Friday, February 6, 2015

Meaning and Mechanics

So, I got into an interesting discussion on Facebook about whether game mechanics have meaning based their socio-cultural background .  The idea being is that, without meaning, the mechanics are just that, but that the meaning is inherently skewed by the culture in which it was conceived.  I think there is a certain flaw in the discussion, and rather than posting a huge wall of text for which Facebook is manifestly poor at dealing with, I'll get into it here.

The definition of  "game" I tend to go with is the one advanced by Jesper Juul.  He states that a game as has the following six characteristics:

  1. Rules: Games are rule-based.
  2. Variable, quantifiable outcome: Games have variable, quantifiable outcomes.
  3. Value assigned to possible outcomes: That the different potential outcomes of the game are assigned different values, some being positive, some being negative.
  4. Player effort: That the player invests effort in order to influence the outcome. (I.e. games are challenging.)
  5. Player attached to outcome: That the players are attached to the outcomes of the game in the sense that a player will be the winner and "happy" if a positive outcome happens, and loser and "unhappy" if a negative outcome happens.
  6. Negotiable consequences: The same game [set of rules] can be played with or without real-life consequences.
Jesper Juul: "The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness". In Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, edited by Marinka Copier and Joost Raessens, 30-45. Utrecht: Utrecht University, 2003.

With that definition in mind, I'm looking specifically at point 1, the rules of play.  These are often referred to as the game mechanics.  The mechanics are often placed into a context as designated by the designer to help achieve a specific tone that the game pursues to achieve a specific emotional aesthetic.  Looking at Call of Duty, or other games in their style, the mechanics revolve around the linear progression of the first person avatar through intense gun play and warfare. The mechanics are developed to achieve the sort of high-stakes, rapid interaction required to play the game, but the mechanics alone don't actually point at a deeper meaning.  They are modern and deep in the sense of play but do not point to a higher meaning, as french philosopher Jean Baudrillard observed: “...the secret of true modernity lies in artifice, the only natural spectacles that impress are those which simultaneously betray the most striking depth and the absolute simulation of this depth” (Jean Baudrillard, America, 139); (emphasis in the original).  The artifice of Call of Duty is to make the player feel as though they are in a massive battle. It is all clever trickery.  The mechanics of the weapons are deep and unique, combining bullet spray, recoil, reload times and damage values based on cover and hit location of the target, and the simulation feels real and feels fun, but the core mechanics aren't that deep and are merely shifting between set values and capabilities.    

On the other hand, there are games where the mechanics mean something.  In this, they are artifact - something deliberately created as a result of preparatory or investigative procedures.  The developers have set out to link the interaction of play with a definite theme, and have placed a specific limit on their creation to achieve that goal.  This is the ultimate difference between artifice and artifact, intentionality in creation that merges the mechanics with the narrative elements of the game.  In the creation of gameplay artifact, the developer is doing more than simply doing what is fun, but discovering methods to give actual meaning and not simulated depth to play.  In an interview with "Ubiquity", Dr. Mihai Nadin states "The computer executes tedious routine assignments and supports the generation of alternatives, but the creative genius, the aesthetic choice, remains with the human being" (  This intentionality allows game designers to take mechanics beyond setting the tone of play.  A recent example of this sort of intentionality of infusing mechanics with meaning would be Thomas Was Alone (  In it, you play as a variety of polygons with different movement capabilities. Each polygon character has unique capabilities and their interaction with the game world illustrates specific behaviors and personality types as they interact with each other.  As a result, a very intentional design decision was made to tie the mechanics to a specific meaning.

The meaning of these mechanics is certainly rooted within the context of the games socio-cultural context.  But, that is with a caveat - mechanics don't always have meaning.  Mechanics can exist simply to impart a specific tone to the larger aesthetic experience of the game.  The number of games that provide meaning through mechanics is small but growing, particularly as games become more diverse and ubiquitous across the planet.  These meanings will be fundamental, but properly implemented, will provide a powerful emotional connection and aesthetic that pushes games out of artiface and into artifact.

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