Zen, and the art of game mechanics

Game sevenThis post began as a comment on Messification: Why Games Should Be Designed to Be Games First by John Ferrara

The debate around games and gamification are nothing new. Games are nothing new. But the question for me is not whether to game or not to game. Rather, what can user experience design bring to the game.

Game are rules. By which games are played. The experience of the game thus is meaningful as experience in two dimensions: as rules and as play. Rules, which involve the understanding of a game. Play, by which one can play the game properly.

So design is design of both. And design that fails at either, likely fails as design. I am reminded of the line in Zen and the Art: “Before assembly of Chinese bicycle require great peace of mind.” Design is always, first, about proper framing.

Empty game are empty games. And a leaderboard that divides little into even smaller increments is no better than a ladder leaning on the wrong wall — no point in climbing either of them.

But I still think there’s a vast amount of complexity in games as a topic. And I think it’s important to separate games from game play. (Chess from a game of chess.) User experience can focus on each separately. Games, as the organization of experience, in time, with allocation of resources, rights, roles, rewards, etc. And gameplay as design of an experience playing that game.

Games are to me but a more formally organized and more tightly constrained example of organized social interaction. They can be repeated with different players — this means they’re not just events or situations. They are recognizable — this means they have socially familiar structure and meaning. But their meaning is still unique and particular — to players of games and to the players of games in particular.

We work on two levels in UX, always. General and specific. Same with games. We design structure but are interested in (particular) experiences also.

When it comes the experience of game play, there are too many ways in which games are meaningful to conflate the experience to the “here and now” event/situation form of game play.

Commentators of baseball games are part of the game. Commentating is game-like in itself, as narrative, story, tension, and access to meta game content (players, stats, records etc) not to mention inter-personal play (wagers, asides, in jokes made by commentators).

Descriptions of games are game like — as historic artifacts, tellings, stories, documents, and accounts. They will include quotes, references, observations and other aspects of games that suggest expertise, allegiance and loyalty, investment, hope, and so on.

Fantasy is gaming a game, using media that permit fans to repurpose the role of team manager, loyal fan, statistician, gambler, commentator (using chat etc) and much more. Fantasy games the game by allowing fans to play players, team balance, strategy (trading), negotiation tactics (trading), all more or less anchored in the real NFL season and its teams, or not.

My point being that in each case, any level of access to a game can become the game. That is, to a player.

So as designers of experiences, we should explore the game being played, or the game experience, unless we have tapped into gameplay dimensions and layers of detail and meta.

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