Mecha[nomics] Part 1: Defining Gameplay & Its Components for Video Games

How do you define gameplay? To elaborate: how do you identify it, break it down to parts, and describe its qualities? While you can identify mechanics (running and gunning, jumping and moving, pointing and clicking), these things do not describe the play.

“But I thought those things are play because they are what I am doing!” you may say.

But is the physical act of running “play?” Not in and of itself.

“Well then, it’s running carefree through a field with thousands of puppies,” A gamer may gesture ironically.

Well, not quite either. In a general sense, games can modeled in the MDA format (Hunicke, 2004): Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics.  The “carefree” feeling you would be describing would be an Aesthetic (they are also called Engagements or Motivations). The “carefree” aspect, the levity of the experience, isn’t necessarily the play;  the levity is reason why you come to the play. If there was a game about simulating running through a field with a thousand puppies and it added more kinds of puppies as you did creative leaps and bounds through grass, still the levity of the experience is only the emotion that makes the experience enjoyable. It didn’t change and is therefore not the play, but the aesthetic of the act.

So the question remains: What is actually happening in games that are actually “play?”

Gameplay (or the dynamics) are the cognitive participation  of an individual experience when interacting with mechanics.

So to summarize how this new way of seeing dynamics fits in the classic MDA model of game design:

Mechanics (system of interactions)

Dynamics (cognitive participation in interaction)

Aesthetics (emotional/psychological state achieved by interactions)

So before we can characterize one type of play from another, we must understand that we are categorizing types of “mental activity” and not types of tactile interactions (which are the mechanics). We must also understand that the mental activities (like how the mechanics builds dynamics) work to create the aesthetic we go for in a game.

“So, we know what dynamics are. So what categories could possibly tell between kinds of ‘mental activity’ from another?”

Well I propose, there are really three kinds of mental participation in games: Problems, Choices, and Tests. It really isn’t complex at all. Problems, being situations with obvious ideal conclusions the player works to reach. Choices are the acts of forgoing options for other options which are not better from one another. Tests are the requirements of focus and timing to perform a developed task with degrees of success.

It is pretty intuitive. All games are decisions being made, problems being solved, and tests being overcome.

In basketball, who to pass to is a decision, how to get a the past the person blocking me is a problem, and how accurate I am at passing or making a throw is a test of skill. In the aforementioned hypothetical puppy-field stampede game,  the actual gameplay (dynamics) are the decisions you were making in terms of how fast to run, what kind of leaping and bounding you want to do, and when/where you wanted to go in said puppy-ridden field. In that game, you are rewarded merely for making the decisions you want and you are rewarded with the pleasure of cute puppies, sunshine, and the audaciousness of the whole ordeal. It is a similar reason why Flower is a video game. You are rewarded for pure, unhindered decisions of preference with art and sound that are associated with the levity you participating in the act in order to have. No bad consequences. No wrong answers. Just sense pleasure with care-free decisions. So the mechanics of getting more puppies or flowers when traversing the field in anyway you wish (mechanics) grants you rewarded, care-free decisions (dynamics) which creates a feeling of levity (aesthetics).

“So why would this matter?”

Because when you wish to understand what makes an experience enjoyable in your games, you want to be able articulate what kinds of gameplay really make that experience for you. For example, two people will disagree that a game isn’t very good. One feels that fighting games are lame.


Because, he feels they don’t give you meaningful decisions. While another loves certain fighting games.


Because, she adores the execution barrier and feels incredibly skillful when performing certain combos. Now, both of these players could a state a particular fighting game is “good” or “bad;” but, the reality is that they merely were looking a type of gameplay (dynamics) they associate with the engagement they are after.

 The boy, may want to make long term decisions in hypothetical situations. A fighting game may have a few of those if he is at the utmost top of a competitive scene and looses a match that would affect his “career” as a fighting game enthusiast. But, ultimately it isn’t the decisions are still tied to every single match and so he doesn’t feel they are long term enough and associated with characters he finds empathetic to be what he wants. The girl may like fighting games with steep execution barriers and cares little about actually winning, but merely plays for those few moments when she pulls of that one combo. By understanding types of decisions, problems, and tests, you will understand the differences between the experiences games of the same genre offer you and be able to articulate what you really want from those games.

This is what what I am calling, Mechanomics. It is a term already used in biology. It refers to discerning the purpose of a structure. Mechanomics in gaming is understanding HOW a rule system creates the mental participations you want in players; finding purpose for an mechanical system.

A shooting game may offer greater reward or challenge to assessing situations, out-thinking your opponent, or maybe just reaction time. Which brings up the simplest sub-category of dynamics: types of tests. A test is nominally defined by what tactile or mental skill it challenges. Most games skills can be simplified to recognizing feedback, memorization of important systems, reactions, situation assessment, habituating tactile input, recall of relevant information, opponent profiling, pattern recognition, adapting to situations, perseverance of performance, and self-adjustment.

“That’s a lot of big words. What do those mean? That was too long. I skimmed it.”

I don’t blame you. How about a summary? In short, it just means tests in video games challenge the players ability to form, break, and manage various habits, situations, information and responses. So a basic multiplayer deathmatch of Call of Duty can be broken down to a few core skills:

  1. Memorization of map spawns and paths
  2. Twitch reaction of aiming, pressing fire, and then reloading when motion indicating an enemy comes to view
  3. Basic knowledge of what general paths and loads work at higher skill levels.
  4. Assessing where your opponent is most likely based on mini map indications, sounds, and spawns.
  5. Habituation of running safer paths when knowing where your opponent is.

Most of these skills are memorization and/or habituation (training your hands to them automatically). It is a matter of: there is a clear way to things and it is simply a matter of who performs that role faster and more consistently. A multiplayer team deathmatch is very similar to football in that there are very few decisions and problems to be made/solved by an individual player, merely a basic knowledge pool of things to know and a small set of tasks to perform. A Pro-level gamer of a modern military shooter is good at twitch reaction and spatial awareness. Gamers with military shooters,  as one experiment phrased it, have more “enhanced perceptual templates” (Bejjanki, et al.). These skills are the things that determines the victor in a given match. Similar in Football, the teams with more players that are better at doing their one specific job in a specific play will be the one that ends up winning.

Its interesting how differing gamers’ tastes are. Some will be offended by the last paragraph because they can see it as me calling Modern Military Shooters as dumb for not having tactical decisions or problem solving. Other gamers will be equally offended because they can say I am praising Modern Military Shooters for being matters a context of pure skill.

But does that mean that Modern Military Shooter multiplayer lack strategic depth?

To some extent, Yes. MMS Deathmatch of pure skill: the game is a test rather than a problems or decisions.

Testing a skill set is not the same thing as finding an optimal outcome. So problems, are not a matter acting per say. Problem solving can be a skill to test, but problems themselves when it game does not reward or punish based on how efficient or quick you are at solving problems (or puzzles), are then a type of mental participation unto themselves. The goal of problems is to find an ideal solution out of the possibilities presented.

“So how do you categorize problems?”

Simple, by how they can be solved.


Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence, though with many experimental discrepancies, does define intelligence in terms of how problems are solved, even breaking it down to various mental tasks. While maybe not the best definition of intelligence, it does offer insight as to what mental activity goes on in order to solve problems. The three types of intelligence in theory (Contextual, Creative, and Analytical) can be very easily translated into three processes we use to solve tasks. Contextual Intelligence, thought of as the process of Contextual Assessment.  Creative Intelligence can be thought of as the process of Creative Frameworking, when looking at it in the context of problem solving. Analytical inquiry is, of course, the process to explain Analytical Intelligence. Ok, so that may seem confusing. Basically, I claim you can break down problems into three kinds of thinking your brain can use to solve it. These being:

  • Contextual Assessmenttaking note what you are able to do, what needs to be done, and chunking it into a manageable process. Think about a section in a platformer or metroidvania game (like Crash Bandicoot, Mario Galaxy, or Guacamelee) where there is a huge section that if you fall will take you back a long ways. There is a long succession of things to navigate with jumps at specific timings, so you think about the track in sections: these first three platforms are all similar and then I need to jump a little later for the next and then keep the same timing for the next next two and so on. You are looking at your tools (the timings of your jumps) and your task (the section of platforming) and making a clear, manageable from point a to b path. Since most platformers with extensive sections have only one path, these kinds of games tend to lend themselves to this kind of problem solving.
  • Creative Frameworkingseeing how your current problem relates to other problems and going through all the possibilities in your head so as to find a solution that will work. An example of this would figuring how to move on in a point and click game. So you need to get in a tower and you spends quite a few minutes thinking over the places you’ve been and thinking how this getting into this tower fits into the story/world you are thinking of and thus what would be generally the logical kind of item associated with this situation in the context of the world. You think through every item you have, what you could do with them, and every possible area where there was something you missed. That is creative frameworking! Point and Click or games with a lot of emergent properties like Scribblenaughts or classic Point-n-Clicks give themselves to this kind of problem solving.
  • Analytical Inquirytaking note of all aspects of the problem, organizing them into understandable categories, and making deductions/inductions accordingly. Think of murder mysteries, Sudoku, or Puzzle platfomers, like Portal. You are taking general facts of what works and how the game works and apply logic to what the exact course of action is. Finding that primary optimal strategy in order to achieve the result set before you. Knowing a means b and c, so if I d (since it causes a but prevent c), then I can just get c (which is what I need). Any game with one solution that requires piecing together parts in order for that solution to occur is giving you that kind of problem to solve.

Problems can be categorized what problem solving process(es) it lends itself to. It might mean one is the most efficient or two are equal or all are the same. It can also mean that none of the problem solving processes work except one. A single problem can lend itself to one or more of the methods to varying degrees of which one is more suitable to the problem; giving a total 25 combinations for problems in how they favor certain problem solving types, if you are theoretical enough to want to think about it that way. Although, it is good enough to just characterize each individual problems as just generally lending itself to one, two, or all of a particular type. So you can say, a problem requires more Creative frameworking or can be just as easily solved with either Analytical Inquiry or Contextual Assessment.

Decisions are a lot harder to categorize, because it’s hard to boil down exactly what all types exist. But, you can say there definitely general types of decisions. A few are risk/reward, personal preference,  short term vs long term, advantage trade-off, lesser-of-two-evils, and hypothesis. Risk/reward can include anything from not wanting to continue into the mission with your strongest Fire Emblem character at such low hp to putting yourself in a vulnerable space in a fighter to get a better chance to get a combo in at your opponent. Personal Preference can be just choosing what colors you want your armor on an MMO to be. Advantage Trade off could be giving up some your units in an RTS to lure your opponents into a less favorable position on the terrain. Lesser-of-two-evils is like choosing who lives or dies in a cut-scene of a Post-apocalyptic RPG. Hypothesis is planning an action based on an uncertain interpretation of a situation, like most dialogue choices. Decisions can be be further characterized by what impact they have: long-term, immediate, short term, affecting your character, affecting the gameplay, affecting other players, affecting other characters. Decisions deserve entire articles unto themselves, but these example should hopefully supply a brief basis to start thinking about them.

By breaking down gameplay into types of problems, decisions, and tests; you are able to characterize what parts of a game experience you enjoy and can understand how they form the engagement they do. These are merely the building blocks that make up dynamics. The “Mechanomics” series is about creating this model and applying to various games.

Bejjeaki, Vikranth, et al. (2014) Action video game play facilitates the development of better perceptual templates. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,  111 (47), 16961–16966. Retrieved from
Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M., & Zubek, R. (2004). MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research . In McCormik Northwestern Engineering: Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department. Retrieved from
Sternberg, R.J. (1985) Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.