Game Element: Core Mechanic

In their seminal work, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Salen and Zimmerman discuss a wide range of topics. One topic of particular interest is the discussion of the core mechanic. Here is how they define the term.

Every game has a core mechanic. A core mechanic is the essential play activity players perform again and again in a game. Sometimes, the core mechanic of a game is a single action In a footrace, for example, the core mechanic is running. In a trivia game, the core mechanic is answering questions. In Donkey Kong, the core mechanics using a joystick and jump button to maneuver a character on the screen. However, in many games, the core mechanic is a compound activity composed of a suite of actions. In a first-person-shooter game such as Quake, the core mechanic is the set of interrelated actions of moving, aiming, firing, and managing resources such as health, ammo, and armor…

They continue to refine the terms by saying…

A game’s core mechanic contains the experiential building blocks of player interactivity. It represents the essential moment-to-moment activity of players, something that is repeated over and over throughout a game. During a game, core mechanics create patterns of behavior, which manifest as experience for players. The core mechanic is the essential nugget of game activity, the mechanism through which players make meaningful choices and arrive at a meaningful play experience.

The authors go on to say that…

The notion of a core mechanic is a crucial game design concept, and one frequently taken for granted in the design process. Concepts for games, particularly digital games, often begin with an idea for a story or character, to take place within an established commercial genre. This is a valid way to start a design process. However, in focusing on the “high level” narrative elements of a game, game designers can miss equally fundamental questions that concern the core mechanics and play experience. Game designers don’t just create content for players, they create activities for players, patterns of actions enacted by players in the course of game play.

So, if you are developing an instructional or serious game for learning, take a step back and consider the game mechanic or mechanics that are driving your game. Do you have an appropriate set of activities and patterns of actions that lead to learning?

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Here is another perspective on the topic as it relates specifically to learning games:

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Karl Kapp
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