Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics

There you are sitting down to go back and review a piece of work you completed over a year ago – your literature review. You’ve had notes from your supervisor, some of which you addressed at the time, but others required a little more reading,  which you did, or some deeper thinking about, which you are still doing really (does that ever end?). But over all you are ready to take those forty thousand words apart and rearrange them a bit into three chapters instead of one.

You’ve also got a bit of actual diagram design work, which you also did, and re-did, and tweaked a little, and tweaked a lot, and you are still not yet entirely happy with, but its so almost there that you think you think you can at least put it in and see what people think of it. This picture should be worth at least a thousand words that currently read like a long list.

After the intensely practical work of the previous week, you are ready, eager indeed to get back to the desk and stuck into some long form writing.

And… and someone casually waves a paper under your nose that you’ve not seen before. And you read it and think “how did I miss this?” And look at it and think “I wonder if I should change my diagram?” And then you frown and think “no, seriously, how did I miss this?” And you begin to wonder what else you missed – but that way madness lies.

The paper in question is from 2004. It’s called MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek. A paper written as a result of a series of games design workshops at an annual AI conference, I might be forgiven for missing it on the first pass, but the concepts it offers seem so fundamental I feel I must include it as I edit those forty thousand words. For example take this quote, from page two

The MDA framework formalizes the consumption of games by breaking them into their distinct components:


…and establishing their design counterparts:


Their argument is that the game is a designed artifact, and the content of the game is its behaviour, “not the media that streams out of it towards the player” and they go on to say that each component can be thought of as a “lens” through which to examine the game design. Importantly, they point out that designers and players will use these lenses in opposite directions:

From the designer’s perspective, the mechanics give rise to dynamic system behavior, which in turn leads to particular aesthetic experiences. From the player’s perspective, aesthetics set the tone, which is born out in observable dynamics and eventually, operable mechanics.

It’s their discussion of aesthetics which I think is the first thing I need to add into my thesis. It needs to go in somewhere around Nicole Lazarro and Tynan Sylvester. Like Lazarro, they try and create a taxonomy of fun:

  1. Sensation
    Game as sense-pleasure
  2. Fantasy
    Game as make-believe
  3. Narrative
    Game as drama
  4. Challenge
    Game as obstacle course
  5. Fellowship
    Game as social framework
  6. Discovery
    Game as uncharted territory
  7. Expression
    Game as self-discovery
  8. Submission
    Game as pastime

They go on to describe how dynamics can be created to support or even generate the aesthetics, much in the same way that Sylvester does. (Along the way they suggest ways to “fix” Monopoly, but here they make the newbie error of thinking Monopoly is meant to be “fun”.) And then how the mechanics might enable the dynamics. This being an AI conference, they summarize the approach by showing how an AI prototyped with a simple “peek-aboo” game for toddlers, can be run through the MDA lenses again and again, creating a Rugrats game for older children or even a shooter for teens, all with the same same core mechanic, but different dynamics and aesthetics. All of that is les relevant to my thesis, but I’m going to have to build the fundamentals of MDA in.

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