Saturday, September 2, 2017

MDA, Cheating, and Levels of Analysis

One of the early-semester assignments I give my students is to read the Hunicke et al. paper on MDA analysis, and then to analyze a familiar game within this framework. This works best after I have introduced the concept in class with an example, usually Buffalo since that game is worth studying in its own right. Re-reading the classic paper reminds me that although it has had undeniable impact, being one of very few pieces to transcend the games research / games practice divide, it is not very rigorous. I think the core idea of it is quite brilliant: that we can, and should, consider the differences between what designers control and what players experience. Years of using this model have led me to internalize it with my own variant, which I explain to the students roughly thus:

  • Mechanics are all those elements that the designer directly controls.
  • Dynamics are what happens when the mechanics enter a play experience.
  • Aesthetics are the sensations that arise from the dynamics.
By this framework, which I believe resonates with the original paper, then we can see that the rules, story, art design, physical components, etc. are all mechanics—leaving alone for the time being whether these ought to be called "mechanics" or "mechanisms", though it's almost certainly the latter. The dynamics would include phenomena such as strategy, bluffing, and negotiation, and the aesthetics are all the sensations: fear, joy, shame, kvell, and the satisfying tick of a meeple hitting cardboard.

I have met with this year's game design class four times so far, and I have a good feeling about them, and about the changes I've made to the course structure. In their MDA analyses, several brought up cheating, which I honestly don't remember coming up before. It came up in three different manifestations, all of which were framed as "cheating" by the students. Two students brought it up in terms of card games, engaging in activity such as looking at opponents' hands. One mentioned stream sniping in online games, a phenomenon afforded by the trend toward modern gameplay technology and culture. One other student mentioned "glitches", referring to taking advantage of defects in software to take actions in computer games that were—presumably—not intended by the designer.

It is interesting to consider at what level cheating exists within MDA. Cheating is, by definition, a violation of the mechanics. However, I agree with Koster's assertion that if you change the rules of a game, you are playing a different game with the same pieces [although right now I cannot find his essay that states this, so if you do, hit me with the link so I can update this]. The classic example is that many people play Monopoly such that money accumulates on Free Parking and is gathered by players who land there—but this rule is, of course, not in the rules of Monopoly. Hence, we could consider them to be playing a Monopoly variant with the same pieces as Monopoly. From this perspective, then, cheating means you are playing a different game. I think that's an important observation that emerges from this kind of formal, ludological study of games. Note that it's different from a game that permits "cheating", such as the variant of Cosmic Encounter that says you can do anything not in the rulebook as long as you are not caught. From the formal perspective, though, what's really happened is that we've changed the rules of the game to include all possible activity as mechanics, most of them tagged with the caveat that if you are caught, you pay the price. That is, it is not cheating as such since it is actually part of the game variant's mechanics.

I have been listening to Jordan Peterson's lectures on personality, and it has been interesting to learn more about Piaget—a superstar of educational theorists, which is where I have previously seen his name and theories—from a personality psychology perspective. Piaget seems to have framed practically all interesting developmental human activity as a game, which certainly resonates with my experience and research. From Piaget via Peterson, I have been thinking about the game of being invited to play games, which for simplicity I will call the social game. Why do we say "It doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's how you play the game"? We do this because each game is instantiated within the social game. If you are ungracious in victory, if you are bitter in defeat—or if you cheat—you lose at the social game. Hence, we can assert that "cheating" is actually a mechanic of the social game: it is a move that is allowed, but it is almost always a losing move.

The idea that there are multiple levels of analysis has also come up several times this semester. For example, it has given us a way to think about the sometimes-toxic communities around online games: there is a poorly-regulated social game around these which was brilliantly skewered in Koster's most grave presentation, his GDC 2017 talk "Still Logged In". We applied a similar form of analysis to consider the game of competitive Magic: The Gathering, that there is the embedded game that is a round of MtG, but that is within the context of the gambling-and-trading-game of buying packs and chasing rares. Both are also simultaneously within the "meta", the game of knowing what decks are popular, locally or globally. Some of my students were surprised to consider these higher-order games as also being designed; they had previously considered that the designers made a game and that the community somehow made the rest. However, MDA gave us an important tool here too, to look at the mechanics of rarity, legal deck sizes, and distribution, and how these designer-specified mechanics led to dynamics such as chasing rares.

Peterson's lectures frequently bring up the concept of multiple levels of analysis, and this seems to be a critical concept in understanding personality psychology. I suspect that it was my studies here that have influenced my looking at games from this lens. I suppose this speaks again to the power of interdisciplinary, since I know that some of my best scholarship has arisen from my seeking out novel ideas and integrating them into my areas of specialization. Even studying games themselves, it was a journey from Summer 2006 that shaped how I think about all the work I do today. Seems Piaget had it right.