What’s in a Game: Defining Mechanics

I tend not to intend jargon when I talk about media. This can cause problems as it does not prevent me from using jargon. Matters get especially odd when I’m talking about games. Much of the time I’ve spent discussing various aspects of video gaming over on the RockPaperShotgun forums has been spent ferreting out confusions over language. Most recently, a discussion about whether or not video games were getting less intelligent over the years changed into a discussion centered on disagreements of terms like “mechanical depth,” “skill cap,” and a few others. I was a major player in getting the discussion stuck  on the terms rather than the ideas they were supposed to help outline.

Before I return there to try and fix some of my mistakes and help more productive posters keep the discussion interesting, I wanted to figure out just what on Earth our jargon is and how I can either use or subvert it in the least confusing manner possible. Let’s start with the basics.

It’s tempting to ask “What is a game?” first, but that’s a less basic question than many of the next few logical steps. We define what a game is based on what belongs with other things we already call “game” and generally change the definition to suit those ends. As such, it’s really the last question we should ask. I’ll start instead with “mechanics.” It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot in video game and role-playing game discussions. So what does it mean?

1. Checking the Dictionary

A few from the OED that I found most applicable:

2. Manual labours or activities. Obs.rare

3. In extended use: the procedural or operational details (of something).

4.concr. The working parts of a mechanical apparatus; mechanism.

American Heritage offers one more slight variation (also found in The Free Dictionary and Merriam-Webster):

3. (used with a pl. verb)The functional and technical aspects of an activity

Ok. This doesn’t really do much for us, as gaming clearly hasn’t made it’s way into the dictionary definition as Physics has (entries not shown).

2. Wikipedia

A whole article on game mechanics! With one weak reference and an “original research” warning. Hmm. Let’s poke around anyway:

Game mechanics are constructs of rules intended to produce an enjoyable game or gameplay. All games use mechanics; however, theories and styles differ as to their ultimate importance to the game. In general, the process and study of game design are efforts to come up with game mechanics that allow for people playing a game to have a fun and engaging experience.

This seems to be approaching the purpose of games more than the purpose of mechanics within them. It also sets up a dichotomy between mechanics that serve the game and mechanics that serve the gameplay–I’m not sure if this is intentional .

The interaction of various game mechanics in a game determine the complexity and level of player interaction in the game, and in conjunction with the game’s environment and resources determines game balance. Some forms of game mechanics have been used in games for centuries, while others are relatively new, having been invented within the past decade.

Here we have an idea that mechanics can be isolated and can interact with one another within the same game. We also have an idea that mechanics fundamentally describe how complex a game is and how much the player interacts with the game. Also, for some reason “Reources (economics)” comes into play to help determine “game balance” which is important to game mechanics. We close the paragraph with the idea that game mechanics are soverign and can be transfered or invented in ways that go beyond the context of the games they are present in.

Complexity in game mechanics should not be confused with depth or even realism. Go is perhaps one of the simplest of all games, yet exhibits extraordinary depth of play. Most computer or video games feature mechanics that are technically complex (when expressed in terms of making a human do all the calculations involved) even in relatively simple designs.

Having established that complexity and mechanics are inextricably linked, we here have the idea that complexity isn’t depth or realism. Go is simple than Tic-Tac-Toe, but deeper. We also have the idea that mechanical complexity does depend on the behind-the-scenes calculations rather than the player experience.

In general, commercial video games have gone from simple designs (such as Space Invaders and Asteroids) to extremely complex ones (such as Gran Turismo 5 and Crysis 2) as processing power has increased. In contrast, casual games have generally featured a return to simple, puzzle-like designs, though some are getting more complex. In physical games, differences generally come down to style, and are somewhat determined by intended market.

Here we have the idea of a journey from simple to complex in the industry and it’s directly related to processing power. We have the idea of an inverse trend in casual games … well, some of them. Then something about “Exergames”.

Just in this header here, we’ve already encountered a lot of ideas that obfuscate the definition. Ignoring for a moment that an article called “game mechanics” ignores most of the gaming world in favor of video games, we’re stuck with all this muckery about complexity, a number of confusing implicit definitions (Go labeled “simple” exemplifies this), and a definition with little to no weight behind it that provides an even poorer reference in the context of the article going forward than it does at first glance.

I actually agree with some of the implicit definitions here, but I think they need to be made more explicitly, consistently and coherently in an article that aspires to define mechanics formally.

As there are no references here, I’d prefer to come back to this discussion with some better sources. A slightly more formal understanding of game mechanics. But if necessary the critique and shoring-up of this article could serve as a nice basis for discussion.

3. The Plan

Wikipedia was never supposed to be the end of the line, or even the end of the beginning. I was hoping it would serve as a better springboard, though. As things stand, even the dry dictionary definitions give more of a sense about how to define game mechanics. The next step remains fundamentally the same in any case: we need to do a review of the literature. Next, I’ll be taking a look at the general discussion of mechanics around the community, trying to loiter near the more professional side of things–designers, specialized games journalists, and so forth. I’ll also see what academia has to say about the matter and if things move at enough of a clip I might even get to Game Theory and whether or not it has a place in the formal discussion of video games.


About Gwathdring

Lives for music. Longs for sturdy sails and a stiff sea-breeze. Devourers information. Loves curling up with a good book, a good video game, or photographs of Earth's fuzzier creatures. Is quickly becoming obsessed with board games. That'll do for now.

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