Taking sides

With apologies to Rod Humble and Charles Joseph, I’m believing differently.  Mechanics have meaning because of their flavor, not in spite of it.  Much the same as in mathematics or the sciences, your tests and data only mean something when put in context of a hypothesis.  The stock market only matters because it’s tied to company well-being.

This doesn’t mean mechanics shouldn’t represent their flavor well.  Clearly, the stock market wouldn’t be useful if it utilized the U.S. terror color chart, or even a company leaderboard.  In fact, and maybe more importantly, this goes both ways.  Mechanics provide meaning to flavor just as flavor provides meaning to mechanics.

Is finding the connection between the two where game design stops being a science and becomes an art?

5 thoughts on “Taking sides

  1. Hi Dan, I actually don’t think you and I disagree. The thrust of my argument was that mechanics do not have any inherent meaning and are, like you say, similar to mathematics and the sciences in that meaning is layered on top of them by the context in which they’re perceived. In most video games, this context is provided by the visuals. This is in fact the reason that I deeply disagree with folks like Rod Humble and Jason Rohrer.

  2. Hey Charles! Good to hear from you, I’m a fan of your site. I went back and re-read your PoV, and I think I’m somewhere in the middle. I do think, for example, that Kanta Matsuhisa’s Every Extend does have inherent meaning in its mechanics. In fact, I’ll bet you could play the entire game of Starcraft in ASCII with Xs and Os and get the important gist of what the game is about. But I agree with your point that it’s not necessarily the author’s intentional meaning. A player could decide Starcraft is about modern warfare, for example, with the Zerg being a guerrilla army.

    But, in fact, I have a feeling that all sides here are closer then it appears. People naturally ascribe meaning to their surroundings, right, so when a designer declines to do it for them, or does it an incoherent way, the mind will make up the difference. That’s why I applaud Humble and Rohrer so heavily, because (1) the scientist in me always likes to see new data and (2) mechanics naturally lend themselves to some flavor better then others, and it’s important for a designer to know scientifically how the mechanics are shaping the mind. If an object steps on other objects and those objects disappear, it’s likely people will think it’s aggressive. That is what I meant by the “flavor” of the mechanic. But there is still a lot of room for the brain to interpret in there, and most games have hundreds of mechanics, so authorial flavor takes on a new importance.

    This reminds me of an interesting story. When I interviewed at both Blizzard North and Blizzard South, I asked them what department they felt drove the company. They asked me what I thought, and I told them I thought they were design driven. They were surprised, and said they thought they were an art driven company. Concept art was really important to how they developed ideas. The flavor came first, and then they made mechanics for it. But I’ve been watching Starcraft 2, and saw how the Baneling was developed in response to a specific mechanical need – a Zerg suicide ground unit – before the flavor was developed. Reminders that in practice game development ultimately goes both ways.

  3. It’s an interesting problem. There’s no doubt that all mechanics can be interpreted, such as your example of the large object ‘disappearing’ the other objects, but I think that it’s a mistake to make the extra step to saying that mechanics have inherent meaning. There’s also the obvious fact that after so many years of video game design certain mechanics have developed a ‘conventional’ meaning. While I definitely admire the artgame project of Humble and Rohrer, my feeling is that they often confuse interpreted meaning and conventional meaning for inherent meaning.

    For instance, I really love Passage because it uses the conventional meanings of so many classic video game tropes, most of all the Zelda-like perspective and controls, and casts them in a whole new light through the other bits of context in the game. What I find lacking in a lot of Rohrer’s new work are these kinds of endogenous references,

    Anyway, sorry to go on so long. Thanks for dropping by the site and I’m definitely going to keep an eye on what you’re working on here!

  4. Great comments. I think this points out where we disagree, but agree it’s all recognition of nuance. I recognize that the meaning of these mechanics is likely to be all cultural, social, or historical, but I don’t think that deprives the meaning of any value, from a developer point of view. In fact, I’d say it strengthens it. But, it does mean put the onus on the author to be aware of the various “inherent” cultural interpretations when using a mechanic. Which is why I think I get so excited by people exploring what those meanings are – even if those meanings are in meta-game rather then endogenous. I need to know them!

  5. Pingback: Meaning: Mathematics of « Game of Design

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