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Playgrounds » Adaptation, Aesthetics, Cultural Studies, Game Design, Ideology, Labor, Play, Uncategorized » The Ideology of Game Mechanics

The Ideology of Game Mechanics

To game designers and players, the common use of the phrase game mechanic is quite common. It saturates video game journalism and is common in-talk amongst experienced players. The problem is that outside these dual spheres, the terms remain relatively arcane, and their social and technical implications mostly unexplored. If game studies is to better integrate its vocabulary with other fields, the phrase game mechanic must be unpacked to allow for interdisciplinary conversation and critique.

Designing a game is hard work. First there is the narrative element – what story (or stories, or environment) – does the game portray? Are there characters? What are the parameters? What are the politics of the game world? Another component of game design is the development of a concrete rule set. In video games these rules are fairly static, generally only tweakable through the occasional “Options” screen (God Mode anyone?). Tabletop, board, and card games’ rules are published in a rule book and transmitted orally between players. At the game table “house rules” are fairly common, as is “rules lawyering” – a practice of debate between game players over the interpretation of printed game rules.

A designer perspective on game mechanics. Borrowed from

Good game designers know how important it is to balance thematic tension with a solid and intuitive rule set. The key to this balance is understanding what rules themselves represent. It is also important to understand how rules are implemented. The implementation of a games rules is referred to as a game mechanic. The push and pull of several game mechanics working together define a player’s potential for action in a game.


The primary game mechanic of pool is how a player leverages the billiard stick against the cue ball. The resulting chain of events produces a game state that is causally related to the player’s action yet dynamically related to the game designer’s ultimate plan. Although the game designer cannot predict where all the pool balls may scatter, they can assume that the balls will act in a way that is consistent with real-world physics. The pool balls will act according to the theory of gravity and within the parameters of theories relating to motion and force. The assumption that the physical conditions of the world will remain consistent is ideologically implicit within the design of pool.

Checkers. Borrowed from

Another example is checkers. In checkers a player’s goal is to remove all of their opponent’s pieces from the board. Like pool the game is very abstract; there are very few narrative elements.  There are two key game mechanics in checkers: 1) a player’s ability to move a piece forward one square; and 2) a player’s ability to remove their opponent’s pieces from the board by “leaping” over them. Although checkers is a more predictable game than pool (it has been “solved” by a super-computer), this is mostly due to the game’s mechanical focus on strategic – not physical – space. The tension of the game is produced by the game’s mechanical demand that players must move their pieces forward every turn, and that every time a player moves a piece forward, they deteriorate what is from start a perfect defensive position. Conflict in checkers is inevitable. It is up to players to choose an offensive, defensive, or middle-ground.

Ideology (for thinkers like Antonio Gramsci) is the way that the state maintains cultural hegemony over it’s subjects. Take freedom of speech in America as an example. Freedom of speech is a tool of the state, it is a constitutional right. It is so integrated into the everyday life of the American citizen that it has become a common-sense cultural belief. It is then used during key moments of conflict and struggle to reinforce the sovereignty of the state. Imagine the absurdity of a presidential candidate running under a platform which opposed free-speech. While this candidate would never be elected in the United States, their platform might seem to be common-sense in Germany (where anti-semitic speech is a prosecutable crime). In thinking through the ideology of game mechanics, this relationship is even more concrete. There is a direct relationship between the designers inscription of a rule (law), and the way it is visually and mathematically implemented in the game world.

The ideology of Magic: The Gathering. Designers abstract story into game mechanics, and this is reflected through thematic references like the color wheel. Borrowed from

Game mechanics as social and technical apparatuses are ideological in design. They serve primarily to reinforce the social hegemony of the game-world. A player who breaks the rules ceases to play the game. In many cases he or she is also shunned as a cheater by their gaming group. Just as the United States Constitution establishes a set of ideological standards which are generally (but certainly not always) agreed on by the citizen body, the rule book also establishes a set of ideological standards which are generally agreed on by a gaming group. The causal implications and technical relationships between these rules are a game’s mechanics. It is within these mechanics that ideological systems, are most transparent.



Written by

Aaron Trammell is the Editor In Chief of Playgrounds. He is a PhD student at Rutgers University presently working on a social history of board games after WWII in the United States and Europe.

Filed under: Adaptation, Aesthetics, Cultural Studies, Game Design, Ideology, Labor, Play, Uncategorized · Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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