Games are a very intimate medium as they allow us to interact with them on a level not seen in film or books. This interaction is performed through the games mechanics. Just like a game’s plot, visuals and audio, these mechanics are able to add meaning to an experience. This creation of meaning through mechanics is known as “Mechanics as Metaphor” and is a very hot topic in the world of video game design. Many video games have used this concept to great effect and I believe the same theory is transferable to the world of tabletop gaming.
Due to the free form nature of RPGs, a game’s plot, visuals and audio are often left in the hands of the player. This means that it can be very difficult to convey meaning through those areas and even when done the meaning is simple and abstract. A good example of this the setting of Glorantha in which players are heroes in a pre-apocalyptic world. The imagery and thought of being a hero even when you know the end of the world is coming, creates a very distinct style of campaign. But this also requires that the designer creates an in-depth setting for the game to take place in, which is a route a lot of games choose to forgo.
This leaves the most accessible tool to convey meaning within an RPG is through the mechanics. But this is not an easy task and requires very conscious planning on the part of the designer. This is because emotional aesthetics and meanings than arise from the combination of all of the game’s elements. The theory of game aesthetics was discussed in a paper by the name of Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics (MDA) and is one of the first formally documented game design papers.
This paper discusses how a games mechanics, the rules and calculations, leads to a set of dynamics, the actual gameplay. From these dynamics aesthetics emerge, which are the emotional response created by the game. These aesthetics are the driving emotive reasons we play the game. The problem lies in the fact that designers and players approach a game from opposite sides. A designer starts with the mechanics and works their way through the dynamics to the aesthetics. While a player starts with the aesthetics and ends at mechanics. As a result of this the most important aspect to the player, the aesthetics, is often an after though to the designer. By establishing your core aesthetics early, you can design your games to better deliver upon them. Ensuring that all of a game’s mechanics and dynamics are building towards the same aesthetics allows for the game to generate a unified experience.
Mechanics act as the fundamental ground work that the game is built on. By consciously implementing a game’s mechanics in order to deliver on specific aesthetics. An example of this can been seen in one of my in development games by the name of Consortia. This game puts players in charge of a guild or organization and as a strong focus on fellowship and teamwork. As such one of the main mechanics within the game is the Bond System which grants character bonuses when working with characters who they have a strong relationship with. This mechanic often led to the dynamic of players combining their actions and working together to solve problems. Which would instill the aesthetic of fellowship in the players.
That is just an example of one mechanic delivering one aesthetic within the game. If within the game all of the mechanics enforce the core aesthetics, an enjoyable and concise experience being delivered. I wish all of you the best of luck on your future designs and thank you for reading
- Patrick Lapienis
If you are interested in learning more about MDA Theory I have written two other articles on it which can be found in the links below:
You can also find the original MDA paper HERE