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Dialogue: The Mechanics of Language

Scene: KirbyKid stumbles across a podcast recording session at a gaming conference. The podcasting group consists of an avid gamer, a host that writes reviews for a popular website, and a game designer from a AAA game. KirbyKid listens in on their conversation from a distance. KirbyKid is joined by a passerby.

Passerby: I wonder if that game those guys are talking about really does have innovative mechanics.

KirbyKid: Innovative whats?

Passerby: Innovative mechanics? You know, the working parts in a video game.

KirbyKid: Oh.

Passerby: I read, play, and talk about video games a lot. But I guess everyone around here does the same. I'm actually thinking about pursuing a career in the video game industry. 

KirbyKid: Good luck. Feel free to contact me any time for a gaming related conversation. 

KirbyKid hands the Passerby a business card. 8-bit Mario and Donkey rest at the bottom. 

Passerby: Cool. My name is Justin A. Gaime. Let me know if you have any questions for me.

KirbyKid: Actually, I'm curious. How do you define a game mechanic again?

Justin: It's any working part of a video game. I can see you're a Nintendo fan. So, I'll provide some examples from Super Mario Brothers. When players make Mario jump, a Goomba falling into a hole, or when coins are put in a risky area are all mechanics. 

KirbyKid: I really appreciate that you bothered to present specific examples, and picking Super Mario is icing on the cake. However, Justin, that's a terrible definition of "mechanic."

Justin: Why is it terrible? It's not like there's a dictionary of gaming terms anywhere. 

KirbyKid: Actually, there are free game design glossaries out there. And a google search isn't the worst way to go. Still just because you find a definition on the internet doesn't mean it's well defined. I do recommend reading this article if you want a great definition.

KirbyKid shows Justin the article "Defining Game Mechanics" by Miguel Sicart on his phone.

Justin: Whoa! That's way too much reading. I don't think I'd be able to get past the first few paragraphs without falling asleep.

KirbyKid: Really? That's too bad. I love this kind of stuff. No matter. I can explain why your definition is terrible in much simpler terms, but we'll need to work through some clear logic. 

Justin: Alright, explain away. 

KirbyKid: I'll start with this claim; video games are complicated. There are many different elements, rules, sounds, graphical elements, features, and lines of code that all work together to make a typical video game "work." Because each element or part can work in a different way, we need different terms for each. Without specific terms we couldn't talk about one thing at a time. Everything would be ambiguous, vague, or convoluted. 

Justin: I can see that. I remember reading some of the formulas for Pokemon battling that involved Pokemon types, attacks, stats, and some math operations to bind it all together. Each step in the formula referred to a individual variable in the game. Without the specifics, no one would be able to figure these things out or talk about them.

KirbyKid: Right. So basically, by your definition, a mechanic can be anything that helps a game "work." And it can be any individual part or a group of parts. Do you see why your definition won't do anything for us?

Justin: You're going to have to help me out here.

KirbyKid: No problem. You've basically created or coined a new term can be as general as possible. Assuming everything in a game makes it "work," your definition applies to everything form attacks to gameplay features to level design. And the worst part is, we already have terms that fulfill this role. We can say "element" or "feature" to refer to any part, individual or group, of a video game. We can even use the word "part." 

Justin: So what should the term "mechanic" specifically refer to?

KirbyKid: Well, I think we already have lots of terms to describe non interactive video game elements if we borrow from the lexicon of other mediums. So we need "mechanic" to specifically refer to the feature that makes video games unique.

Justin: Interactivity, right?

KirbyKid: Yup.

Justin: But don't we already have the words "verbs" or "moves" to describe video game interactions?

KirbyKid: Yes and no. So just using a common sense of the word "verb" you might think that it can refer to all video game actions and reactions, which is a broad category. For example, Mario can shoot fire balls. That's a verb. The fire balls can bounce or burn Koopa. That's two more verbs. And a squashed Goomba can cause another walking enemy to reverse direction. That's one more verb. If you think about it, there can be a verb to describe every possible action in a video game. Some of these are player activated, others are just the way different elements interact.

Justin: Ok. I think that's how most people think of "verbs." But what about "moves" like attacking moves in a fighting game.

KirbyKid: "Moves" can easily refer to the set of verbs available to the player. But these same moves or options can also be used by computer controlled characters in some games. In the single player of a fighting game, both the player and the computer can use the same moves. Still, "moves" can have the same problem as "verbs." People often group multiple actions together to describe a single move. A wavedash in Smash Brothers or a FADC in Street Fighter 4 are moves or techniques that are a string of multiple actions. We need a term that only talks about one player action at a time.

Justin: So verbs refer to any interaction. And moves refers to character actions. The language is getting more and more specific until we get to...

KirbyKid: Mechanics are the player initiated actions from controller inputs as designated by the game designers. These actions have effects on the gamestate in terms of the variables and dynaimcs of the gameplay system. Some hold that even computer AI can use mechanics. This is a complicated issue. So let's just focus on mechancis as player mechanics. 

Justin: Wow. That sounds like an awfully complicated definition for something that can be summed up as player actions.

KirbyKid: Yes. Formal definitions can seem a bit stuffy. However, it's all necessary to keep mute, pause, adjusting menu settings, unplugging an opponent's controller, and messing with the internet router from being mechanics. After all, these can be considered "player actions" whether you think they're cheating or not. Mute, turning the volume down, can make a game harder to play by taking away audio tells. But mute isn't recognized by most games as a variable that gets you any closer or farther away from the goal in any measurable way. The game world isn't programmed to respond to you not being able to hear it. Likewise, pausing can make a challenge easier or harder, but for most games it merely suspends all interactivity. After unpausing, the game resumes as if nothing happened. 

Justin: I think I'm getting it now. So navigating menus in an RPG or adjusting the Y-axis of a FPS to be inverted are not mechanics because there are no effects that change the gamestate. They may affect player mechanics in one way or another, but the gap still separates them from being mechanics.

KirbyKid: Right. And I think it's necessary to restrict what we consider player actions to the inputs or lack of inputs to a single controller set. Otherwise pulling out your opponent's controller would technically be a mechanic.

Justin: Who would do something like that?

KirbyKid: My friends. It's really a hilariously effective strategy in casual settings. Furthermore, my definition of mechanic prevents pushing the buttons on your internet router to give you and advantage in an online multiplayer match from being a mechanic as well.

Justin: I see. When you explain it using all of those examples everything is clear. But why the word mechanic? Why not just pick a different word for the term?

KirbyKid: I think the average person can intuitively make the bridge between the common definition of mechanic and the game design term. What do you think of when you hear the word "mechanic" outside of a video game context?

Justin: Some man or woman who works on my car with their equipment to make my car work. 

KirbyKid: Precisely. This is how on my phone defines it. "a worker who is skilled in the use of tools, machines, equipment, etc." Putting your version together with this definition, a mechanic can be thought of a player (worker) who skillfully uses the available actions (tools) to work on/within a video game system (car). I think it's important that we naturally think of humans and their tools when we think of mechanics. So, there probably isn't a better word for a person who uses gameplay actions to make a video game work.

Justin: I see what you're saying. A video game is just some plastic, wires, and code. Without the player interacting in the system, most likely to achieve a goal, it's not really a video game. And if play actions are the only way for us to reach the goals, then it all fits.

KirbyKid: So, everything is clear? Now you know why you should use this very specific definition of mechanic rather than the "anything goes" version?

Justin: Yes, yes. You've convinced me. Not to be rude, but why should I even worry about being specific or using the same terms.

KirbyKid: It's not necessary of course. You can get by without knowing or using specific terms to talk about video games especially if you communicate very clearly and thoroughly. However, if you don't use specific language, chances are you won't actually be saying anything meaningful. 

Justin: Hold on there! I was with you up until you basically insulted me.

KirbyKid: Take no offense. But haven't we already gone through this?

Justin: I don't follow. 

KirbyKid: You explained to me what you thought "mechanic" meant at the beginning of our conversation. And frankly, you didn't do so well. Your definition was too general and vague.

Justin: So what if it was a little vague. You put me on the spot. And besides, it's not like we learned these terms in school or anything. I picked up all of my terms...

KirbyKid: From listening to podcasts and from other internet video game writing, huh? 

Justin: ...

KirbyKid: Here's the deal. Language is no joke. It's deeply engrained in how we think, learn, and reason. Often times, we can fool ourselves into thinking we understand something. But until we articulate it clearly in words, there's a really good chance we don't fully understand the topic at all.

Justin: Ah. I recall a quote from William Faulkner. "I never know what I think about something until I read what I've written on it."

KirbyKid: Indeed. Specific language has the power to clarify our statements and our thoughts. Vague, general language does the opposite. You'll find the way most respond to a general statement is with even more general statements. And many respond to specific statements with more specifics. 

Justin: And this only happens in game design conversations?

KirbyKid: It happens in all types of conversations. 

Justin: Wow. So I take it you use specific terms for everything.

KirbyKid: I do. Or at least, I try to be as clear and specific as possible. When writing about game design, if I feel like there isn't precise enough terms or a detailed enough framework to convey what I'm thinking, then I make it up. 

One of the podcasters says something about how the level of a platforming game has a neat mechanic that triggers if the player beats the level under a certain time.

Justin: Uggg. It just doesn't sound right to hear them say "mechanic." 

KirbyKid: Welcome to my world. 

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Reader Comments (13)

This article does a good job of explaining your thoughts about using language effectively and defining terms precisely (mostly stuff I've picked up from reading your archives, but this does seem to be a central idea of this blog). I totally agree with your conclusion here.

But, the format here. It's not the most pleasant to read. You're good at explicating your ideas in an interesting and follow-able way. You don't need to demean your writing with an "audience plant" setup, asking leading questions and saying "oh, now I see!". It's kind of distracting at best, and feels condescending at worst. The problem with anything like this the flat unrealism of the 'perfect listener', who starts out with unsubtle ignorance but then instantly follows along with your train of thought. It seems to tell the audience that this is who you expect us to be, which can cause me the actual reader to disconnect.

The most satisfying ideas tend to read as a clip from the thought processes of the author him/herself. When you're trying to patiently explain your rock-solid theories to the audience ("this is what is true, this is why, this is why you should care"), they either believe you or not. When you go through the less certain thought process that led you to those theories, missteps and dead ends and all, it encourages the audience to think about the same things you did.

A more concise comment could have been, "Like your ideas as usual, but in this case the presentation gimmicks hurt more than they help."

April 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephenM3


You explained your thoughts very well. I'm glad you said something.

I felt like trying something new after reading a book on philosophy in the dialogue format.

Half way through writing this article I was debating just scrapping the style and just doing it straight like I normally do. I sort of felt like the format was doing more harm than I wanted. Ideally, I imagine doing this dialouge style like the podcast Radiolab, where there are engaging sounds, interviews, and examples. Even though the hosts of this podcast show know everything, they play dumb sometimes just for clarity.

I was going to name both parts of this dialogue Kirbykid 1 and KirbyKid 2. I do love debating. And sometimes the only person that listen and respond to my arguments is me. So I settled with the character Justin A Gaime.

I think your "vote" will be the only one turned in. So... no more dialogues. I'll go back to what I've been doing.


Good article. I'd like even more precision, though, and different terminology for analyzing different types of games.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteraj

@ aj

Well you're in the right place. This article is just the beginning of the discussion.
I assume you're new here, so I recommend the Critical-Glossary for more terms...

And this page for the meaty articles arranged in topic order...

I'd have posted this on "the post on primary mechanic", but I fail to find it, if any. Playing Rayman 1 and Shantae recently opened my eyes on the fact that not all platformers use "JUMP" as the primary mechanic, and that it's actually quite the signature of a Mario game.

On the two games mentioned above, the attack move seems to be the primary mechanic, but I find it hard to apply it to games such as Commander Keen. It looks like some designers just decided to balance the various mechanics they offer to the player so that there isn't *one* action that is the core of the gameplay. In the case of Keen, if I was to pick one keyword to describe the game, that would be "explore", but that's definitely not a mechanic.

I'm curious to know how you consider this example, if you happen to have played the Commander Keen series.


March 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPypeBros

@ PypeBros

If a game's primary mechanic isn't JUMP or a mechanic that manipulates/fights against gravity, then it probably isn't a platformer. It's probably an action game that uses some platforming mechaincs/challenges/elements.

I think I've played Rayman 1 on GBA and I've played the new Shauntae on DSiware. I know that Shauntae has a lot of combat and some puzzles which puts the whole game into the action-adventure category.

I haven't played commander keen, but the youtube video makes it look like it has plenty of exploring, collecting, maybe some puzzle solving, combat, and some platforming. So it wouldn't be a platformer.

I hope that helps. Genres are tricky.

Thanks for your reply, Richard. That's one pretty short way to define "platforming genre" as soon as you have a solid definition of "primary mechanics", I must admit. That wouldn't have been my out-of-the-box definition, but it makes sense (and I'm far from being an authority on the subject :)

Thinking more about shantae, it would indeed be an action game with some platforming sequences (where ennemies may be altogether missing and JUMP becomes the button that *must*not*fail*.

It's pretty hard to do the same with the first Rayman. PUNCH may require JUMP to modulate it (a la megaman) and compensate the blind spots, and there is a mixture of platforming and action elements more than a real alternance. As if mechanics were here like abilities of an RPG characters, where some balance is ultimately required. So JUMP isn't what's put as the character-defining move, few power-up / secondary mechanics modulate the way Rayman jumps, except the FLOAT (?) mechanic, using his haircopter.

If I may refer to this picture on my recent post, would you say that the amount of interactions triggered by one mechanic is irrelevant (or not as relevant as I think) in defining it the primary or secondary mechanic ?

Do you think that makes sense to consider that, in some game, the boundary between primary and secondary mechanic may be fuzzy to the point that we have two ex-aequo primary mechanics (as JUMP/PUNCH would be for rayman) ? Or do you rather think I'm looking things at a sub-optimal angle that blurs *my* vision ?

(I'll dig some posts of you about the megaman series ... That may already provide some answers to all these questions).

March 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPypeBros

@ PypeBros

You're getting at some of the trickiest parts of talking about video game genre. I was planning to write a post about genre but that's a long way off at this point. So I'll discuss the issue here.

1) A Primary Function is what type of action you do most in the game to win or beat the game. Often enough, the thing you do most in a game is a combination of various actions. This is why the genre of "action" is pretty wide spread. If a game has some platforming, some shooting, and some racing, we generally say that the primary function is action (like an action movie).

2) Primary Mechanics are mechanics that are required to beat the game or beat a level (if you're talking about a specific level or group of levels). Talking about primary mechanics is helpful to focus in on the "skill floor" or the set of mechanics and their required use to simply win.

3) Secondary mechanics are any mechanics that are not primary and therefore optional.

So while some examples are clear like Mario and Shauntae, other's are not as clear like Raymand. The truth is, there is no exact way to categorize a genre. In some ways the amount of interactions using primary mechanics. Sometimes we pick genre based on theme and feel rather than function. Sometimes there's a lot of fuzzy overlap. Genres are categories that are supposed to help us understand what the game is, but some games are simply a bunch of elements.

Looking at the required challenges of a game to determine the genre is a great way to go. But this method doesn't cover everything. Between the skill floor and the skill ceiling could be many different types of gameplay experiences that stress different mechanics.

To sum up, while we can accurately label what is a primary and secondary, mechanic, picking the genre of a game can be much more complicated.

Thanks. I'll meditate that.

March 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPypeBros

Meditation output: it sounds like I had so far inferred that the "primary" mechanic was by definition a singleton -- likely not being a native speaker have misled me there.

You clearly have mentioned "primary mechanic*s*", so it means your definition is happy with the fact that a small set of mechanics are equally "core-important", right ?

I suppose you thus consider that both JUMP and SHOOT are primary mechanics of Mega Man (oh, and WALK as well, I guess, although it's so natural that it might belong to something like disappeared mechanics, which the player is barely aware of, as they are ubiquitous)

March 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPypeBros

@ PypeBros

To answer your question, Yes. But since a primary mechanic is defined as a mechanic that is mandatory for advancements/progression through a game or a particular level/challenge, the primary mechanics can be 100% of a game's mechanics. It's not necessarily a small set.

Yes, in MegaMan JUMP and SHOOT and MOVE are all primary because you must do these things in order to beat any level.

In Ikaruga MOVE and SWITCH (polarity) are primary, but surprisingly SHOOT is secondary. You don't have to shoot a single bullet to beat the game.

Good job meditating.

Interestingly, Michael Cook has ended up with the same definition for "mechanic" in his game designer AI project ANGELINA:

April 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteraxcho


Neat article.

Actually, I think Michael Cook's definition is broader than mine. I wouldn't say that eating a power pellet in Pac-man is a mechanic. The power pellet is a power up, and touching this powerup does change the properties of gameplay elements at play. However, the player doesn't have an EAT action. The player only MOVES in pac-man. MOVE is the only mechanic. Everything else are resulting actions or properties of the enemy/player/level elements that already exist.

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