As learning designers, who dwell in the loophole of building learning games, we approach game design through the lens of mechanics and elements. The core drivers of any working game.
Mechanics are the engines of the game: the points we’re trying to balance on cards, the number of turns, the possibilities of failure, the many actions a player (learner) can take.
Yet, game design is more about the communication of an experience, and often times the same mechanic we place inside of a game can create two completely different experiences. How is that possible?
When you’re scaffold learners to a new game, how do you talk about it?
The typical answer is to say: Roll the die, take actions or place a tile. These are important to understanding how to play, but the strong answer is why they’re doing it.
It would be a mistake to try to define an escape room for example by its mechanics.
Players are trying to understand the layout of the room, understand the complexities of the storyline and the riddles placed, but that is not what the game is about.
The experience of the game is about learning to communicate layers of information through subtle use of discovery, timing, and other shared conventions. It builds the kind of social connection that normally only develops after years of associating with a group of peers. The elements of the escape room and what you do with them are only the avenue that this experience is built upon.
So you go into the theme: maybe you are a team of explorers trying to find a missing relic. But, even describing what you do in a game in thematic terms is not quite the same as defining the experience of playing it.
Video games tend to be more thematic than board games, but the same thing applies to them. The game “Death Squared”, isn’t about passing every level with every square in its colored tile.
It’s about collaborating together as a group to pass the hurdles of thinking individually to thinking as a team within the bigger theme of colored bots that are trying to beat the system by solving every puzzle they stumble upon.
In the broader sense, theme is just context for the core aesthetics of a game.
What are the core aesthetics of a game?
In their paper MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research , Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek reference 8 aesthetics of a game that define player experience:
1. Sensation: Game as sense-pleasure
2. Fantasy: Game as make-believe
3. Narrative: Game as drama
4. Challenge: Game as obstacle course
5. Fellowship: Game as social framework
6. Discovery: Game as uncharted territory
7. Expression: Game as self-discovery
9. Submission: Game as pastime
When you consider them together, you get a great framework for understanding what the appeal is for all kinds of games.
For instance, escape rooms (depending on the theme they are created for) can be be about fantasy & fellowship, specially if it was heavily dependent on narrative and storytelling.
It could also able about discovery, challenge and sensation, specially the room was dependent on unlockables, levels and a time constraint. The works of a game design depends on an expressive theme that guides the aesthetics and the mechanics that can foster several mechanics implicitly and explicitly to the likes of the learning objectives you are trying to achieve.
Now figuring out the right mechanics for each learning experience we are aiming to create and how to choose the the correct theme (aesthetic) that matches with the mechanics? Are definitely questions that should be tackled in further articles to comes.