Making Mechanics

On December 3, 2019 by christy

An exploration of some of the ways we can make mechanics, with some thoughts about their relationship with complicit design (upholding oppressive systems and destroying the planet).

Selection: Standardised Existing Mechanics

The most common approach to making mechanics is to select from existing mechanics used in other games. So, externally-sourced and validated mechanics. This is the way designers often start. But it wasn’t my path.

I came into games creation through pervasive games: games in the streets and using everyday technologies like email, websites, and documents. I saw patterns in how we were making these projects, and over time was able to contrast these patterns against existing ones from elsewhere. I did this for instance by adding ARG Social Mechanics to Staffan Björk and Jussi Holopainen’s Patterns in Game Design book (and wiki).

Indeed, drawing on existing mechanics helps us understand and work with games. Working with existing mechanics also has a big role in facilitating a satisfying relationship with your players. Part of the standardisation of game design involves the emergence of game genres that players find appealing, and the mechanics associated with those. The idea is we’re matching player expectation by adhering to the mechanics of the genre.  So, often we either begin with a game genre in mind, or figure out which one our project is matching one as we go. 

There are tons of articles and books to assist with sourcing mechanics (and finding the name for things you’re already doing), such as: summaries in every game design textbook, and specialty books like Ernest Adams and Joris Dormans’ Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design, Ernest Adams’ booklets on specific genres, Greg Trefry’s Casual Game Design, Richard Bartle’s Designing Virtual Worlds, Geoffrey Engelstein and Isaac Shalev’s Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms, Nordiclarp wiki, Christopher Allen & Shannon Appelcline’s Meeples Together: How and Why Cooperative Board Game Work, and more (tell me your favourites!).

This selection from existing mechanics often to align with a specific genre, and as I’ve said is the most common way games are made. It is a focus on making as a craft, where the designer is artefact-oriented. They’re making a thing, and so the reference point is mechanisms from other things. “Innovation” is not automatically facilitated with this approach, unless successful hybrids are created through what Arthur Koestler termed bisociation. And even if it does move into innovation, the designs are still upholding oppressive systems — they’re not thwarting complicit design. Why? Because the unthinking default of mechanics are complicit. So how can we make mechanics outside of the box?

Selection & Generation: Mechanics from Reference Actions

Another approach is to draw on reference materials to inspire mechanics. I find this approach to be big in tabletop design. If you’re making a tourism game for instance, you draw on what actions are common in tourism to make your game. You draw on the “reality” reference as Casper Harteveld describes it in his book Triadic Game Design . This is often what is considered “theme” in tabletop.

Unthinking reproduction of “reality” references can mean replicating the same power dynamics that do harm in the world, in your game. Indeed, the standard approach is to draw on other mainstream games and common understanding of the status quo real world, and not necessarily marginalised realities, and other artforms.

But the references do not need to be interactive, they can be other disciplines, too. As I’ve taught in my Extended Experiences and VR Writing Labs, you can find lots of mechanics within non-interactive works. For instance, when I binge of a TV show I love, I often find there are repeated actions that I now associate with the work. With Sopranos I made an (unpublished) tabletop game that involved clinking glasses of scotch over ice, and passing envelopes of money to each other under the table. For Suits, it was the passing of legal folders to each other. For a VR documentary I recently co-wrote, a few of the witness testimonials mentioned a secret door knock and so that became a key mechanic for the work. Actions are everywhere to draw on.

Selection: Theme, Experience Informing Existing Mechanics Choices 

Some designers make choices about their mechanics not just through the filter of genre, or by reference materials, but also theme. Unlike the way theme is discussed in tabletop, I am referring to the concept used in writing: theme as overarching idea, message, the heart of the story. So the choices of the mechanics are informed by what your project is about.

For instance, my spider and fly game is about friendship, about partners. I won’t go into the specifics of my theme statement right now (it keeps changing), but the idea of friendship is informing my choices. I’m drawing on multiplayer, cooperative mechanics therefore. For a live game I made a few years ago, Bakers of Anarchy, I wanted to give the players the experience of being anarchic in the face of reality TV rules. So I drew on mechanics that supported this such as hidden agenda, asymmetrical information, and group rewards. One of the card games I’m playtesting now, DIYSPY, aims to facilitate the experience of ingenuity, of feeling ingenious.

Standard videogame processes involve thinking what the experience of the project is (fun!). But thinking about what you’re saying with your game is not. And so when a theme is employed, it is often an existing theme that is vague and impersonal (example: good triumphs over evil). As I mentioned in a previous post, we’re seeing development with approaches like Values at Play, and I find designing with messages stronger with indie indie designers. Being aware and responsible of what you say things with your creative projects is part of the process of moving away from complicity.

Generation: Mechanics from Personal Actions

You can also generate mechanics by drawing on your own experiences, your own actions. This is distinct to the drawing on actions from reference materials because the practice of drawing on yourself is not standard in videogame and tabletop development. Complicit design is connected to the lack of the personal. I have found that designers who avoid drawing on themselves in the construction of narrative and interaction systems have internalised status quo beliefs about the world. Given, some have learned they need to create “personal stories” to draw in the empathic crowd. So the subject matter does come from their lives in bits, but the mechanics and structures used to design them will be from existing ones or generated by other people on the team. They avoid the self-awareness needed to do this kind of generative activity. Anything that is drawn on will be invoked to elicit empathy, and perhaps even fear; anything but vulnerability. A way out of invoking the personal too, is to claim that they aren’t real mechanics. Real mechanics are real because they maintain no connection to self and others.

So how do you draw on the personal for mechanics? A big part of the process of making meaningful mechanics is making mechanics that are meaningful to you. I do exercises that draw on memories of related events and see what I can observe as actions there. I brainstorm associations I have. And as I’ve done in my workshops, I encourage diverse brainstorming by having everyone individually write their personal memories to offer to a designer. I find it is easier to write memories from concepts and then find the actions, rather than brainstorm actions straight away. For instance, brainstorming memories of missing a loved one and discussing the actions mentioned in the personal story or actions inspired by the story. Understanding we all have unique stories, and recognising them, helps move us away from complicit design.

Generation: Concepts Incarnated as Mechanics

Sometimes you can draw on concepts and figure out how they can be incarnated as mechanics, as actions. For instance, a couple of years ago I consulted on a VR documentary project looking at their narrative design. There was a story, but the actions weren’t connected to the meaning. I spent time with the testimonies of those involved in the actual events of the story, and the directors. I saw an emerging theme that could be transposed to mechanical form: “holding on, and letting go”.  From that, I was able to come up with a gesture that could be repeated throughout the piece: holding on and letting go of your doll (which was pertinent to the story).

To help develop these skills, a brief I used to give my studio game designers was to design a game around the experience of trust. They had to research what trust is and then transpose that to mechanics. And it wasn’t about the experience of distrust or betrayal of trust either, they are standard game mechanics.

One thing I have found over the years too, is that if we’re ever lost about just what a concept is…if our outside knowledge is failing us…then drawing on the personal helps. For instance, if your team is doing a project about greed, and no-one seems to think of personal stories, then try approaching it via personal emotion. So I ask: what does greed/X feel like when you experience it? That often opens up personal truths.

Screenshot from “The Thin Black Line”

Generation & Selection: Ideology Incarnated as Mechanics

You can take it further and select and generate mechanics according your ideology. For instance, you may believe in a certain about of chaos in the world, and so you may look to “Uncertainty Mechanisms” (such as those listed in Geoffrey Engelstein and Isaac Shalev’s Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms), and research Greg Costikyan’s Uncertainty in Games.

In my projects, I’ve been experimenting with (among other things) progression mechanics that are not externally-measured. Because I believe this is a crucial system that needs to be normalised in the world. Seeing your mechanics and your processes as something that can be redesigned according to your way of seeing the world is not standard game design practice. It needs to be though, and so that is what I’m focusing on with my redesigning of game design practices.

Commissioned illustration by Marigold (Goldie) Bartlett.

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