Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics of Hackable Games

This post is the first out of a series I am hoping to do in the first quarter of 2013 about hackable games.


My goal is to come up with some design principles around these kinds of games, look at existing games that might loosely fall in this category and tinker with prototypes. I am also curating the Game On competition blog so stay tuned there for related content coming out of our *awesome* community and game jams.

Disclaimer: This post will have a bit of a theoretical flair, so be warned.

So, I recently re-visited Marc “MAHK” LeBlanc’s MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics) game analysis methodology. For those of you not familiar with the MDA approach here is a short sketch that might explain it better.


LeBlank considers game design as an iterative process that takes advantage of both the designer and player perspectives in order to encourage an experience-driven (as opposed to feature-driven) design. There are three components that a game has, based on this approach; Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics.

(If you want to learn more about MDA, the 8kindssoffun website is a good repository of related articles and presentations.)

For this post, I tried to look at “hackable games” through the MDA lens and here is what I came up with.


"Describes the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms."


Mechanics are a games’ backbone. They are the actions that define gameplay; for example shuffling cards or shooting at enemies.  In a digital game those actions are programmed.

As far as hackable games go those mechanics are actions related to, well… “hacking” - which at Mozilla we define as remixing code. Let’s break those down even more to linear actions like; typing(code), copy&pasting (assets), tinkering (to see if something works or not) and building (your final game).


"Describes the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others outputs over time."


This is how the player interacts with the mechanics of the system.Often dynamics involve emergent behaviors and are probably the biggest unknown when designing a game. When playing Werewolf for example the dynamics of the game involve things like “bluffing” and “backstabbing.”

In hackable games the dynamics we want to see include things like self-expression and “geeking out”. Part of the beauty of dynamics though is that they are unexpected and emerge out of the players interpretation of the mechanics and the aesthetics, that we will talk about below.


"Aesthetics describe the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system.”


I have to admit, that so far Mechanics and Dynamics of Hackable games don’t seem such fun- but that is all good, because “fun” happens in Aesthetics. In particular, according to LeBlanc there are not one but eight (!) types of fun. Those are;

Sensation: Game as sense-pleasure

Fantasy: Game as make-believe

Narrative: Game as unfolding story

Challenge: Game as obstacle course 

Fellowship: Game as social framework

Discovery: Game as uncharted territory

Expression: Game as soap box

Submission: Game as mindless pastime

Take "Final Fantasy" for example, we could say it evokes fun in the realms of Fantasy, Narrative, Expression, Discovery, and Challenge.

As designers, more often than not, we start the game design process by thinking backwards and exploring the aesthetics of the game we want to create.

The Aesthetics of hackable games is something that has been in my mind for some time now. I have been thinking that in order to create an emotional response of what is basically “curiosity” (to tinker with a programming language) and “creativity” (to make your own new version of a game) we want to create aesthetics that are on the verge of “half-finished looking” yet “has the potential to become my own shinny game that I am proud about.”

So how do we do that? What are the kinds of fun we want to generate? Discovery, Expression and Fellowship seem to be the more appropriate. A game that makes you curious to discover more and express your own creativity alongside others.

This last question is what I will start exploring in my next post, taking some examples of games that do that really well, exploring their aesthetics and thinking of their hackable alter egos.

Till then, looking forward to your comments and thoughts :)

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