Dialogue: The Mechanics of Language
Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 11:17PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Mechanics

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 dictionary.com 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. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
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