Grant Custer

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This thread, by Zach Gage, on how genre conventions serve as interaction shortcuts, got me thinking about how I use Vim conventions in my creative tools at Constraint Systems.

7/ A big part of making games involves working with genre literacy. In game design a key concept is the idea of weight: Every rule you add has a cognitive load on the player, and you must balance the weight of your rules against how meaningful they are to the play experience.

8/ An idea might be great, but if it makes the game unwieldy, ditch it. But genre-conventions are different – they’re weightless. They allow for an increased complexity and nuance in games, because they let designers include a huge number of rules without adding any weight.

Almost all of the experiments on Constraint Systems use Vim conventions: at least the hjkl characters for movement. One of the big reasons I started the experiments was my fascination with how I felt using Vim in the terminal. The combination of a strict character grid and keyboard controls provide a feeling of stability, and through that calm, that I don’t feel in other programs, or using a computer in general.

This was especially in contrast to how I’ve felt when making gestural interface, or ones that simulate physics. Building those often felt like piling on edge-case handler on top of edge-case handler. If you did it well you could make a pleasing user experience, as long as they stuck to the path you had prepared. If they wanted to go a different direction, or you wanted to take the program in a new direction, you had to deal with that unwieldy tower, either by rearchitecting it or by adding even more code for handling the new edge cases.

I wanted to strip things down, and see if I could start from a more stable foundations, and I turned to Vim conventions to do that. It was a natural choice because I was chasing that feeling from Vim. Choosing Vim also gave me the interaction bootstrapping effect that Zach is talking about. Rather than asking the user to start from interaction scratch, I had the Vim foundation. That’s not directly relevant for the majority of people, Vim is only used a subset of programmers, so it doesn’t solve everything, but it is a place to start.

Even for users not familiar with Vim conventions, I think there’s a benefit to starting the experiments there, rather than trying to introduce a new paradigm. Vim has proven itself to at least be useful to many people (and inspired a lot of loyalty). So there’s an implicit promise that even if this looks weird, you know it can be learned and at least some people have found it useful.

There’s a whole series of Vim-like programs, mostly terminal-based, that use similar key combinations. There’s also a number of browser extensions that let you use Vim keybindings in the browser. Tiling window managers (I use i3wm) also share a lot of conventions. Putting these all together, you can put together a system for daily use that is keyboard-focused and mostly Vim-based. I’ve started referring to the Constraint Systems experiments as “alternative” interfaces. Vimlike interfaces are arguably the longest running, most fully fleshed out alternative interface for computers. I want to add to and learn from that system, and keep it alive in the face of the conventions (often imported from mobile/touchscreen design) that are dominating today.

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Grant Custer is a designer-programmer interested in alternative interfaces.

You can see work and inspiration in progress on my Feed and my alternative interface experiments on Constraint Systems. I’m happy to talk on Twitter, email: grantcuster at gmail dot com, or Mastodon. You can see a full list of projects on my Index.