Science and games

Recently I followed a course on Game Design, and not knowing anything about game design I was very curious as to how scientists would describe, compare and categorize something seemingly non-academic as games.

From my own experience I know that it is hard to describe a game to someone who has never heard of it. One obvious way would be to compare a game with another game which you have played both:

Scrap Mechanic is in a way a bit like Minecraft, but different. You create buildings and machines which you can control yourself. Unlike Minecraft, there are no blocks in the terrain, and you don’t have to survive.

Assuming you have played Minecraft but have never heard of Scrap Mechanic, you probably still don’t know what the game is like. Maybe we should not describe games by comparison, because such descriptions just become a list of similarities and differences (unless the games are very similar). Maybe we should create a standalone description of the game. Let’s look at the official description of the game:

Scrap Mechanic is an all-new creative multiplayer sandbox game which drops you right into a world where you quite literally engineer your own adventures!

Right. This doesn’t give us any more information. In fact, you could replace “Scrap Mechanic” with “Minecraft” and the description would still be valid. It turns out to be really hard to describe a game in a few sentences. But instead of describing the game by what’s in it, we can also explain what kind of game it is.

Genres and categorization

Well, this is not as easy as it sounds. There are a lot of games and, unlike traditional media like books and movies, games can be categorized on more than one aspect. A movie typically has a single genre, it is either a comedy, a documentary, an action movie or something else. The genre is based on the content of the movie.

Games however, are different. Game genres can describe anything from the platform that the game is available on, the visuals of the game, it’s contents, whether it’s a multiplayer game and so on.

New genres are invented on a regular basis and the boundaries between different genres are not always clear. Some games are combinations of different genres, while for other games people argue about whether it is a game at all. In short: game genres are not well defined, and it turns out to be very difficult to fix this.

It’s about experience

Both problems can be solved by looking at games in a different perspective. Instead of focusing on what the game is, you should focus on what experience the game generates.

This is where the vision statement comes in; the vision statement is a description of the game’s experience. The vision statement is relatively short compared to game design documents or other documentation of a game. While the vision statement is officially not a marketing instrument, it can be used as one.

A vision statement for Scrap Mechanic would be:

Be an engineer and build your own imagination; invent new machines no-one has ever even thought about together with your friends.

Note how this vision statement is a bit like the official description of Scrap Mechanic, however, it lacks some marketing terms (all-new) and descriptive terms (multiplayer, sandbox) and focuses on the experience.

Structuring the analysis

To aid with the analysis of the game’s experience you can use the MDA framework. It stands for Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics (aesthetics is something different than visuals or graphics in this context).

It lists different aspects that can be part of a game and by using the framework to describe, analyse and reason about a game it is easier to get the complete picture.

  1. Sensation
    “Game as sense-pleasure”
    Explosions, special effects, that feeling when you get while destroying enemy waves. This is all about sensation.

  2. Fantasy
    “Game as make-believe”
    Role-play, you’re in the role of your character. It doesn’t have to be realistic, as long as you feel a bit like you’re a goat while playing Goat Simulator.

  3. Narrative
    “Game as drama”
    An appealing story throughout the game, which engages you to complete objectives and care about the other characters in the game.

  4. Challenge
    “Game as obstacle course”
    The best known aesthetic: this is what generates difficulty. Some games are more challenging than others, and therefore this aspect is more important in some games than others.

  5. Fellowship
    “Game as social framework”
    Usually (parts of) games where you need to co-operate with other players. This may include a game community.

  6. Discovery
    “Game as uncharted territory”
    Exploration, vast terrains with countless new quests and objectives, which the player has to explore by himself.

  7. Expression
    “Game as self-discovery”
    Being creative is a must. This can be a large part of the game, as in Prison Architect, or just a small part, like designing your own in-game avatar.

  8. Submission
    “Game as pastime”
    Being “in the zone”. Extremely focused on playing a game. These games are usually quite difficult and frustrating when just starting out.

The MDA framework helped me a lot when trying to understand how games work, and why they are designed in certain ways. It gives structure to a world where creativity and playfulness are more important than academic research. I can tell you a lot more about game design, but that’s something for another post, as this post is already way too long ;).