Meaning Through Game Design

A few weeks ago I was listening to a radio show on CBC called Rewind, in which clips from archived CBC interviews and shows are played back. They often replay sections of interviews with a Canadian personality taken from interviews that span years or decades. This particular episode was about a well-known Canadian author, Margaret Atwood.

What caught my attention was the first clip they played; an interview between Bill McNeil and Margaret Atwood from 1968, when Atwood was 29 years old. She had recently published a book of poetry, and McNeil was asking her to explain what it was about. I’ve transcribed Atwood’s comments from the episode here:

McNeil asks Atwood if she feels she can say what she wants to say better in poetry than in any other form.

“No, no no no. That’s thinking of poetry as a translation from prose, as though one were thinking in prose and then translating it into poetry as a form of expression, whereas one actually thinks in poetry. It’s not that I have a message in prose and then translate it into poetry, at all,” replies Atwood.

He asks her, “What is it then that you’re saying in your poetry?”

“Because I don’t think of my poetry as a translation from prose, I don’t think of it as being able to be translated into prose, so I can’t give you a neat little précis.”

He ask, “Well then, what is poetry for you?”

“It’s a form of thought, not a form of expression, because a form of expression means that you have something separate from what is being expressed.”

He says, “but you are saying something in your poetry.”

“Yes, I’m saying something, but you can’t separate what I’m saying from the actual form in which it’s said. Do you ask a painter, ‘what is this painting saying?’ Do you?”

(You can listen to the full episode here: CBC Radio: Rewind – Margaret Atwood)

I was so struck by what Atwood had said that I turned off the radio immediately and sat, thinking about it further. She was right, of course, that certain things can only be said via certain media. Through her poetry, Atwood communicates with the reader in a way that isn’t possible through any other medium.

I started thinking about other artistic media. Try describing to someone what a piece of music is about in a way that makes them feel the same things as if they’d listened to it. Can you make someone understand the texture, tastes, and smells of an amazing meal you had? The best films communicate with the viewer in a way that isn’t possible in a book, or painting, because they communicate best through the medium of film. The best books communicate best through the medium of the novel. This is why great books often make mediocre movies, because part of the art gets lost in translation to a medium that isn’t ideally suited for that particular message.


Even this photo can’t capture the experience of eating this sushi. (Photo credit: flickr user “e-wander” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

If all that is true, and games are an artistic medium, then that means that the best games will communicate something that can only be expressed through the medium of games. But what is that? What kinds of thought can only be communicated through games, or can best be communicated through games?

In 2011, game designer Clint Hocking gave an amazing talk at GDC about game dynamics and “how games mean”.

In the talk, Hocking discusses how film generates meaning through the edit. He talks about a film in which a film maker cut together a shot of a man’s face, followed by a bowl of soup, followed by the same shot of the man, followed by a shot of a dead person, etc. When people watched the film, they attributed different emotions to the man, first that he looked hungry when looking at the soup, then sad when looking at the dead person, etc. Hocking argues that because the shot of the man is the same every time, it is the placement of the shots in time (i.e. the edit) that generates meaning.

Film Edit

Film creates meaning through the edit. The placement of imagery next to other imagery in time creates meaning for the viewer.

(You can watch the full talk on the GDC Vault for free: GDC Vault: Clint Hocking – Dynamics: The State of the Art)

If film creates meaning through the edit, how do games create meaning? Hocking argues that games create meaning through dynamics. To talk about dynamics, we need to first talk about the MDA framework: MDA Framework (PDF)

MDA stands for “Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics.” It is a framework created by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek to describe a formal approach for understanding games. Briefly (including some quotes and examples from the MDA paper):

Mechanics can be thought of as the “rules” of the game. These are the components that make up a game “at the level of data representation and algorithms.” In poker, the mechanics include: shuffling the deck, dealing, betting, raising, hand ranking, etc.

Dynamics are the kinds of player behaviours that result from the mechanics as the game is played. In poker, the mechanics create dynamics like bluffing, or intimidation.

Aesthetics can be thought of as describing “the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system.” So in the MDA framework, aesthetics are not talking about the visual look of the game, but rather the emotional result of playing the game. In poker, the dynamics create aesthetics like challenge, fellowship, or expression.

If you start reading about game design, you will find a lot of books written on mechanics, and some on aesthetics, but writing on dynamics is much harder to find. Dynamics in games often appear as feedback loops, which can be hard to describe. But as game designers, our central job is to create mechanics that generate the dynamics that lead to the kind of aesthetic experience we want the player to have.

Monopoly Feedback Loop

Example of a feedback loop in Monopoly from the MDA paper

So, back to Clint Hocking’s talk. He argues that is it through dynamics that games create meaning. Thinking about what Atwood said about poetry, I’m inclined to agree. Dynamics aren’t present in other art forms because other art forms don’t let the viewer/reader interact with them the same way games do. Through interacting with mechanics, the player experiences dynamics, and Hocking argues that those dynamics are what create meaning in games.

If we accept Hocking’s statement, then my question becomes: what do we want to say with games that can only be or can best be communicated with dynamics?

When I look at some of my favourite games, this is what they do well; they create meaning in ways that would not be possible in other media. Proteus, one of my favourite games, works because what it evokes could not be experienced better in another medium. I think this is why I find it so difficult to explain to other people why I love that game so much. I can tell you about my childhood memories of exploring forests, and fields, and ponds. I can tell you about the beautiful island I explored in Proteus where I sat and watched the stars move overhead. I can tell you about the sounds I heard while walking through a forest in Proteus’s winter landscape. But it doesn’t capture it. You need to play it yourself to experience the meaning in it.


Sitting beside a lake in Proteus, a game by Ed Key and David Kanaga.

The thing is, I don’t know what this means for me yet; what this means for the games I make. I’m more and more interested in exploring games that best convey meaning through the medium of games, but I yet don’t know how that will manifest itself in my work. This is a process. I’m still learning. I’m still working it out.