Game mechanics are not …

I often get involved in conversations and projects about how to engage people with technology. This is, of course, often using game technology to connect people, to collect and show information or just to hang out and chat or meet. It covers nearly every project I do. It is as applicable to a TV show like the Cool Stuff Collective as it was to corporate life’s use of virtual worlds. There is always a line of confusion though. It is around what enables the technology and what you actually do with it.

“A pack of cards is not a game”

Building with any technology, whether it is pieces of paper with pictures on or with virtual environments across a network does not mean something is a game yet.
The best reference for all this is of course Raph Koster’s Theory of Game Design which I suggest everyone read 🙂

This book sets out a lot of the principles of what makes something interesting to do, to play. How and when repetition and skill gets trumped by boredom and familiarity.
I don’t want to get embroiled in the discussion of what “Gamification”is (too late) but very often it focuses on producing the equivalent of pack of cards. The mechanics of a potential game. This needs to happen but at it’s heart the question should be what are people going to do with the pack of cards.
Cards are a good example as most people have seen or played cards at some point. They are an easy form of technology to understand. There is a mathematical order to them, there is a visual design component. A real pack of cards also has a tactile element. Yet that pack of cards can be used for thousands of different types of game. It is the game mechanic that defines the game and the cards are just a small (but essential) component in the mix. I am sure many people have sat down with their family on holiday with a pack of cards and said “right what do we play then?”. The cards don’t tell you, they are just a medium in which to operate. So you can’t always expect a freeform environment to get people to play in. Some will of course, some people find enjoyment or mischief in any environment which leads to types of gameplay.
Card games very often feature chance. Luck places a big part however so can skill and experience. If you think of high stakes Poker games millions of pounds/dollars change hands on the turn of a card. However it is the ability to read people, to bluff and double bluff as much as the ability to calculate odds that apply. Yet the same cards can be used to play a simple game of snap. A reaction game, visual matches, fast reactions maybe a little sleight of hand as the cards are turned over.
Cards also have emergent game play. I know as a kid I used cards to layout race tracks for matchbox cars. People attempt balancing games making houses of cards and of course there are magic tricks.
So approaching a game of any sort we need to not just ask how the technology will work but find a few seeds of an idea of who is interacting with what and why. Is there jeopardy? is there luck? is there teamwork? However we should also not restrict ourselves to tightly defining rules. Allowing gameplay to be discovered.
Discovery though only really comes with familiarity or the need to break the rules. So any game needs some rules, some structure and an idea or most people (not all) are going to drop out or be less bothered. Something has to matter. There are lots of triggers to make things matter, but they don’t just happen. Someone has to make something, relate it to something.
Having been a gamer for many years I still find I play games both as a player and as a developer, I also realise I look at them as a game designer too. Why did that make me feel I needed to continues, what was so cool about that.
We all played games as kids, made up games, set rules and parameters, then found ways around them in a spirit of fun. Tapping into that as adults is much harder. People are less willing to think about why. So like many skills we all have it, its a question of unwrapping the gift of play and exploring it 🙂

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