The discipline of game design is only recently, spurred by the financial and popular success of modern video games, beginning to be explored in a formal way. Because of this newness, there tends to still be a lot of ambiguity in the terminology we use. Though this is probably a source of confusion, it is probably also, by the same token, a good place to start seeking insight into the form. Why would one choose, when discussing a game, to use one term over another term which is similar at first glance? What are the colloquial assumptions we make that gives one term preference over another, and what do those assumptions tell us about the art we pursue?
Games are, at their heart, systems. They take a player input and process it in some way and then output something, and the player explores how to achieve different outputs by means of different inputs, usually with the purpose of achieving some explicit end goal. This is an extremely dry interpretation of what a game is, and it leaves a lot of important stuff out, but it’s a good place to begin conceptually.
How are these systems constructed?
There’s an interesting split here. If we were discussing board games or sports, one might say that the game’s systems are the product of the game’s rules, but in video games most prefer to describe them, instead, as being the result of the game’s mechanics. Thus raising the question: What is the difference between a mechanic and a rule? Is there one? This is a kind of question of semantics, and it’s impossible to say for sure what’s in the head of all of the people who use these terms, but it’s an important distinction and one worth looking at. What is it in these terms that make us prefer one over the other?
‘Rule’ is imperative. It implies a ruler, one who creates the rules, and casts the player as one who obeys them. This is necessary, whether or not it is desirable, for most traditional games, as they require the player or players to drive the progress of the game. If the players don’t observe the rules, the game loses coherence and, if pushed far enough, ceases to be a game. A rule is a directive of behavior that must be observed for the game to proceed. Conversely, ‘mechanic’ is distant and impersonal, implies something that happens as a natural consequence of something else occurring. A mechanic is an automated reaction of a system to input, and will behave consistently regardless of the nature of the input: An intentional tap, a malfunctioning space bar, or a cat walking on your keyboard are all interpreted by the game mechanics the same way, without bias.
To clarify the difference:
- Are intimate: They require the player to actively participate in order for the game to continue, thus requiring the player to have an understanding of the game in order to play.
- Imply judgment: Because the game cannot progress properly when players violate the rules, rule systems also imply that some game behaviors are inherently desirable or undesirable.
- Can be broken: Whether intentionally or unintentionally, a player can disregard or misunderstand a rule. The game may or may not survive this and still be enjoyable, but it will not proceed in its intended manner.
- Are impersonal: Do not require player participation and react identically to all similar input. The player does not need to understand the game in order to play.
- Can be mysterious: Because the player isn’t required to understand these components of the system in order for the game to progress, the behavior driving these mechanics can be completely opaque.
- Can be complex in real time: Behaviors which would be impossibly or impractically complicated were they left up to humans to determine can be implemented using physical or computational systems.
While board games and sports primarily utilize rules and video games primarily utilize mechanics, this is not an absolute division. One facet that sports have in common with each other, and one of the main ways they tend to be differentiated from other games, is that they use the physical properties and behaviors of objects in our world, such as different forms of ball and club and turf, to create gameplay. Board games have dice, which use the uncertainty of physical object behavior to do the random number calculations that video games use processing power to achieve. Most mechanics in use in traditional games are based on physics, a system which can be tremendously complex in real time.
On the other side, applying rules to video games, most multi-player games have explicit rules against certain griefing behaviors such as team-killing: The player can break them, but they are certainly not supposed to, and the game will not progress properly if they do. Video games tend to try to avoid rules because they can be broken, but this can also reduce player engagement, since they are technically not required for the game to proceed– often to proceed in a rather dull manner, but proceed nevertheless. There are many instances, as well, of pseudo-rules: Behaviors which the game advises the player to do or to avoid, and which there are punishments for doing incorrectly, but which the game fully expects to be ‘broken’ and is designed with that outcome in mind. Strong examples of these include the push for the player to be stealthy in Thief or to stay close to her team in L4D. This also includes, it should be mentioned, the ‘rule’ system in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, where a judge informs the player of specific rules that are not to be broken before every combat, which punishment is meted out for transgressing. Because the game is built with transgressions against these rules in mind, they are instead pseudo-rules, no matter how explicitly they are stated.
While it’s worthwhile to point out the advantages each of these tools has over the other, one must also recommend some degree of caution: Though mechanics support a greater degree of complexity than rules, more complex isn’t always better. And, while rules can be more intimate and bring more of the player’s personality into the game, if done poorly this can feel invasive while serving no real purpose. In the end, these are tools, nothing more and nothing less. And, in the end, when you’re the designer, it’s your call whether to use rules or mechanics to build your system, where and to what degree to use each. They are both powerful, meaningful, and interesting: But they are not the same.
With this insight, you can utilize both more fully.