Theory: Game Design and Parking Lots

(Apologies for the weird re-dating of this post. I wanted to add a tag, and either WordPress got confused when I tried to edit a post from some time ago or I pushed the wrong button.)

Game design isn’t just about building better games. It can also be used to think about topics ranging from political strategy to education. During the holidays, we also find out that it can apply to parking lot design.

A mall near my home, like many newer shopping centers, has angled parking. For those who have never seen it, angled parking squeezes the spaces together so that there’s only a single one-way lane between them. The idea is that having the spaces close together is fine, because people don’t need to turn as sharply to get into and out of the spaces. Parking in a normal space involves turning the car roughly perpendicular to traffic, which takes up a lot of room; getting into or out of an angled space never involves being turned more than about 45 degrees, there’s adequate room even with the tighter lane.

Or at least, that’s the theory. In reality angled parking is not always so efficient. People go down the lanes the wrong way, leading to traffic jams. Those accustomed to pulling through discover that when they do so in angled spaces, they either have to go against traffic when they pull out or make a 135-degree turn in a lane not at all intended to accommodate such a maneuver.

Game design can help one see issues like this coming. Designers know that when people are presented with a system, they will often use it incorrectly–not because they are “bad” or inattentive or foolish, but because the system is different from what they’re used to and requires mastery they have not yet attained. Furthermore, designers know that people often misuse systems in predictable ways, trying to do things that worked in the past–e.g., pulling through–even if those strategies are not well-suited to the project at hand.

Game design can also help one build systems that work with their users’ requirements rather than against them. It’s interesting to think about the ideal parking lot, one that has the benefits of angled parking but is proof against the errors people make while using it. Clearer messaging, to encourage people to go down the lanes in the correct directions? Barriers to prevent pulling through? Or something even more imaginative–spaces arranged so that pulling through is actually intended?

Part of the fun of game design is its incredible breadth; there are so many design problems out there to be considered. Mall parking lots are a reminder that many of them don’t look like games at first glance.

Until those problems are solved, be careful while shopping during in late December. 😉

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