I was at a fabulous board game party last weekend. Modern European-style board games are very interesting, Race for the Galaxy, Carcassonne, Hey That’s My Fish, etc., because their rule sets have well-defined explicit numbers. Like game last around X turns, winners usually have X points, so to win, all you need to do is earn around X points every turn. These game mechanics form a mathematics, a communicative language of goals that goes beyond the rules themselves, whose analysis forms hypothesises of the dynamics. Dynamics are normally notoriously difficult to comprehend. But just as much of mathematics is derived from a few axioms, from which all proofs spread, the mathematics of these board games allows analysis of the dynamics. And these dynamics are fascinating. Hey That’s My Fish, one of the simplest games ever constructed, has a depth that likely takes years to master. And just adding one new mechanic, such as scoring with 2 teams of 2, adds a new dynamic that is simultaneously collaborative and loud, where no such dynamic existed before. It was comparably trivial to imagine, create, and playtest such a desired dynamic, studying the impact on such a minimal set. Such breadth in basics creates a testbed for ideas, giving designers tremendous power and flexibility.
Clearer and clearer every GDC, I see the next leap in game design – the next 5 years – as the exploration of aesthetic meaning. We are establishing a science, and the principles of that science. Game mechanics are almost a distraction. This isn’t a question of game balance or even game construction specifically. Meaning mathematics works on a different plane: social, story, emotion. Craftsmanship and the comparison of results (youtube, leaderboards, achievements). Fiction and setting and narrative. Little Big Planet levels, Starcraft television, Street Fighter tournaments, and Warthog Jumps. Concerts and Prius mileage. Through the 3 levels of designer-player communication (forced, implied, authored, or cutscenes, forensics, and expressive/creative). Experience. Flow, tension, difficulty. Sensation, discovery, and fellowship. Excitment, amusement, and bliss.
Our understanding of how all these things interact is startlingly new, startlingly unique. Dancing from experiment to experiment around the possible, learning through doing, we are tapping into the forces of the psyche in a direct way that is almost unheard of. Movies and stories take hours to create meaning, we create a (potentially) different kind of meaning in minutes. A kind of meaning that gets people talking, brings them closer together, gets them to think, remember, and makes them happy. This abstract communication from designer to system to player gets called art, but it’s much more then that. It’s a dotted line into who we are, an explorative theater we can simultaneously share. There’s something special about wordlessly exploring a game together. Discussing it afterwords. Meaning construction is reflecting a mental map back to us of who we are, in rules-based form.
It’s easy to forget what MDA really means. Admidst all the theory and acronyms, what’s possible. It was a weekend of finding mathematics, and strangers delighting in the dynamics that the mathematics created. Just through the act of play friendships and understandings were formed. Example and concrete proof of what dynamics are possible, where we can go. Scientifically establishing the outlines of how we can mean.