Mechanics are the Message
Game Designers: Let’s think about the lessons we teach with our game systems.
I recently watched Anita Sarkeesian’s fourth video in the “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” series, entitled “Ms. Male Character“. As usual I found her analysis quite striking and well-researched. The tropes we use, the stories we tell, the worlds we build — as game designers we have an influence on the society we live in. It’s very important for us to challenge the status quo and think about what games we create and what messages they send out.
There was one thing though that I found lacking in her video. While Anita talked about characters, about plots and about story devices she never took a good look at the one feature that differentiates games from books,comics and movies — gameplay. Interactivity is at the core of our medium and what we do in games is even more convincing than what we see or what we hear. From my perspective the audio-visual influence games have on us as players is nearly negligible when compared to the persuasive power of the game systems we internalize over time.
As I’ve come to realize over time, games have the ability to teach us about the world. In fact they cannot not teach us — even if they tried. Behind every successful game lies a system that someone designed. And this system talks to us when we play. It talks about the world this game has been created in. It talks about what its designers think about this world. And it talks to us about how they expect us to behave in it.
Over the last days I’ve looked at the games that influenced me a lot in my youth and reflected on the ones that I’ve most recently enjoyed. I distilled the essential message of their gameplay systems to a few lines. Then I contrasted these with some of the most commercially successful titles of the last years. Here’s the result:
My (recent) favorites and what they taught me.
Electronic Super Joy: “Life can be hard and unfair. And sometimes you think you can’t take it anymore. But if you take a break and come back later you’ll find a way to get around all obstacles.”
Shadowbane: “Don’t cry when someone stronger takes away your stuff. Prepare yourself and be more watchful next time.” & “No one is an island. In a great team you can beat even the worst odds.”
Towerfall (Trials): “You can always be better. Practice makes all the difference. What looked impossible yesterday is quite possible today.”
Brothers — A Tale of Two Sons:“Good Teamwork is complicated but together you can move mountains.” & “You might think you can’t make it on your own but in the end you will find summon the strength to overcome your fears.”
Demon’s Souls: “Always have your guard up. When you are prepared for surprises you will make it even through the harshest of worlds.”
The Money-Makers and what they tell me.
Call of Duty (any): “The world revolves around you and will accommodate to your skills so you can have a pleasant experience.”
Clash of Clans: “You can’t really lose anything substantial because we’re out there to protect you from the world.” & “If you pay for it you can be way better than your friends.”
Bioshock Infinite: “Turn off your brain, break every barrel and shoot every bad guy so you can sit back again and listen to us tell you a soothing bedtime story.”
Candy Crush Saga: “Don’t bother thinking about tactics & sustainability — just gamble on that one big lucky break that solves all your problems in one move.”
GTA III to V: “The world is your oyster. Do whatever you want, there are no consequences because you are a god.”
As you can see these two groups of games teach me rather different kinds of lessons through their mechanics. One group talks about empowerment and sustainability, about perseverance and teamwork. The other tells me to be self-centered and passive, to stop asking questions and enjoy the moment without thinking about consequences. Internalizing those messages will most likely lead me to a completely different lifestyle and approach to being part of society.
For me it doesn’t matter which genre a game belongs to or what its setting or story or art style looks like. I’m not moved much by impressive graphics and elaborate plots — but I do get the message that the game designer sends me through his game systems. Perhaps I am just more predisposed towards reacting to that. Maybe others react more to a game’s look or narrative. But if it’s not only me then it makes sense for us as designers to think about the messages we send with our game mechanics. Because — whether we want it or no — our systems send these messages and they might not be the ones we would like to send.
Thanks to Yacine Salmi, Rachel Simpson and Sebastian Dorda for reading and criticizing this article.
About the author: Alexander Zacherl is a game designer and entrepreneur located in Munich, Germany. He is currently working on “Das Tal,” a PvP-Sandbox-MMORPG. You can best contact him via email or twitter.