginning to harness its potential in new ways. This is particularly notable in education – this year’s Horizon Report places “Game-Based Learning” as one of the major technology-based trends likely to take root in the next two to three years. But you don’t require such formal structures to take advantage of gaming concepts.

To that end, I’ve been reading a lot on game design, and finding a number of parallels to how we create experiences in the library. A fantastic primer on all of this comes from game designer Tim Rogers, of the blog Action Button dot net. Every critical medium needs its Lester Bangs, and his mix of articulate savagery and clear enthusiasm might just make him the person for the job.

Rogers writes an occasional guest column for Kotaku, and his piece “In Praise of Sticky Friction” is a great primer on the tensions that make for memorable game design. (Be advised: you might want to pack a lunch. It’s a long piece, and you’ll probably want a couple of extra tabs open to search for video clips of the games he cites. We’re through the looking-glass, people.)

Frictions represent all the tensions inherent in a game – whether good or bad. You push a button, and the way your avatar responds is a friction. You encounter an enemy or a puzzle, and your process of determining how to get through is another friction. Rogers codifies all of these, from meaty to snappy to electric.

But it’s sticky friction that Rogers praises above all else. In Rogers’ words, “the point of sticky friction is that it lets the player savor the maybe-massive weight of what he just did.” It’s the pause that refreshes – an opportunity to relish the achievements you’ve made up to this point, and a brief moment to wonder about the possibilities that lay ahead.

A classic example of this comes from any of the many editions of Pac-Man that have been released over the years. (If you’ll note my gamercard above, you’ll notice I’ve been notching my fair share of time with the latest iteration.) The game’s friction comes as a by-product of competing desires. There’s the need to navigate the maze consuming pellets, thus prolonging the experience and building up a high score. This often stands in contrast to the need a player has to avoid getting caught by the ghosts, which would cut the experience short and prevent high scores.

That friction alone is enough for many games to hang their hats on. But what makes Pac-Man memorable occurs when you find a power pellet, and are granted the opportunity to turn the tables. Now, the game could have allowed you to barrel through your enemies with nary a second thought. But the designers did something incredibly important here: each time you chomp a ghost, the action freezes for a fraction of a second. It’s in these microscopic moments that sticky friction is born. You can see what I mean here:

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What does this circuitous path have to do with libraries, you ask? Don’t worry, I’ll get you through the maze. Libraries teem with opportunities to create sticky friction. (No, not like that, sickos.)

This can be as complex as the act of research itself: all those hours patrons spent poring over books and articles, looking for that one bit of knowledge that ties together their ongoing quest for knowledge. And the next one. And the next one.

Or it could be as simple as taking a book from the shelf. In this case, the friction is literal, and the tactile sensation of freeing their object of desire from its confines can be just as satisfying as finding out our princess is actually in this castle.

But this isn’t all we can be capable of. Whether we’re creating a memorable 404 page or secreting hidden treasures in our collection, there is no limit to the ways we can create memorable moments for our patrons.

And so I turn to the brainstorm pool. What small, memorable moments can we design for our spaces, whether virtual or physical?

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