Benefits of Introducing Constraints

I recently read an article by Peter Kollock that suggests that certain online communities may be successful because they appropriately introduce risks and constraints that users must overcome. This reminded me of another CMC paper that discusses how users “overcome” constraints of low-bandwidth CMC in order to form stronger interpersonal relationships. For example, in online chat rooms, users feel like the medium’s restrictions make it difficult to learn about their chat partners. This turns relationship building in online chatrooms into a multi-step process. Users have a few initial cues with which to learn about their chat partners (“A/S/L”), then begin to pick up on speaking style, vocabulary, topics of interest, and other defining information. They may then share personal websites or photos which further develop understanding. Although this process seems inefficient and potentially daunting, there are aspects of exploration, discovery, and insight that also make it rewarding. Knowledge acquisition, particularly about things that we consider “special” or “secret,” tends to be a very enjoyable thing (think: gossip). Perhaps, then, limitations add an aspect of “specialness” to interactions that we would otherwise take for granted, thereby bringing online communities together.

In terms of virtual worlds, it’s also interesting to see how constraints encourage people to come together. In some ways, this is acknowledged by game designers and built into the systems– when a special item is very rare, it encourages people to try to obtain it, which can result in a wealth of complex interpersonal interactions.

In some ways, the unintentional constraints of games are even more interesting. Regarding technical constraints like limited information display, zone load lines, or laggy connections, users find creative ways to turn constraints into benefits. For example, having load zones in MMORPGs is often used to players’ benefits when running away from monsters. Although this doesn’t really mirror anything that would happen in the real world, it’s an example of how constraints can be turned into beneficial, and even key pieces of, game play.

This reminds me of another reading that I did for another class that talks about how interaction designers are actually designing a “space of possibility,” in which people are free to explore as they wish. The designer can only hope to introduce constraints with sufficient feedback that allow users to make the environment “their own.” Although the designer may have some ideas of what could happen, it’s really the people in the environment who decide what happens in it.