Reasons to Yell at Alexa – How voice assistants may enhance our game nights

April 10, 2019 12:14 pm

Reasons to Yell at Alexa – How voice assistants may enhance our game nights

“Enjoy your cake and coffee over a game of Exploding Kittens”

Board games, they’re fun aren’t they? Classic games like Monopoly, Cluedo, Scrabble and Risk probably come to mind first for the majority of us, but the industry has grown phenomenally over the past 10 years and a new wave of games are set to replace these classics.

The demand from this market is staggering, considering the world is digitally obsessed – the offline physical games industry is forecast to be worth $12 Billion by 2023. Games are being marketed for all ages, for all occasions and are seeping their way into new business models of cafes where you can enjoy your cake and coffee over a game of Exploding Kittens. The reach the industry has is immense and therefore needs continuous innovation to come out on top.

“They’re wonderful instigators of social interaction”

Considerable research has been done into board games (it even has its own term – Ludology) and the effects they have on our behaviour, emotions and even cognitive development. They’re wonderful instigators of social interaction with a variety of game mechanics and elements that can require our strategic, deductive and deceptive sides.

Research done on their effects in children, shows that playing games increases their executive functions, motor skills and number literacy – which are clearly desired and fabulous educational outcomes. As a result, there is growing academic interest in games with several companies assessing and developing design guidelines for games that cater for learning and physical disabilities.

“But turning the pages shows tiny font and paragraph after paragraph of game set up”

So, we have a vast market of opportunity that involves little digital involvement, how can this be exploited? Personally, I enjoy board games because they take us away from the digital world, but recently a company called Sensible Object is developing games that involve Amazon’s Alexa for a good reason. In these instances, Alexa acts as a game master and combats one of the issues board games can run into – complexity.

Picture this, a well-reviewed game has caught your attention and you buy it. You have a group of friends all ready to play sat around the table watching you lift the lid of this fairly large box emblazoned with interesting illustrations – as you peer inside you see the first barrier to your easy going, party night – a big rule book. “Maybe it’s not so bad?”, you reassure yourself and others, but turning the pages shows tiny font and paragraph after paragraph of game set up, game flow, additional rules and FAQs. What you wanted to be a great night with your friends has turned into a 30 minute mixture of on-the-fly learning and teaching.

In contrast, if you had an Alexa compatible game then all that cognitive effort is removed and you have an objective organiser with all the knowledge needed to answer those questions your friends throw at you in the middle of reading the rules.

“Players found themselves talking less, and in hushed tones”

This concept is interesting as many people are still infrequent voice users – perhaps it’s much quicker for them to type than go through an awkward and tricky interaction with a voice assistant. However, the use of Alexa from Sensible Object is something that could spark intrigue in these people to help them overcome the issues of teaching rules to people – or just for a bit of fun. In-turn, we might see the frequency of their voice interactions within different scenarios increase. 

The first game they have produced with Alexa, called ‘When in Rome’, has received mostly positive reviews, but some say it diminished the social aspect of a gaming night. As mentioned, gaming is a great instigator of social interaction but players found themselves talking less, and in hushed tones so as to not miss any important instructions or rules that Alexa gave. So to combat this, what if these voice assistants could be taken beyond a practical role, to actual involvement in a board game?

“A player contributing to the game that we cannot influence”

Board games are fascinating from a design perspective, they’re almost like the rawest form of a user centred design. The ultimate goal is to entertain and some of the biggest and most popular games make a huge effort to provide backstories and set scenes that really immerse players into the game and transport them away from their current settings. I think immersion is one aspect of gaming where voice assistants could make a difference.

For example, in some cooperative board games players team up with a united goal made difficult by a random non-playable character. With these games it’s up to the players themselves to take the turn for this character by drawing cards or rolling dice to progress the game. This mechanic requires extra pieces of the game for players to control but perhaps this control removes some of the immersion – couldn’t a voice assistant fix this?

If voice assistants were an active player in the game, helping to guide story and take their own turns, then this could really help the immersion – it’s a part of the game out of our control, a player contributing to the game that we cannot influence. In this usage, the social issue found whilst playing When in Rome may be overcome; instead of having to call on Alexa at every step of the game to progress it, she can be used to provide initial context and then take her turn – everything else is up to the players and will flow as a normal board game should.

‘No bond is stronger than two people who hate the same person’, or voice assistant.

Furthermore, imagine if a game exploited the idea that Alexa will take over the world – the ultimate enemy to drive social interaction and passionate game playing.

Whilst the board game market accelerates it seems like a great opportunity to rethink our current use for voice assistants; their potential within the gaming industry for pure entertainment purposes or to help facilitate education is exciting. Whether it’s for adding the wrong item to a basket, butting into our conversations or because she’s only one turn away from plunging the world into chaos, I really hope that a future shift in the gaming market gives us a few more, light-hearted reasons to yell at Alexa.