Games are interactive. This means that the players are given ways to affect the game world. The methods the players are given to interact with the game world are called game mechanics. In common terms, game mechanics are the “verbs” of games. For instance, in Tomb Raider, the core game mechanics are running, jumping and shooting: Lara Croft, controlled by the player, runs from one place to another, jumps to avoid obstacles, and shoots enemies. 

In digital game design, the whole world needs to be created artificially. One needs to decide every piece and a law of the game world: which items in the world are connected to which, which ones need to be interactable, and what happens when players commit an action. Furthermore, the game needs to provide feedback for the players in order for them to understand which of their actions led to a change in the game world. Game design process can be described as a process of creating the game system through designing the game rules. 

Fig 1. In the core game loop repeatable actions are mapped into game controls to create the basic gameplay experience.

While ‘game mechanics’ is an important concept for the game scholars and developers alike, there are different ways to actually define it. Hunicke et al. (2004) state that game mechanics are “the various actions, behaviours, and control mechanisms afforded to the player within a game context”. Aki Järvinen (2008) defines them as “means to guide the player into particular behaviour by constraining the space of possible plans to attain goals”. Miguel Sicart’s (2008) definition loans expressions from the programming world stating that game mechanics are “methods invoked by agents, designed for interaction with the game state”. Sicart takes ‘game mechanics’ to point towards more than just what players do (verbs of the game): to include how the rest of the game system works.

Game rules can also define goals in the game, and the game can then provide artificial challenges to meet these goals. This is central also for non-digital games. In golf, for instance, the goal for the player is to get a tiny white ball into a hole on the field. The artificial challenge in the game is to not just carry the ball to the hole, but to use a club to reach this goal. When entering into the playful sphere of the game, players agree to follow the (sometimes very arbitrary) rules of the game. This is called “lusory attitude”, which is important for play in general. However, the goals can also be created by the players themselves if the game system is providing mechanics that the player can use creatively.

When making games you have to think about the repeatable actions for the player and how those affect the game world, how they are mapped to the game controls; and how they contribute to player experience. In larger productions, player actions can be vast, but in smaller games it is important to only use a few mechanics. The more functionalities you add to your game, the more work you will need to do. Sometimes game developers talk about “core loops”, which are the chain of activities that the players repeat (and which are, perhaps, considered enjoyable). 

No matter what kind of  game you are making, thinking about game mechanics is at the core of game design. Some game developers even believe that it is important to start by thinking about game mechanics when you design a game – leaving designing the theme, characters and game world for later. 

Though it depends on the piece you are working on, interactivity as a form of pleasure is at the core of most successful games. Then again, you can, if you so wish, choose to design a game that does not provide pleasure for the player – there are so many things that games can be. If you are interested in keeping your players playing the game, however, you do need to figure out how to make playing the game worth the while – and again, this has a lot to do with how the players can interact with your piece, and whether they will realize what these mechanics are.

If you want to start brainstorming your game from the mechanics point of view, you can make a list of some common or not-so-common verbs, and start each idea by considering how that verb could be turned into the core activity of a game. You can also play around with different game mechanics and core loops, and ask others to try out your prototypes to see if they enjoy your design. Furthermore you can observe if they come up with their own goals or use these mechanics in new and interesting ways, that you then could incorporate into your final design. 

Learn more from: 

Sicart, M. (2008). Defining Game Mechanics. Game Studies. 

Beginner’s Guide to Game Mechanics. Lake House Media, LLC.