GAME Model: Mechanics

2 January 2012 10,908 views 3 Comments

GoalsActivitiesMechanics Environment

Choose gameplay mechanics that allow the player to perform the game activities. There should be enough different mechanics to keep gameplay from becoming repetitive, but not too many that they’re hard to keep track of. Players should be spending time learning the game content, not how to play the game.

“Mechanics” is a term that can be defined in many different ways in different contexts – especially when differentiating between digital and non-digital games (Rogers, 2010). However, for this discussion it refers to the actions a player takes while interacting with game objects, for example platforms, hazards, monsters, barrels, etc. There have been articles and books written describing possible game mechanics, so I won’t list any here.

When designing gameplay choose mechanics that support the game activities that were described in the last step. In commercial game design games are often created around specified mechanics (“create a platform game” “we need a game that is navigated using switches and levers”) however in educational game design this can lead to shoehorning activities to fit desired mechanics. The educational goal and instructional activities must drive subsequent choices, not the other way around.

Game mechanics should be varied enough to keep player interest throughout the game. To help players enter a flow state, i.e. the feeling of being completely absorbed in the activitiy (a feeling which has been found to have a positive impact on learning), the game should provide the player with a sense of control (Kiili, 2005b) and give immediate feedback (Moreno-Ger, P. et al., 2008).

An important concept in level design is that of easing a player into new challenges by starting off with simple mechanics and then gradually adding more frequent and more difficult challenges. Rogers (2010), who is not an educational designer but rather a commercial game designer, calls this “training the player.” Doucet even codifies this in his “Rule of Thirds” (Gamasutra, 2010). This is exactly the core power of games that we are trying to take advantage of by incorporating games into education – let me say that again, THIS IS EXACTLY THE CORE POWER OF GAMES IN REGARDS TO EDUCATION. Sorry for yelling, but this part is really important 🙂

I will explore this more in another post on what gamification really means (or should mean) to educators, but the key take away here is that games are powerful training tools because games are, by design, environments that train the player in how to succeed in mastering those environments. Therefore, if we design game environments that are built around the educational concepts or skills we are trying to teach, by mastering the game the player will master these concepts and skills. I will talk more about this in the next post on game environments.

This concept of easing the player into the game challenges ties directly into Vygotsky’s concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Vygotsky wrote that children learn best when they are challenged by situations they are developmentally ready to handle, but do not yet have the skills to master, and are aided by scaffolding provided by adults or the learning environment (Schunk, 1999). They develop these skills through interaction with others, exploring the environment, knowing what they are trying to accomplish, being able to modify the environment, and getting corrective feedback from the environment.

Similarly, new gamers learn from in-game tutorials and from other players, just like a child learns from adults and older students. While children explore the environment around them, try new things and see the results of their experimentation, gamers explore the game world and get feedback in the form of points, coins, weapons, or by losing something when they make a mistake (Whitton, 2009). Games therefore provide an environment that is perfectly suited for creating scaffolding, especially if game challenges are properly balanced – i.e., gradually increasing as players master each task (Habgood, Nielsen, & Rijks, 2010). The main determining factor for the success of a player should be the player’s skill level.

To recap: Game mechanics should support required game activities (which should support required learning goals and activities); should be designed in a way that encourages the flow experience in players; and gameplay should adapt to player performance, to lead the player through the game experience.

Next step: Creating Environment

Gamasutra – Practical Game Design?: The Rule of Threes. (2010). Retrieved January 1, 2012, from

Habgood, J., Nielsen, N., & Rijks, M. (2010). The Game Maker’s Companion (1st ed.). Apress.

Kiili, K. (2005b). On Educational Game Design: Building Blocks of Flow Experience. Doctoral dissertation, . Retrieved December 25, 2011, from

Moreno-Ger, P. et al. (2008). Educational game design for online education. Computers in Human Behavior. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2008.03.012

Rogers, S. (2010). Level Up!: The Guide to Great Video Game Design (1st ed.). Wiley.

Schunk, D. H. (1999). Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective (3rd ed.). Prentice Hall.

Whitton, N. (2009). Learning with Digital Games: A Practical Guide to Engaging Students in Higher Education (1st ed.). Routledge.

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  • David Gibson said:

    I sometimes slide from “mechanics” (as in the affordances of action given to the player) to also the “simulation engine” (which often has logical-mechanical engine parts connected to make a model of some kind that is the “thing” the player is trying to figure out how to beat. In an educational game, I think of the mechanics as also including that sim model and if the player figures out how to win, then he or she has learned what it means to be in control of that model (of reality, or some system, or principle, or concept etc).

  • Lisi (author) said:

    To me the sim model would fall under the category of Environment, as opposed to mechanics. In my thinking, mechanics and levels are micro details of a game, whereas the underlying game engine, which affects all the details in a game, is the macro view. Either way, mastery of both details and generality of game engines is definitely what constitutes learning in this particular model.

  • Thomas Bröker said:

    Recently I have also struggled with the term game mechanics. The most striking definition that I found till now is mentioned in “Sicart, M., 2008. Defining Game Mechanics. Game Studies, 8(2), p.1-14.” Sicart actually states that everything that changes a game’s state is a game mechanic. No matter if that is done by the player or the software.

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