Of context and mechanics

While catching up with my backlog of unread blog entries I stumbled upon this post from Brainy Gamer. Normally I wouldn’t spend too much time thinking about the different philosophies of game design, but a particular paragraph caught my attention:

Hocking wondered how changing a narrative’s dynamics might also change its meaning. Referencing Brenda Brathwaite’s Holocaust-themed board game Train, Hocking suggested that it’s possible to alter an abstract game like Tetris by applying a narrative layer on top of it. Attaching Train‘s narrative to Tetris (cooperate with the Nazis and pack together as many blocks full of people as possible; or defy them by creating as many gaps as possible) changes what Tetris means and suggests something important about how games impart meaning.

I had a concept in the same vein that I’ve been turning over in the back of my mind for quite a while now. That paragraph right there solidified that concept in the form of the following sentence:

The context brings meaning to mechanics and mechanics bring meaning to the context.

Let’s take the example of Tetris as a purely abstract game. The mechanics themselves don’t mean anything because they don’t have a context attached. If you were to, say, make the Tetris blocks into people, then you’d suddenly have a game about maiming human beings.

The mechanics add a new layer of meaning: Not only is it about maiming people, but it’s also about stacking them well enough so that the pit doesn’t overflow. But then again, you are playing as the executioner and the context shows us that he is right next to the pit, so if it overflows, then he’s effectively screwed and the game is over. See what I was talking about? The context brought meaning to the mechanics, but the other way was also true: the mechanics brought meaning to the context.

It doesn’t seem like a very complex concept, and that’s because it isn’t. I was just having trouble finding my viewpoint on the relationship between context and mechanics.

That is all.

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