Engineering Psychology II (7102 A)

Gretchen Ortiz

Designing a software that could help gamers multi-task more efficiently


Technology is a concept that deals with a species' usage and knowledge of tools and crafts, and how it affects a species' ability to control and adapt to its environment. Every time there is new or improved technology, there is also a change in how people perceive existing technology and even on how they use it. For example: Youtube. The Youtube phenomenon (streaming video over the internet) could not be possible with dial-up internet connections. Youtube had to wait ‘till most internet users had broadband connection in order to be a successful site. The new technology (broadband connection) gave the users the tools to watch a decent looking streaming video without waiting for hours.

As stated before, every time there is new or improved technology, there is also a change in how people perceive and interact with existing technology. Multi-tasking in a computer is directly related with the computers hardware. If a computer does not allow you to use more than one program then you are limited by that. But now I’m seeing how computers are getting faster (new processors that double or quadruple their own capacity), with larger hard drives and numerous memory expansions. These kinds of systems are begging for serious multi-tasking.

Even now with a decent computer someone can multi-task without much problem.

It is well know that computer users are multi-tasking (Foehr, 1996). They are listening to music, instant messaging, checking their email and even working all at once. What about when users play computer games? Do users multi-task while they play? How they cope with it? And finally, can we design software that will help gamers who want to multi-task?

Why is it useful?

         Most computer games are not designed for the computer user. Designers are thinking about game consoles when developing new games. By doing this, they forget that computers are used for a lot more than just gaming. When gamers want to multi-task on their computer while playing games, they stop the game and Alt+tab (or Ctrl+Atl+Del) in order to switch applications or return to desktop. This is the procedure they have to go through every time they want to check for something else in the computer.

It is also normal to encounter games that do not have the option for window mode. The designers assume that users want to be engaged in the game. That they want to feel they are inside the game, hence, they do not allow window mode. However, with my experience with computer games and other gamers’ opinions, I can tell that sometimes it is really helpful to have window mode available in order to be aware of other running applications like email notifications, instant messengers, and social-networking site’s updates.

However, the majority of gamers want to play in full screen mode just because they are accustomed to it and also feel the need to have the whole experience. On the other hand, they do not want to disconnect from the cyber world. The task at hand is to design software that will alert the users about notifications from other applications while they are playing games.

Existing Design – Game Overlay & PlayXpert

Game Overlay is one of the solutions for the problem here stated. It is a software program that runs at the same time the game is running on the computer. It has different options to choose from. One of options is to run the game while having the other open programs in transparency mode over the game screen (Picture 1).

Picture 1

This allows the users to see what is going on with the other programs that are open on the background. The other option is for the users to see the Quick Launch Task Bar over the game screen. The task bar position can be customized by the users. In the Quick Launch Task Bar users are able to see if the are any notifications coming from the programs that are already running on the computer.


  1. The users might get notifications that are not relevant to the alerts they want to receive (e.g. Windows update, anti-virus update). In other words, the increase in cognitive workload by having to look constantly at the task bar or the program that is running on the background will not help them multi-task efficiently but distract them from the game and the other tasks they want to do.
  2. The notifications on the task bar or changes in the background are only visual. If by the time the users get the notification they are immersed in the game, they will not notice the changes.
  3. Some visual changes in the background can be ignored because they do not make a sudden / compelling movement.
  4. There is no way to interact with the other programs while being aware of the game play.

PlayXpert is the other solution that is already available. It is also a software program that runs at the same time the game is running on the computer. It works with screen transparency and user-created widgets (Picture 2).

Picture 2

This solution is limited to the widgets that are already available on the PlayXpert website or users own widgets. There is no option for see through the game unless there is a widget for the program that the users want to see and/ or interact with. Some of the already created widgets allow users to browse the internet and chat while having the game as background. Users are constantly aware of what is going on with their game avatars while interacting with the widgets.


  1. If the users want to interact with a certain program while playing, that program must have a widget.
  2. Notifications and alerts must also have a widget.
  3. The widgets are always visible when they are turn on. If the users have a notification/ alert widget it will be visible all the time. This will get screen space and it could be bothersome for the players that just want to be alerted for a certain reason.
  4. The sound or movement capabilities in the widgets relies on their creators, The way the system works relies on the users own creative knowledge and not on usability principles.

Design – Play’n Work

Both existing designs are aimed at the hardcore MMO (massive multi-player online game) player that uses other computer programs like VoIP (voice over IP) or chat in order to communicate with other players inside the game. That is the reason behind the idea of having a transparent program over the game screen (Game Overlay) or transparent widgets (PlayXpert). However, the re-design will be aimed at the casual or ordinary computer gamer. They do not feel the need to have VoIP or to chat with other players outside the game chat while playing the game. They just want to be alerted when a certain person get online on the instant messenger, when an email is received or when one of their friends leaves a message on Facebook. They want to play in full screen mode while being connected with the world outside the game.

Play’n Work will be software that will run while the computer game is running. It will show alerts over the game screen (Picture 3).

Picture 3

When designing this software we have to take into account certain criterion. It has to be intrusive enough for the users to be aware of the alerts but not that intrusive so that the users can keep playing the game. We know that the human sensory systems are sensitive to change. Therefore, in order to grab the attention of the users, the alerts will have to follow some rules considering location, movement, sound, color, and frequency. The following will be some of the features included on the new design that are based on knowledge about human sensation, perception, and cognitive processes.

  1. Sensation
  1. Vision: Alerts should show a sudden movement that will be noticed by the users. The visual system is wired to detect motion. And we know that for selective attention we need movement and novelty. That is why the alerts will move up-ward from the bottom of the screen and the icons will jump once the short window has stopped its up-ward movement. The background glow of the icons will change from time to time in order to maintain novelty.
  2. Audition: Alerts should also have sounds in case the visual feature is ignored. The auditory signal for the alert will remain constant in order to interpret that sound as an alert. Although there can be problems with masking because of the sound coming from the game or other applications (Salvendy, 2006). The sound should be customizable to prevent masking from the game sounds. The auditory and visual display are important because the principle of multiple resources states that in order to capture the attention of the users; the display should divide the information across different resources.
  3. Somesthesis: The mouse, joystick, or game control should vibrate when an alert is shown. This suggestion depends on the users’ hardware.
  1. Perception
  1. Color: Different alert types will be color coded.
  2. The short window should have background and foreground colors because it will show up over the game screen. The users may have the option to change the colors but the icons will remain the same just as their background glow which will appear behind them. However, the options for customization should be limited because the colors used for background and foreground on the alerts should have a high degree of contrast with each other in order to counteract color deficiency confusions.
  3. Time: Time perception seems to be distorted when playing games. For those users that want to be aware of how much time they have been playing, Play’n Work will give them alerts about the time spent.
  1. Cognition
  1. Cognitive Workload: The new design will reduce the workload of having to Alt+tab for finding out if someone sent the users a message. The alerts will also be customized with the notifications desired by the users. The notifications range from emails and alarms to chats and social networking sites updates. The users might need to give their accounts’ id and password for some of the notifications.
  2. Memory: Another option that users will be able to customize is the frequency in which they want to be alerted: every 5, 10, 30 minutes, or even after an hour. The alert should be able to be canceled by clicking on the X that will appear at the top right of the small window. Once an alert is shown the users can access it on the Play’n Work database which it will be labeled by date and time. The notification will last for 15 seconds, after that period of time, it will disappear. If the users want to keep the notification from disappearing, they will have to click on it. If they want to interact with it, they will have to click on the option link above the icon. After clicking a small menu will show up with the following options: discard and notify me again later.

The design should also follow the principle of consistency or familiarity (Dix, Finlay, Abowd, and Beale, 2004) which states what the design has to be consistent with other displays users concurrently use or have used in the past. Also frequently accessed information should be kept in a location that minimizes cost of switching attention among them. Many users might be familiar with how instant messenger alerts work. For that reason the alerts will showed up at the bottom right of the user’s screen. It will move up-ward as a small window taking at least 5% of the screen space. The small window will show an icon that represents the alert message. As for example: An envelope to represent email or the Facebook icon to represent new message on Facebook.

One of the setbacks of the re-design is that it is based on alerts and in order for the users to switch tasks they will still need to Alt-tab. However, the Alt-tabbing behavior should decrease because they will not need to do so for checking if someone left them a message or email. The system will check for them. Another setback is that, just at what happens with Game Overlay and PlayXpert, some games will block the use of this type of software. The majority of MMO’s have some kind of anti-hacking system that prevents other programs to interact with the game. Still, if it is implemented, the software can be design to be compatible with these anti-hacking systems.


Dix, A., Finlay, J., Abowd, G.D., Beale, R.(2004). Human-Computer Interaction. Pearson

Education Limited, page 261.

Foehr, U.G. (1996). Media Multitasking Among American Youth: Prevalence, Predictors and Pairings. Retrieved November 11, 2007, from

Rigden, Christine. (1990). 'The eye of the beholder' - Designing for colour-blind users. British Telecommunications Engineering, 17, 2-6.

Salvendy, G. (2006). Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics. New. York: John Wiley. &. Sons, page 72.


Game Overlay (2006) Game Overlay [computer software]. Retrieval date: January 25, 2008. From .

PlayXpert (2007) PlayXpert [computer software] Retrieval date:  March 12, 2008. From .