Mechanics – Dynamics – Aesthetics, the whole thing

Robin Hunicke recently posted the Mechanics – Dynamics – Aesthetics: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research paper that was used as part of the game tuning workshop at GDC. It’s a co-authored thing by Robin herself, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek.

It’s a very precise description of a few of the most basic issues with games: The relation between the rules of the game [mechanics] and what actually happens [dynamics] (sometimes even referred to as emergence), and the experience of the player [aesthetics].
This is the kind of thing that people (myself included) have often gotten tangled into – are games open or closed? Is a game even interactive? Why talk about the game itself when games are really experiences? … and so on.
The MDA framework is a pretty good way of escaping such problems:

Mechanics describes the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms.
Dynamics describes the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others’ outputs over time.
Aesthetics describes the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system.

Short and sweet.

P.S. Ever the ingrate, I do miss two things in the paper: 1) It’s very system-oriented – it would be nice to see how the mechanics connect to fiction. 2) The paper describes the player and the designer as working from opposite ends – the designer creates mechanics that lead to dynamics that lead to aeshetics, the player works the other way. I think the player experiences the game a bit more like a multi-layered package of mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics – the aesthetic experience can even arise from watching the relation between the mechanics and the dynamics.

8 thoughts on “Mechanics – Dynamics – Aesthetics, the whole thing”

  1. Jesper–thanks for pointing to Robin et al’s paper. I hadn’t seen it yet, but had been waiting for it. As per usual, I agree with your p.s., but I also agree that the framework is very useful. Hope all is great in the rotten state of Denmark!

  2. I like the MDA model primarily because it establishes a relationship between aesthetic goals and the game-as-artifact. It does suffer a few flaws.

    For example, one you’ve touched upon is the “player perspective” of the framework. “From the player’s perspective, aesthetics set the tone, which is born out in observable dynamics and eventually, operable mechanics.” Frankly, this is impossible within the domains defined by this selfsame model; a game’s aesthetics, that is the emotional experiences produced by the relationship to the artifact, cannot be manifest until at least some aspect of the dynamics have been experienced.

    I can imagine an emotional response being evoked by a users appraisal of the interface (before the game system is engaged) but here I’m just being coy about what I consider to be the most glaring deficiency: the lack of consideration for interface as salient domain.

  3. Both comments on player experience are totally, absolutely true. Bear in mind the venue/audience when looking for textual/fiction connections. While we discussed much of this at length, it

    a) didn’t seem appropriate for a CS-focused workshop
    b) didn’t seem fair to squish into a 5 page paper!

    Having said that: We are planning a couple of extensions to this framework/layout – one that focuses more on the development/procedural aspects of MDA (most likely for GDMag or Gamasutra?), and another that explores the aesthetics/dynamics quandary w/r/t player experience. In fact – that issue (which layer comes first – which, if any, has precedence) was what kept me from publishing this for so long (I drafted the original almost a year ago). With the workshop approaching, I decided that despite its flaws (curlers and bathrobe, as my friend Kass says), it was time to send it out the door.

    As always, email/comments on both of these issues most welcome and appreciated!!


  4. Oh roBin you should know I *heart* MDA and said as much when I raised the issue of interface to Mahk this last workshop (“I’m not trying to shoehorn anything.”). When you posted the paper, my first thought was I would write up a pat little criticism, blog it and then parade out my own framework in it’s purty ‘lil Sunday dress. Then, after realizing that people do read blogs (!), I decided it better to mail you my concerns then fell victim to my own procrastination. I’ll get a mail off to you tomorrow or the next day(s)… ;)

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