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Living Game Worlds III: The Game Mechanics of Reality

Ross Miller

Is the games industry burdened by its reliance on game mechanics? Speaking at the Living Games World Conference at Georgia Tech in Atlanta last week, Tracy Fullerton, a game design theorist and assistant professor at the University of Southern California Interactive Media Division, plead her case that the commonly used game mechanics are in a way impeding our ability to expand into new content themes.

Fullerton began by defining the root terminology. "We've talked a lot about serious games ... but I thought I might be nice to back up and bit and really kind of question what is that a game is," she said. "One of the things that I like to do is break things down and build them up again."

Breaking down begins with defining what a game is. Formal elements include rules, procedural elements and mechanics. Fullerton provided an example of when she asked her students to create a game without rules. "They just scratch their head," she said. Fullerton also cited dramatic elements (premise, character, story) and dynamic systems.

Game mechanics are defined as discreet units of game structure. "They're sort of the LEGO system of what we put games together," she said. They very often model some simplified aspects of reality. Genres referenced include:

  • Strategy. The classic strategy games focused on movement, territory and capture / killing (e.g., Chess, Go). "When Chess evolved, it actually stood for a type of rationality above a sense of chance in life," she said. Modern strategy games retained classic mechanics while incorporating hidden information, real-time decision making, more players, and chance. Fullerton said that it was a re-envision for a less rational world.
  • First person shooter, the digital model of tag and roughhouse play. The world is hostile and unknown, individual or team survival is imperative. Killing enemies is key to survival, but direct combat is the only mode of expression.
  • Role-playing games. It was the evolution of table-top war games but instead of playing with groups of units, you play a single unit. Mechanics include character creation, exploration, combat, acquisition and trade.
The dirty little secret, as Fullerton described it, is that most game designers don't design new game mechanics: it's hard and risky, the game industry is built on the marketing of existing genres and there is no strong inclination towards designing expressive game mechanics. "Usually what they'll do is 'tweak' [existing] mechanics," she said.

Defining serious games

So how would one define serious games as a genre? There are no unifying mechanics, but the games do borrow from predecessors. "Are we starting from scratch? No, we are borrowing from classic mechanics," she said. September 12 is compared to Missile Command. Ayiti: Cost of Life is compared to The Sims. Darfur of Dying, Fullerton notes, contains elements of both Sim City and Frogger (for the part where you have to carry water).

"What i think is interesting about [these examples] is that these are taking classic game mechanics and are twisting what games do," she said. Fullerton described these situations as what she called a fantasy of disempowerment.

Concerning the modding of classic mechanics, "the reason I think it's important to acknowledge that is that it's going to reach a moment where [we] don't have the mechanics to do what we want," she said.

Already there are examples of games that have tried to present an idea that was distorted by its mechanics. Fullerton cites Super Columbine Massacre RPG, Waco Resurrection and 911 Survivor as games where the mechanics took away some of the intended message.

Understanding how game mechanics and the content objectives interrelate are imperative, she said.

Night Journey

Fullerton concluded with demonstration on her latest project for USC. Night Journey, made in collaboration with artist Bill Viola, is "about a personal journey through spiritual enlightenment," she said. Described as "mechanic lite," the game is told from a first person perspective and involves exploration and lapses of day and night. A two-minutes demo of the game is given. The color scheme is grey and heavily filtered so that you would be "unable to touch what you see," she said.

An owl is seen in the trees, its whole appearance masked by a filter reminiscent of television static. A bird flies overhead. After many moments of muddled vision a bright source of light glows in front of you and fades off as you back away.

You can prolong nightfall, but eventually the sun sets and you dream about your experiences. The owl, bird and source of light (which is actually a small shack) is revealed to be works from Viola and are presented here in vivid color.

The ultimate goal of the game is still points-driven, in the classic sense. To find the "points," however, you must traverse slowly at times. "You can move fast through the world," she said, "but if you don't stop you will miss these points. If you relinquish control, the game will 'help you' to find them in visual ways and other ways of feedback. Your goal is to ultimately find those points. You have to relinquish some sort of control to get those points."

No silver bullet

Fullerton acknowledged that the process of creating a new mechanic is hard, timely and costly, but that new mechanics or judicious usage of existing mechanics are the only way we will be able to express new ideas through tame play, she said.

"We must learn to express ourselves in the unique language of game mechanics in order to successfully meet the challenge of constructing 'living' game worlds," she said.

See Also:
Playing with Controversy: The Case of Super Columbine Massacre

[Update: In the interest of clearly conveying all pertinent information, we added that the event occurred at Georgia Tech.]

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