Friday, June 06, 2014

Can we define "Game mechanic?" Not really.

Gary at is looking for a hard-and-fast, absolutely precise definition of "game mechanic".

In his discussion he mentioned my entry in the glossary of my book "Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish", which was too fuzzy for him.  I'm going to quote the glassary entry:

    Mechanism or mechanic-- game rules (or game programming for video games) generally describe methods by which the game moves forward, and these methods are the mechanics of the game.  For example, rolling two dice and moving your token the sum of the roll around the board is a game mechanic (Monopoly).  Moving one piece on an 8 x 8 square board according to the movement capability of the piece is a mechanic in chess.  In video games mechanics result in challenges that players take actions (such as moving a joystick or pressing a button) to overcome.

Gary says  [The ellipses are his, by the way, not an indication that I left something out.]:
    '. . . it's a fine definition. As you might guess... I'm still not satisfied. Pulsipher's definition is much like Wikipedia's. "game rules..." "methods..." and "for example..." Why am I not satisfied? Well, I guess these only seem to hit at the surface. Again referencing rules and listing examples.'

I don't think of glossary entries as definitions so much as descriptions.  I try to avoid definitions, because given the fundamental ambiguity of language, especially of English because it incorporates so many additions from other languages, ANY definition of any complexity is likely to be fuzzy to some.

The reason I prefer descriptions to definitions is that, at some low level, all you can do in a definition is substitute another word (that then is subject to the same problems) - for example "method" for "mechanic" (which is what I did). A dictionary typically does this a lot, but there's no way around it, the hope is that the substitute word will satisfy.

Carl Klutzke, in a comment to the discussion, cleverly noted:
"Recursion: noun. See recursion."

Curious about the actual definition of recursion, I actually found one that used the word "recursive" in the definition; using a form of the word to define the word is a real no-no in my view.

It reminded me of 50 years ago, when my family had a multi-volume encyclopedia in which Hurricane just said "See Tornado", and Tornado just said "See Hurricane".  Or at least, that's how I remember it.  :-)

Some concepts in any field, such as game design, may also not be susceptible to definition.  This puts me in mind of the premises that are fundamental to mathematical proofs (such as, the shortest distance between two points is a line, and parallel lines never meet) that cannot be proved though they can be defined.  I suspect "game mechanic" is something that cannot be perfectly defined but can be a useful notion.

In the end, if (most) everyone agrees that something is a mechanic, it is.  Perhaps that's why "definitions" of mechanic use examples (as I did in my description).  I confess, I was more interested in helping those who didn't know what a game mechanic was, than in trying to actually define the term.

It's like trying to define "game".  Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen in their book "Rules of Play" spent 80 pages trying to define "game", and then found that puzzles and RPGs had not been accounted for.  The effort of defining game can lead to new insights, but no definition is going to be ironclad and satisfy most people.

I recall the big hoorah in some places (such as Fortress:AT) when I discussed in this blog what the word "elegant" means in games, without offering an explicit definition (IIRC). .  The word meant very different things to different people.

It's actually more important to differentiate "mechanic", "rule", and "description" than to rigorously define any one of them.  See

Almost all definitions are fuzzy.  In this wise, my glossary entry is sufficient for most, I think, though it leaves room for "edge cases".

I'm giving four free seminars at GenCon (all 1 hour):
SEM1453968  Introduction to Design of (Strategic) Wargames Thursday  3:00 PM 
SEM1453969  How to Write Clear Rules  Friday 11:00 AM
SEM1453970  Multi-Sided Conflict Game Design  Saturday 11:00 AM
SEM1453476  Of Course You Can Design a Game, But Can You Design a Good One? Sunday  9:00 AM


Gary Dickson said...

Lewis — I saw your blog post here addressing my blog post and was a little concerned. To be clear, I was not trying to put you or your work down. I was expressing concern about being able to clearly identify the concept of a “game mechanic” for my own work. I agree in many ways with your line of reasoning. But, I believe that definitions can be important in research. While listing or describing examples of a thing is often crucial to communicating an idea, I don’t believe it can wholly replace the use of a definition.

One persons definition of a thing will rarely align perfectly with someone else's and I am completely fine with that. In my opinion a definition need not be universally excepted, nor does it need to be razor sharp in it’s accuracy. A personal “working definition” as what I am really hoping for. I believe this will allow me to better stay focused and on topic. If in the process of research I find someone else's definition that satisfies I will quite happily adopt it.

In the research that I am pursuing many of the people who will be reading, listening to or studying my work will be non-gamer, non-designer academics. Some of them, in order to better understand the ideas that I will try to discuss may need a form of definition for “game mechanic.” Even if this turns out to not be the case, I feel that creating for myself a working definition will be extremely useful. And even if that definition evolves over time I believe that I will be much more likely to remain focused and productive.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

I know you didn't, Gary, sorry if I gave that impression.

What do we do in game rules when we're not sure people will understand? We include an example. Including examples is especially important for readers who aren't hobby gamers. So if you're going to define "game mechanic", especially for those not so familiar with games, won't it be wise to include examples?

Look at the comments on this blog as posted on BGDF if you want an example of definition gone wrong:

As I said on your blog, Good Luck with this.

anarchist said...

My definition would be something like:

An element of the procedures for playing a game (as opposed to the 'flavor' or theme of the game) which can be discussed as a single unit.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

That's certainly an elemental definition. Procedures might be a good substitute for "mechanics". But I'm not sure it clarifies anything to someone who doesn't really know what a game mechanic is.

I think examples are unavoidable.