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Useful Notes / Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics

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MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research is a paper published in 2004 by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek, which was one of the first, and most influential, attempts to formalize video game design in an academic way.

The paper can be read in its entirety here.

Threefold Model — MDA

The paper posits that while games (and Video Games in particular) are consumable goods like any other media format, the consumption of a particular game by the end user (the player) is inherently unpredictable to its producer (the developer). This is because, as the authors point out, video games, unlike other media, are interactive and therefore exist on three levels of abstraction, with the players and the designers approaching them from different ends:

  • Mechanics are the basic rules of the game, from gameplay abstractions to technical implementations like lighting and physics. This is the only level where the designer has full control over the contents.
  • Dynamics emerge from the player's interaction with the game's mechanics during play, bringing the first layer of unpredictability to it. See the Video Game Tactical Index for some common dynamics.
  • Aesthetics are the emotional responses that emerge from the player's participation in the game's dynamics, adding the second unpredictability layer. This is the level where the proverbial "fun" comes into being — or not.

One of the paper's key findings is that most of the time, the developers approach games from the mechanics end, while the players first perceive the aesthetics — read, whether the game is "fun". Therefore, to avoid mechanics that are not fun, the developers must look at their game from both ends, identifying first which aesthetics (kinds of fun) it should evoke, then which dynamics can facilitate them, and lastly, which mechanics are needed for this. This way, the MDA model serves as a lens to examine the game's components and identify ones that contribute to it being fun and ones that only bog it down.

Common Aesthetics

While the number of possible game mechanics and dynamics is nigh infinite, there are surprisingly few common aesthetics. The paper identifies nine of them, while admitting that this list is not exhaustive:

  1. Sensation ("game as sense pleasure") stimulates the player's senses in a memorable way, be it through visual effects, music, voice acting, scenery, art style, etc.
  2. Fantasy ("game as make-believe") lets the player experience being something or someone they can never become in Real Life — usually in an empowering and inspiring way.
  3. Narrative ("game as drama") tells stories of human drama that the players witness, rather than live through, commonly employing Interactive Storytelling Tropes.
  4. Challenge ("game as obstacle course") derives joy from overcoming arbitrary obstacles. Extreme difficulty may be a factor (that is, a dynamic) reinforcing this aesthetic but it's not a requirement.
  5. Fellowship ("game as social framework") brings multiple players to work as a group and achieve a common goal. This is the main appeal of team-based and Co-Op Multiplayer games.
  6. Discovery ("game as uncharted territory") incites the player with yet-undiscovered possibilities, ranging from exploring the game world to mixing basic game elements into unexpected combinations.
  7. Expression ("game as self-discovery") allows the player to leave a mark on the game world, from Character Customization to shaping the landscape, possibly learning something new about themselves in the process.
  8. Submission ("game as pastime")note  lets the player zone out and have a feeling of achievement without investing too much effort and emotions into it, playing as if on auto-pilot. Another way to look at it is that such games let their players safely transfer control (submit) to them for a while, facilitating a pleasant and relaxing play experience.
  9. Competition ("game as struggle for dominance")note  sets multiple players to compete for the number one spot in a particular discipline, either directly or indirectly (e.g. via ladder rank).

Most games pursue multiple common aesthetics at once, but the ones that achieve success typically focus on just one or two — these are known as their "core aesthetics". Video Game Genres, in this sense, are labels that unite games with the same core aesthetics and inform the players what kinds of fun to expect from a game in a particular genre.

Additional Reading

Additional Aesthetics

Ian Schreiber has linked LeBlanc's understanding of fun to Noah Falstein's contemporary theory of Natural Funativity, which claims that, as Schreiber summarizes it, "if a caveman found it useful, you'll find it fun". In other words, Falstein links the idea of playing for "fun" (entertainment) to the learning of skills that our paleolithic ancestors needed for survival and procreation, as well as to the Required Secondary Power of social co-existence, and classifies them into Physical Fun, Social Fun, and Mental Fun. Schreiber, in turn, breaks LeBlanc's individual aesthetics down according to which caveman skills they correspond to and proposes additional aesthetics that weren't in the original paper:

  • Collection is the "gathering" part of the "hunter-gatherer" lifestyle, so it's no wonder that collecting stuff for its own sake is so ubiquitous in games (it's more surprising in fact, that this aesthetic wasn't in the original MDA paper).
  • Advancementnote  is a kind of "meta-skill" that allows players to learn new skills, whether directly (as players) or abstractly, as the Player Character's Character Level and Skill Scores and Perks.
  • Spatial Reasoning is a form of fun derived from understanding and exploiting spatial relationships, which the cavemen could, for instance, use to construct new, more durable tools and weapons.
  • Finding Shortcuts is fun because it lets players address challenges in novel and effort-saving way, which obviously increased the caveman's survival chances.
  • Griefing is a particular subtype of the Competition aesthetic and of Social Fun, which comes from deliberately putting others down to establish one's dominance. While it isn't very nice, it would let a caveman show the others who is boss.

Furthermore, Schreiber relaxes the common notion that "games must be fun"note  to "games must facilitate meaningful experiences for players". So while fun/entertainment is an easy and well-explored way to create meaningful play, it is not a requirement, explaining the appeal of the so-called serious games. Schreiber is by far not the first to criticize that notion, e.g. Ian Bogost had famously rebuked it in his 2006 book Unit Operations.

Quantic Foundry's Gamer Motivation Model

Quantic Foundry has trawled through game studies literature, polled 300,000 gamers to conduct statistical analysis of their motivations for playing, and came up with a motivation model that maps surprisingly closely to LeBlanc's original aesthetics list:

  • Action is subdivided into Destruction and Excitement, both particularly popular subtypes of the Sensation aesthetic.
  • Social is subdivided into Competition and Community, which map neatly onto Competition and Fellowship aesthetics.
  • Mastery is subdivided into Challenge and Strategy, which is a more granular approach to the Challenge aesthetic.
  • Achievement is subdivided into Completion and Power, which don't actually appear in the original MDA article, but are listed by Schreiber as Collection and Advancement.
  • Immersion is subdivided into Fantasy and Story, which clearly map onto the Fantasy and Narrative aesthetics.
  • Creativity is subdivided into Design and Discovery, which map onto Expression and Discovery aesthetics.

Alternative Title(s): Mechanics Dynamics Aesthetics