Theoretical frameworks are conceptual models or tools that help us organize our thinking and enhance our understanding of how different concepts interrelate. Much of Big Game Theory! has focused on developing frameworks to help make sense of games. This effort has been directed towards developing language, terminology and associated concepts to support both game design and game analysis. Whether you are a designer, a critic, or a player, these frameworks can help us articulate an idea, dissect a reaction or "feeling" we have, and be more aware of how games operate "under the hood."
One of my larger ambitions has been towards developing a "Science of Board Games." This post is the latest installment in this line of thinking, expanded to include all games (video games, tabletop games, etc.), and is an effort to unify different frameworks that have been presented by myself and others over the years. A shortcoming of many earlier frameworks is that, while they are useful, they are also not terribly specific. I’m interested in looking at a larger range of terms we use to discuss games and see how all of these terms might integrate into a more cohesive and unified model for understanding games.
The nod to "genomics" in the title of today’s framework relates to two notions. The first is the connection to the Game Genome Project, an on-going effort to map the possible characteristics of games that manifest through a series "traits", such as luck, theme, interactions, pacing, etc., and describe how they build on one another. Different expressions of these traits result in different gameplay experiences. Second, genomics (as in genetic science) relates to analyzing gene structure to understand how they connect to higher order functions. Similarly, I’m interested in how these fundamental traits or "genes" of a game translate into or emerge to create a total experience for players.
Conceptual Starting Points
Games are complex in the the interactions they create, the challenges they provide, the stories they tell, and the subjects they model. Conceptual frameworks have provided a number of approaches for helping designers, critics, and players to make sense of this this complexity. The Genomic Framework, which I will present in the next section, is based on three prior frameworks:
(1) The MDA Framework (Mechanics > Dynamics > Aesthetics) by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubeck (2004)
(2) Jesse Schell’s Tetrad (Aesthetics, Narrative, Mechanics, Technology) from the Art of Game Design (2008)
(3) The Unified Boardgamery Theory (Players, Theme, Rules, Components) by Oliver Kiley (2014) and based on work by Mark Major (2014).
After presenting my Unified Boardgamery Theory, I received a tremendous amount of discussion and input. As a reminder, my framework presented the four key elements of player, theme, rules, and components in a Venn diagram type arrangement. This diagram showed the relationship between elements as "overlaps", which in hindsight had the side effect of making it hard to read. The overlaps obfuscated a critical aspect of the diagram, which I did not even realized at the time. Rather than a series of overlaps, moving from lower order to higher order characteristics is actually a process that we can map. And we can map it by using the basic concept presented by the MDA Framework.
The MDA Framework presents a sequence of relationships between a game’s fundamental mechanics, the dynamics that are created from the those mechanics, and how players experience those dynamics through an aesthetic response. From a designer’s perspective, this sheds light on how we can approach mechanical design to solicit a particular aesthetic response, and can check this through playtesting to see if the right kind of dynamics are being created. As a player (or even a critic), we can start with our aesthetic response and work backwards to tease apart the dynamics and mechanical systems that created that response.
While the MDA Framework is incredibly useful for thinking about the process how mechanics lead to experiences. But it is generic and not as useful for thinking about the specifics movements and pathways within that process and how they relate to different fundamental properties of games. My question is always "what" are the dynamics that we should be focusing on and what are the fundamental properties that feed into building those dynamics. Both The Unified Boardgamery Theory and Schell’s Tetrad are more specific about what these fundamental inputs are and the characteristics that define them.
Schell’s Tetrad is useful in many respects, but I did not find it universal enough it’s scope to apply towards a broader range of games. For example, the notion of "technology" is cumbersome conceptually in the boardgame world. Also the aesthetics are really a higher order thing in my mind, created from the fundamental mechanical elements (as in MDA), so it feels out of place as a leg of the stool. Lastly, the Tetrad doesn’t address the "players" themselves as one of the fundamental factors in a game framework. Players are just as necessary as rules and components, and their role within any framework attempting to describe games needs to be considered.
My revelation was that the Unified Boardgamery Framework can be re-interpreted as a sequential process of building higher order characteristics from lower order one’s, and that this process matches the MDA Framework. Armed with this insight, I set about reworking my theory into a sequence, rather than as a series of overlaps. The result is something that adds more clarity and specificity to the MDA Framework, while providing a mechanism to integrate and relate the broad range of "trait" and "genetic" terms used to analyze games.
FIDA: A Genomic Framework for Game Analysis
FIDA stands for Fundamental, Intrinsic, Dynamic, and Aesthetic, and each of these terms relates to a different functional order within a game. It is "Genomic" in that it is a "trait-based" framework that identifies key characteristics of games. The Fundamental level includes the four basic building blocks of a game: players, rules, media, and theme. The Intrinsic level describes all six of the combinations of fundamental factors. The Dynamic level results from the Intrinsic-level elements coming together and creating challenge, immersion, narratives, and simulations. And all of these culminate with the Aesthetic level that describes the net experience and greater meanings. While similar to the Unified Boardgamery Theory, the Genomic Framework is structured as a process. And while we can navigate the framework from lower to higher levels, we can also navigate it from higher to lower to see what factors and traits feed into a particular element.
The "players" are the agents that are involved in playing the game. Players, assuming they are human, bring their individual attitudes, values, and motivations to the game. Players can also be artificial or non-human, for example the AI personalities that you play against in a video game like Civilization.
These are the process-oriented mechanics of the game that define how interactions take place and how the game state is changed from one moment to the next. In a board game, the rules are generally the "rulebook," and in a video game the rules are coded into the programming. There are a number of critical traits associated with the rules themselves, such as input-and-output operations, use of randomness or chaotic elements, how game systems integrate, establishing objectives, etc.. Rules can also exist outside of the rulebook or programming, such as house rules, rules of conduct, tournament rules, which can also have a bearing on how a game operates.
Theme ("Where, When")
I’ve discussed theme previously, but in the most basic sense theme is about the subject, setting, and scope of the game. The subject could be something like trading or empire building. The setting could be "in the Mediterranean" or "in space". The scope could be "managing a company" or "piloting a ship." What is important is that theme shapes the environment and atmosphere and provides context.
Media includes the technology, components, playing pieces, equipment, input devices, and everything else that gives physical (and/or digital) form to the game. In the absence of media, a game is just a collection of rules with no way for it to be played. The media often defines the boundaries of the game. While the rules of Chess stipulate how the play the game, the physical 8x8 board bounds the playing area and establishes the geography or landscape of the game. In a first-person RPG video game, the boundaries of the created world define the play space.
Roles are a factor of players and theme. Typically, the scope of of the game define what the players’ roles are within the game, e.g. captain of a ship vs. the CEO of company. The role may also define certain associations, thematically, between players or agents. For example, the player as emperor with AIs controlling governors. The role can define the perspective of the player, e.g. first-person or third-person. Roles are important for placing the players into the gameworld, and they define the perspectives and operating assumptions of the player.
Interactions are created at the intersection between players and the rules. The types of interactions created by the rules describe the overarching game format (e.g. competitive vs. cooperative) and how direct or indirect the interactions can be. Players, interpreting the rules, may develop internal "goal trees," which are the player-created mental models for how the player navigates choices and works towards accomplishing objectives within the game. Interactions relate to how players affect the game state, by way of the rules, as a consequence relates to player agency and how strongly or weakly a player can affect the game world.
Complexity is a function of both the rules and the media. Adding more systems or layers to the rules can increase complexity, as can increasing the extent and geography of the game world. Tic Tac Toe becomes much more complex if the board size increased to a 5x5 grid. Other than changing the goal to require 5 in a row, the basic rules are still the same; yet the gameplay is more complex. Complexity can relate to the size of the breadth of the decision space (e.g. how many places can I go) as well as variability within the game (e.g. 52-cards vs. 104 cards in a deck).
Representation connects the media of the game, whether digital or physical, with the theme and context. In a video game this includes the graphics (models, textures) and audio (music, sound) that conveys the theme. In a board game, it is typically the artwork, illustrations, and flavor text.
Coherence and Interface are important bridging elements that connect across the framework and in turn feed into the all four of the Dynamic level elements. While they are based on the Foundational elements they are far reaching in their influence on a game’s dynamics and how those are experienced.
Coherence (Bridging Element)
Coherence is the relationship between the theme and rules, and describes the nature of that relationship. Theme can be "pasted on" or deeply connected to the rules and derived carefully from it. Games with greater coherence have better alignment between the rules and mechanics and illogical inconsistencies are relatively minimal. Coherent games can facilitate decision making (and possibly the sense of challenge) by providing a useful metaphor to facilitate decision making. Coherent games have positive impact on the narratives that are created as well as the sense of immersion (i.e. suspension of disbelief). More coherent games can provide better models or simulations of their subject matter, with greater fidelity and accuracy in representation.
Interface (Bridging Element)
The interface connects the players with the media and determines in turn how players interact with all facets of the game. Critical issues relative to interface relate to ergonomics and whether the game is fiddly or streamlined. It can also speak to the pacing and flow of the game and how smooth the experience is for players. Games with lots of upkeep or maintenance tasks, relative to decision-making tasks, may feel more disjointed and clunky. The interface is also critical for providing feedback to the player so that they can perceive and understand changes to the game state and how their actions have affected (or not affected) it.
Challenge relates to depth of gameplay. More challenging games are typically (though not always) more complex games with greater decision depth (i.e. more factors to consider in making good decisions) as a result from player interactions and changing game states. Challenge hinges critically on the interactions between players (and/or the environment) to create unpredictable situations that the player must try to overcome. Challenge relates to player skills and heuristics (i.e. learning effective play), which connects to the Modes of Thinking framework describing the balance and intensity of thought across Logistical, Spatial, and Intuitional types. Elegance is also wrapped up in challenge/depth, and is the relationship between strategic depth and complexity. More elegant games provide the same or greater depth with less complexity as an inelegant game..
Narratives are the "created" stories and dramatizations that occur over the course of playing a game. Narratives are player-centric and shaped by the game’s theme. But the rules of the game play a vital role in structuring the narratives that emerge throughout the course of play, by way of interactions. Think of the narrative as a the post-game story you might tell that describes the arc and progression of the game, the rise and fall of players, the dramatic high and low points, the tensions, etc. Games with stronger narratives are typically easier to re-tell, as they create a more engaging and novel experience each time.
Immersion is an often used yet rarely defined term - but I think it is central to how we experience and enjoy games. At the simplest level, immersion relates to our suspension of disbelief. More immersive games get us to more effectively buy-into the reality created by the gameworld and re-align our thinking and expectations to conform to that reality. Lots of things can break our sense of immersion: a bad interface or UI that "pulls us out of the game," artwork that doesn’t seem to fit, rules that don’t make any sense, cumbersome controls or ergonomics, no sense of presence in the player’s role, etc.
Games, as systems designed to abstract some real or imagined reality, are in effect simulations or models for the subject theme. At the dynamic level, games can function as models or simulations that provide opportunities for learning, study, or engagement that can go beyond simply playing the game as competitive (or cooperative) exercise. These can be witnessed by observing a changing gamestate overtime. And the fidelity of these models can be considered in light of how well (accurately, realistically, etc.) they function as an abstraction of the modeled reality.
Net Experience & Meanings ("Why")
The net experience level relates to the overall aesthetic reaction and experience the players have. While aesthetic is often used to discuss artistic characteristics, an "aesthetic response" is how someone "feels" about a work, artistic or otherwise, and is quite relevant to games I feel. For players, the line of aesthetic questioning is often "was the game fun?" And for players, what constitutes fun is central to the overall net experience of the game and what players hope to get out of it.
The many-faced monster of "fun" can of course take on a number of different forms; not all types of fun is equal for all players. The MDA Framework provides eight different aspects of fun that players may seek in the games they play. These eight kinds of fun are: Sensation, fellowship, fantasy, discovery, narrative, expression, challenge, submission, etc. Other aesthetic responses are possible as well, such a those that explore meanings beyond the game itself (pushing games into the realm of art perhaps?). All of these responses speak to something gained that transcends beyond the game itself; they are things that you can take with you when the game is over.
Additionally, the "types of fun" a game provides relates directly to the "genre" of the game. While there are many definitions and approaches to game genre classification, I’m attracted to the notion of genre being coupled to net experience, because it relates genre, which is a shorthand descriptor for a broad category of games, to the aesthetic responses that genre is trying to solicit. A fantasy MOBA, a modern FPS shooter, a eurogame, a dudes-on-a-map game, etc. all endeavor to tap into certain combinations of aesthetic responses. And these aesthetic responses come about as a function of different levels and flavors of the four central dynamics (narrative, challenge, immersion, and models).
THE GENOMIC FRAMEWORK IN ACTION
Key Relationships for Designing Games
The Genomic Framework imbeds some other interesting (to me at least!) relationships, especially as a game designer. The four fundamental components each have a close relationship with a certain dynamic: Rules with Challenge, Media with Simulation, Theme with Immersion, and Players with Narrative. And this isn’t by accident! A narrative-focused game, for example an RPG, relies heavily on how players engage with that narrative, and thus Roles and Interactions are quite important (along with the bridging elements, Coherence in particular). From a game design standpoint, focusing on those elements might be more worthwhile compared to focusing on other elements.
There is also a soft relationship between Complexity and Interface and between Roles and Coherence. Again, this is no accident. As the complexity of a game increases, the more critical it is that the interface be effective in presenting the player with information in an organized manner. Similarly, coherence depends in large part on players being assigned roles and perspectives that afford them the means to see and understand the inner workings of a game.
Critiquing and Analyzing Games
For a while now, I’ve used three terms as a way to critique games: challenge, immersion, and narrative. In some respects I’m surprised to see that those three are all central dynamics in the Genomic Framework - since I’ve been kicking these three factors around for longer than I’ve been considering this framework. Or perhaps it isn’t surprising, and this is all a convoluted way of justifying my analysis approach! Regardless, the Genomic Framework adds a fourth dynamic, Simulation, which is not as important for me, given my preferences, but is certainly of critical interest to many other gamers that relish in opportunities to learn and glean deeper insight about a game’s subject matter.
Whether we are analyzing a game as designer to figure out how we might improve the game, or are critiquing the game as a critic (or player), focusing on these four dynamics is vitally important I feel. They provide sufficient flexibility to cover (or relate to) nearly every topic concerning a game. They are tangible enough to still be spoken about with clarity, while being readily relatable back to the intrinsic or fundamental level characteristics. Being able to describe what the created dynamics are will allow the critic to make better predictions of the likely aesthetic responses or use it as a means to explain their own aesthetic responses in greater specificity.
So here is where this all comes full circle: The Genomic Framework provides a structure of relationships between nearly all of the game traits and characteristics I’ve been mapping through the Game Genome Project. It provides a way to slot in a term and our understanding of it along with how it feeds into or is fed by other elements.
I’d like to apply this framework towards analyzing a number of different games, to further test the water on how it functions. And of course, your feedback and discussion on the validity, integrity, or preposterous-ness of the framework is always welcomed. Thanks for reading!