Today is my foray into week 4 of “Understanding Video Games“, a University of Alberta Course offered by Leah Hackman and Sean Gouglas through Coursera, and focuses on what they and others call “game mechanics”. It includes 7 videos (totaling 79.5 minutes) and one reading resource.
Their breakdown separates out game rules (obvious) from agents (i.e. the players) and game mechanics (i.e. the methods the agents use to interact with the game world, often in the form of verbs/actions — running, jumping, etc.). The golden age of video games — mid-70s to mid-80s — is fantastic for understanding basic concepts since a game like Space Invaders is almost entirely about game play, more so than the games that came later that included emergent gameplay. In Space Invaders, you could move left or right or fire, and that’s it, with harder versions based on changes in speed and mild complexity of gameplay.
In the first video (Game Mechanics), the most interesting part comes from Roger Ebert, and the flame wars that started when he suggested that film and literature were subject to authorial control and thus could be “art”, whereas video games had player choices i.e. interactivity, which as a structural issue meant video games could never be art. Oddly enough, I think his point that it was too interactive rather than narrative could perhaps be valid for the games of the 1980s, but I don’t think it lines up with the games you “embed” yourself in that came out in the 2000s where the interactivity is even greater but with very strong narrative elements. The second video (Interactivity) notes that some games like Tetris have no narrative whereas others have strong narrative (Tomb Raider), so they argue that narrative can’t be the sole defining characteristic compared with ways of interacting. They list 10 elements from the 60s that are interesting:
- Purpose of the game
- Procedure for action
- Rules governing action
- Number of required participants
- Role of participants
- Results or pay-off
- Abilities and skills required for action
- Interaction patterns
- Physical setting
- Required equipment.
That list leads them to a focus on actions/procedures that the player can do (mechanics) vs. the things they cannot do (rules). I find the third video interesting as it focuses on agency…I assumed initially that this would be just about the “player”, but it is interesting to think of the computer opponents as agents too, rather than simply part of the game itself. So it gives you the option to think of Inky, Binky, Pinky and Clyde as semi-autonomous agents within the game rather than part of the game itself.
Video 4 starts to talk about Koster’s view of the game as a “black box”, and more about game grammar — the black box spits out a scenario, the player responds, and the goal is to figure out the rules and solve the game. With “rules” as the basic building blocks, they argue that multiple blocks form the mechanics of the game, with all the mechanics together (scoring mechanics, firing mechanics, movement mechanics), forming a framework i.e. a game. And as with a “language”, you learn the language (i.e. the game) by actually using the language (i.e. playing the game).
Their largest video of the week though is dedicated to the MDA approach to understanding games — mechanics (actions, behaviours and control mechanisms in a game), dynamics, and aesthetics (emotional level). I think it’s a good paradigm from a “design” perspective…such as thinking about the impact from changing from repetitive to challenge puzzles, more exciting aesthetics, or changes in dynamics (like Mario power-ups or Pacman power pellets — which change the goal, at least temporarily). As an analytical framework, it also allows theorists to look at the relationship between the three elements, and how changes in one affects the other two, or the resulting impact on gameplay…kind of a systems approach more so than the structural elements of “game grammar”. The second element of the video is an interview with a game designer for Mass Effect, which is a nice “applied” example. A third element shown is Schell’s separate framework for mechanics (after removing technology, story and aesthetics) that has abstract space (full screen), functional space (where you can move), objects (things that move, more or less), player’s actions, rules, and skill — that are all hard-coded in the game.
The next video talks about the role of narrative and how it is balanced in various games — ranging from Tetris (no narrative) to Metal Gear Solid (full narrative, but often through exposition). By contrast, there are the RPGs — where the narrative “emerges” through game-play, “rogue-like” without a clear path that you have to follow, and often with very little dialogue.
The final video looks at the interactions between the various mechanics, where some mechanics try to PREVENT emergent play that might be frustrating or inappropriate.
It’s a pretty interesting framework to think about games, whether they be video games or role-playing games or strategy games, and what about them makes them interesting to play more than once. I know people who LOVE Monopoly for example, and while I’m willing to play it once a year (or once a decade), anything beyond that is like gouging my eyeballs out. Maybe partly as I tend to play in too small of a group to make it really interesting perhaps, or too much within the rules. I find PayDay far more interesting but like Life, there is no strategy at all really, it is just totally die-based random progress, which many people abhor. I’m the same for video games though, I’m willing to accept randomness to a high degree if there is a narrative element, something that is completely lacking from games like Monopoly.