UX and the concept of play, or: disappearing into an ATM

If we want to get really technical, I designed my first user interface at age 11.

Sort of.

I made a series of paper “screens” for a fake ATM, each attached to long strings that we dropped down from the second floor. They were essential props for a game of “bank” which my two younger sisters somehow agreed to play with me. We had a basket of old poker chips and checkers, for money. We reeled the papers down over the second floor’s low wall, which overlooked the stairwell. Each piece of paper mimicked a screen of the ATM I’d seen when my parents withdrew cash at the drive-through bank.

Welcome! Enter your pin. Deposit or withdrawal?

Someone played the customer, who stood at the bottom of the stairwell, and the others of us hurried around dropping the paper drawings of screens so that the ATM worked. We lowered the right amount of money at the end.

I wish I had those old props and fake screens– I do wonder if they made any sense at all. I also wonder why, oh why, this became a game. What did we even do? So many of the games that we used to play as children are totally incomprehensible to me now. They weren’t games with rules or narrative structures. Playing, for us, was just slipping into an alternate world and living there for a little while. I don’t remember us assigning characters and developing a plot. We simply “played bank” for a few hours.

These are the kinds of things that children are permitted to do; no one questions the sanity of little girls who are pretending to operate an ATM — although they might wonder why they’re not playing something a little more traditional, involving tea and dolls.

I still lose my rootedness in reality, and in the moment. Some of that is because of an over-developed sense of empathy that vaults me into others’ experiences. When I see someone who has been injured in a visible way, I often feel that wound in my body. The gash in a stranger’s arm blooms in my own; it’s not usually a sharp pain, but it is a strong, ethereal tingling, similar to hitting the funny bone of one’s elbow. I also experience something called hyper-focus, where entire hours spin by without my noticing–what some people experience when they fall into a Wikipedia hole, except it happens for anything that I’m really interested in or curious about. Now that I spend most of my days doing things I love, Pat has to text me to eat lunch. It’s not considered to be a good thing or even a normal thing to lose oneself so easily. It seems a little odd.

But for people who design experiences, especially narrative ones, making people “lose themselves” is the holy grail. The best stories, the best designs, are so seamless that we don’t even know we’re slipping into them. They envelop us; shroud us from our regular lives. We lose ourselves and also lose the world. Not because something claims to provide an immersive experience, whatever that is, but because our self-concept of me, myself becomes momentarily malleable. We are Juliet clutching the poison. We are Furiosa in the desert.

It’s not so different from falling in love, just on a micro, temporary level. Those heady romances make our self-borders porous and filmy, especially in the early years. In psychology, this is called having boundary issues. But there are times when our boundaries are best dissolved. We said we were playing bank but really we were just playing.

I tried Google Cardboard, by the way. I can’t say that it’s the future of everything, but something like it could bring us into so many more corners of experience. And maybe we lose ourselves again. Or maybe, because that sense of losing is so forcefully and artificially induced, it just makes reality less bearable. I fumbled around my upstairs hallway as though it was Rome, but when I set the device down, the walls seemed more iron than ever.

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