The necessary ingredients that make up fire are heat, oxygen and fuel. That combination is called the “fire triangle” and it means that to prevent or extinguish fire one has to simply remove one of the ingredients. With only two sides the triangle ceases to be a triangle and fire can’t exist.
It’s a simple model of understanding the ingredients necessary to make fire. But why am I talking about fire? I think you can imagine where I’m going with this but I’ll explain anyway: Because that model suits us nicely for talking about the ingredients necessary to make a game.
Of course this is not the exact same thing as the fire model. These are only the three main ingredients, but by no means they are equally important on every game at every moment; it’s not that if you were to take one of these things out that the game would cease to be a game. That’s not the point.
Instead, these are the components that mixed together make a game and just like fire, it becomes stronger the more the ingredients are mixed up. That is to say, a game becomes stronger when the mechanics play off the context and the player, the player plays off the mechanics and context and finally, the context plays off the mechanics and player.
The strange thing about games is that the mechanics are at the full control of the creator/s, the context is formed by what the creator/s put in the game and what the player does inside it and then you have the free agent that is the player. So, in essence games are a combination of the work of the player and the creator/s.
But what about context then? It doesn’t seem as strong as the other two elements. Well, that depends on how you define “context”. Personally I define it as an amalgamation between the actions of the player and the story that unfolds by the content created (both static and dynamic: level design, flavour text, dialogue, graphics, sounds, music, procedurally generated landscape, pseudorandom rewards, radiant story, etc).
One of the interesting uses of this model that I’ve found is that it neatly classifies some of the conflicts being thrown around the gaming community such as ludonarrative dissonance (conflict between mechanics and context), meta-ludonarrative dissonance (conflict between player and context) and DIAS: Do It Again Stupid (conflict between player and mechanics).