Lucky for us, there are a lot of books and websites covering the subject so we really don’t have to do the form an injustice by covering it badly.
My personal favourites are:
- A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster.
- Lost Garden by Daniel Cook. A website that is a treasure trove of notes, ideas, theories, experiments, and examples on games design theory and practice.
There are more and I’ll add them as I think of them.
Digital media of all kinds is built on a series of action feedback loops. You do something and the device gives you feedback on that action. It’s the foundation of User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) design and the basis of everything we do in the field.
The core difference between the structural grammars of games and hypermedia is that in games the centre of meaning is in the action feedback loop but in hypermedia it is in the feedback loop’s context.
This difference in grammars expresses itself as different kinds of structures. Games are a tightly interwoven structure of feedback loops: one loop leads directly into another and they build on each other like Lego™ blocks. Sometimes that structure is hierarchical, i.e. levels of increasing difficulty and requiring increasingly complex actions: finish one to get to the next). Sometimes it is networked: e.g. a large space that you can explore where difficulty and complexity is distributed spatially.
In hypermedia, no matter whether it’s Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, A Story, Kottke’s weblog, or Twitter in its entirety the centre of meaning is in the context: where you get to after you take the action. The action only has meaning insofar that it affects the context. The page or tweet you see is what says something, the link and following it only modifies it.
The popularity of game mechanics in user interface design complicates things but mostly because they are usually badly thought out and not that unique to games.
Some of the things labelled as game mechanics are merely good UX design practices, like having clear, dynamic, and immediate feedback loops throughout your app. Others, like using leaderboards and the like to foster competition and manipulate your users into dehumanising their fellow people and thinking of them as things to be beaten is a tactic long used by the managers of sales teams. It, and a lot of other ‘game mechanics’ are only really competition mechanics and aren’t specific to games.
In the end, the ‘is it a game or not?’ question doesn’t matter to us. While the distinction between the two is important when it comes to understanding the strengths of each, it’s important also to understand that digital media (as well as a lot of non-digital media) can be more than one thing at the same time.
You can make a game that works just as well as just a story with all of the game’s feedback loops dialled down to ‘So Easy a Drooling Infant Could Do it’. You can make hypermedia, apps, and websites that can be played like games.
Absolutism doesn’t work for digital. Often the answer to the questions you ask yourself as a creator will be ‘both’.