Unpleasant Design …

So, the first video that I’m going to look at from Extra Credits in my attempt to do more direct philosophical analysis is this one on Unpleasant Design, which is in fact pretty much just a video about philosophy and not about gaming. I’m going to touch on how this sort of design might impact games at the end, but the thrust of the video is all about real-world cases and applications. In general, it’s about attempts to design things like buildings, benches and all sorts of things in a way that they say “excludes a group of people” but really, in general, is to prevent certain things from happening by making it impossible or unpleasant for people to do those things but without explicitly banning or enforcing a ban on those activities. Their first example is about placing a number of bike racks under a bridge to prevent homeless people from sleeping there, but they also talk about designing park benches so that it’s uncomfortable for people to sleep there or even stay to long, or designing or painting the walls of buildings to discourage people from publicly urinating on them. Their main thrust is that these things are done to hide problems and so the money and effort should be spent on solving the problems and not on these sorts of unpleasant designs.

There’s a philosophical presumption that they don’t really acknowledge built into that, though: that because this targets a group — specifically homeless people — that this design approach itself is a problem rather than the intent. The issue is that even if we accept all of their presumptions about the intent of these things, the design approach itself is actually an ingenious way to achieve a common and natural design goal. No matter what, there are going to be things that a city or an area don’t want people to do in a certain area. They can invoke and enforce bans, but this is generally expensive and intrusive, and can often be confrontational, especially if it’s enforced by law. So, instead, what can be done is design the facilities so that people don’t want to use them for invalid purposes, while still allowing people to use them for valid ones. In the bike rack case, while that was almost certainly primarily useful for not having homeless people sleep there, people surely were indeed able to use them as well. If that was an area where bike racks were needed, it would produce the oft-desired “Kill two birds with one stone” solution, as people would be discouraged from sleeping somewhere they shouldn’t be sleeping, and bicyclists would get access to some much needed bike racks. So, in general, this sort of approach is the preferred way to deal with restricting actions that you don’t want to happen, as it discourages people from doing it without having to utilize massive enforcement resources to do so.

Now, of course it’s the case that at least sometimes the intent of the unpleasant design will be something that is invalid or immoral, but the video doesn’t really ever try to engage with that. There a number of valid reasons why the unpleasant design might be chosen over fixing the underlying problem. Taking the public restroom example, there is an issue that it isn’t as easy as they suggest to simply add more public restrooms. There is a cost involved, they can’t just be placed anywhere, and there’s also an additional maintenance cost to them as they have to be cleaned and potentially restocked on a regular basis (which is generally more than once a day). Simply adding more restrooms might not actually be feasible. Additionally, it’s possible that “having enough public restrooms” would mean having one every ten feet, because the reason that people were not using them wasn’t because they had no option, but because public urination was still more convenient. They might well have been able to walk to the nearest one and wait the length of time they would have to wait, but didn’t want to be bothered when using the side of a building was more convenient. Thus, by making using the side of a building less convenient they tipped the convenience scales towards using the facilities provided. Of course, it might still have been the case that there just weren’t enough public restrooms, but even in that case discouraging public urination was good design, not bad design.

The same thing can apply to the example of stores playing “uncool” music or using a simulated mosquito to discourage young people from using the store or its environs as a hang-out. If young people are not, in general, patrons of your store and just go there to hang out, that’s a problem for your store. It can block aisles and entrances so that your actual customers can’t or can’t be bothered to actually shop there, and can potentially be intimidating (especially since young people hanging out aren’t necessarily polite and respectful either). So if their doing so is likely to cost you business, then you’ll have to do something. You can come out and confront them to shoo them away on a frequent basis, or you can make it less cool for them to hang out there and so encourage them to move to a more appropriate location to hang out. The latter definitely seems to be the better option here, unless they want to claim that those young people should be able to hang out there even if they have no interest in buying anything and even if they are discouraging people who do from shopping there, which would certainly require justification.

Even the airport example could be more complicated than it seems at first glance. Certainly, less seating outside of shops and restaurants will encourage people to sit in the shops and restaurants which means that they’ll do better financially, but again adding more seating isn’t necessarily trivial. If you are in a place with a lot of foot traffic, adding more seating will create potential bottlenecks and force people to weave in and out of the seating to get to where they are going. If they’re in a hurry, then this will create frustration or even accidents, and a host of headaches for the managers. Thus, this “unpleasant design” seems again like a win-win: the shops and restaurants get more business, and it avoids cluttering up the main floor with seating and, in fact, even with people sitting down (because sitting on the floor in uncomfortable). While of course it’s not unreasonable to be cynical and suspect that the financial motive is the bigger driving force here, the counter that they could easily provide enough seating doesn’t really work either. And if they have to restrict seating, then their approach is a valid way to discourage people from doing that without having to directly enforce it.

And even if we accept their notion that the driving force behind the unpleasant design aimed at homeless people is to get them out of sight so that people aren’t bothered, unpleasant design is still a factor because even if you’re concerned about homeless people there are still going to be places where you don’t want them sleeping. If a homeless person decided to camp out at the front of my driveway so that I couldn’t drive out while they’re there, no matter how sympathetic I am to the homeless I’m going to make it clear that sleeping there isn’t an option. In the case of the bridge, since it was slated for demolition it might not have been safe for people to spend large amounts of time underneath it. If homeless people habitually sleep on bus stop or park benches will those be available for people who are waiting for a bus or resting in the park? Heck, even just sitting on those benches for too long is a problem, because if someone camps out there for, say, an entire day that means that no one else can use it that day. And since these things aren’t intended to be places for homeless people to live they couldn’t be used for their intended purpose. Unpleasant design aimed at making sure that they can be used for their intended purpose doesn’t seem quite so sinister when viewed in that light.

And even the cases where public outcry undoes the unpleasant design don’t seem like unvarnished goods. For the most part, all they do is restore one specific workaround for the homeless, but don’t really do anything to address the underlying issues. Yes, those homeless people can stay out of the rain under that bridge … or, at least, they can until it gets demolished. And even then they’re still sleeping under a bridge. And they can sleep on park benches and at bus stops again! I’m sure that that completely and totally thrills them; their life is now complete. The argument they make is that the thrust of these things is to hide the homeless so that those who are not can ignore them, but it seems to me that the campaigns they cite are just as bad, if not worse, as they allow people to feel like they’ve actually done something when, in reality, they haven’t done anything to address the underlying problem. Yes, homeless people have places to sleep again! Too bad that those places aren’t places they would sleep if they had a choice. The ideal approach would be to accept that they don’t want people sleeping there for some reason, but then insist that these people need some place to sleep and demand that something be done about that. As it is, these approaches let people feel like they’ve “helped” when they really haven’t.

So unpleasant design works well when you need to discourage people from doing things but don’t want to outright ban it in a harsh or artificial way. This brings me back to games, because this seems to be something that is great for video games. Video games will always have things that they don’t want their players to do, for various reasons. Instead of adding chest-high walls or invisible barriers, games will profit a lot from simply making it undesirable to take those actions in the first place. To take the bike rack example, if for some reason a game didn’t want players to rest under a bridge in-game, they could add obstructions that have some kind of use but make it impossible to lie down, so that the players can’t rest there no matter how much they might try (as the game keeps saying that you can’t lie down there). Sure, there’s a risk of games doing things simply to exclude a specific group, but if, say, they want to do a game focused on a male audience adding scantily clad female characters might immediately signal that this is such a male-focused game without having to actually say it on the box, like the store example above. And it’s an open question whether a game deciding to exclude a specific identifiable group is in and of itself bad.

Ultimately, the failing here is not separating the design itself from its intent, and so not properly analyzing the actions in light of what was intended. Unpleasant design is generally the right approach if you need to discourage something but don’t want to outright ban it and enforce that ban. For the most part, all of their examples assume that the intent is invalid and proceed to criticize the design on that basis alone, but they end up criticizing the approach because of the cases where the intent of it is at least reasonably invalid. Because of this, they don’t see why even in their examples things are more complicated than they appear, and why there may not be simple better solutions for the problem that they are trying to address. This, then, ends up being a prime example of the problems with shallow philosophy.


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