Despite “game mechanics” being one of the most mentioned phrases of game production and consuming alike, as I entered the Games Design course at LCC, it occurred to me that I – or any of my classmates – did not actually have a clear definition of what they are.
So I entered on a journey, attempting to find out what exactly game mechanics are, and if they are definable at all.
The first official distinction between rules and mechanics seems to occur in the book The Structural Elements of Games(1971) by Avedon. Since then, many researchers have attempted to pinpoint a single clear-cut definition.
Some say mechanics are a categorisation or bundle of rules (Lundgren, Björk). Others claim it is the specific actions the player can take in order to interact with the game environment (Fullerton, Hunicke, R. & LeBlanc, M & Zubec, R).
A slightly different approach is taken by game scholar Järvinen(2008), who states the easiest way to describe a mechanic, is by using verbs. If we use the arcade classic, Space Invaders, as an example then mechanics would boil down to things such as shoot, move, and evade.
Lastly, a very interesting definition comes from Miguel Sicart(2008) in his paper Defining Game Mechanics: “Game mechanics are methods invoked by agents, designed for interaction with the game state” (Sicart, 2008)
This definition is very different from any of the previous, because Sicart approaches the issue through programming, specifically Object Orientation. By saying invoked by agents, he is talking about any involvement with the system, no matter if this is done by a player or by the AI. This means, that all of a sudden non-player-characters or game objects alienated from the player is also subjected to mechanics. In the example of Space Invaders again, this means the actions of the invaders are also considered mechanics, even if they do not apply to the player.
Despite many researchers attempting to write one single definition of game mechanics, it does indeed seem like the subject is abstract and yet undefined. And even if it is possible to come to a conclusion, we are still only halfway. Next is the matter of distinguishing core mechanics, primary mechanics, secondary mechanics, and define exactly how all of these differ from each other.
The conclusion of this post, however, must be that a definition of mechanics (even if this is slightly subjective) is useful for communicating with other members of a development team, or in understanding the nature of games better.
Avedon, E.M. (1971) “The Structural Elements of Games” The Study of Games. New York: John Wiley & Sons
Lundgren, S & Björk, S. (2003) “Game Mechanics: Describing Computer-Augmented Games in Terms of Interaction” Proceedings of TIDSE Volume 3 (November). Available at: http:// citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.13.5147
Fullerton, Tracy (2004) Games Design Workshop. Third Edition, New York: CRC Press.
Hunicke, R. & LeBlanc, M & Zubec, R (2004) “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research” Proceedings of the AAAI Workshop on Challenges in Game AI Volume 4, p. 1 (July) Available at: http://www.aaai.org/Papers/Workshops/2004/WS-04-04/WS04-04-001.pdf
Järvinen, A (2008) “Games without Frontiers: Theories and Methods for Game Studies and Design” University of Tampere (March). Available at: http://tampub.uta.fi/handle/10024/67820