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Can I Borrow A Feeling?
by Harrison Pink on 03/03/14 02:54:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


A few months ago I listened to an episode of The Game Design Roundtable that focused on the theme vs. mechanics debate. I recommend listening to it as I’ll reference it a decent amount below. I’ve been thinking about the discussion and trying to put my finger on why it continues to bother me.

Here’s the problem: I think the Theme vs. Mechanics discussion is fallacious. I believe it’s missing an incredibly important third piece that changes the relationship between the two: Feeling.

I strongly believe that a game designer’s primary goal should be to provide the player with a very specific feeling. The other two parts are important, but ultimately exist to create this feeling. Other media accomplishes this through theme alone, but interactive experiences such as games have the unique ability to lean on both mechanics and theme to provide a much deeper connection to the feeling.

Theme,  Mechanics and Everything
The debate isn’t new; googling it presents dozens of articles and podcasts discussing the constant struggle to balance the two to provide an optimum game experience (ludonarrative dissonance, if you’re into that). 


Differing amounts of the two parts. Both good, they just offer a very a different feeling.

Other articles identify it as more of a sliding scale, with Purely Mechanical at one end, and Purely Thematic at the other, pointing out that the slider doesn’t have to be at the 50% mark to make a good game.

It’s clear to see why a game emphasizes mechanics or theme: One allows the player agency and slowly builds emotional investment in the game; the other gives the mechanics context; making the agency interesting and complex. 

Mark Rosewater, Head Designer for Magic: the Gathering notes that familiar themes help the player compartmentalize the interplay between mechanics. The specific mechanics of the Frozen Solid card imply that the creature cannot move and that the lightest touch will shatter it to pieces, killing it. The mechanics completely support the theme of the card.

The mechanics and theme blend together to evoke the feeling of freezing a creature.

Keep in mind that familiar themes bring connotations along with them. Using a very defined theme sets expectations for specific mechanics to be a part of the game. A space game that doesn’t involve traveling to planets in a spacecraft for example, might disappoint players.

Even in games like Chess that are almost purely Mechanical, the theme of rival armies going to war helps provide context for the mechanics. The pieces are named for military units, and capturing or killing the rival King ends the battle. It just makes sense.

The discussion of the two aspects of game design at opposite ends of a spectrum is familiar territory, but it’s important to recap before I introduce a new piece.

What is this feeling?
So let’s get the First Big Caveat out of the way: When I use the term “feeling”, I don’t mean the feeling of having fun. Fun is a much more complex topic to wrangle, and one that has a fair amount already written on it. The two concepts are definitely connected: a strong and focused feeling can provide a lot of fun. As I’ll touch on later however, strong feeling isn’t a guarantee of a fun experience.

"Feeling" is the very specific emotional connection the player has to the game experience and the player’s place within that experience. A game’s feeling is always supported by the relationship of its theme and mechanics.

Theme and mechanics work to support feeling, not each other.

The feeling of a game is defies any single objective definition, but it’s essential for a strong design. Every design begins with the goal of evoking a specific feeling from the player. A game uses both theme and mechanics to evoke that feeling.

A few examples include:

  • I want to make a game where the player struggles to keep an empire alive.(Pandemic, The Civilization Series)
  • I want to make a game where players feel suspicious of their allies at every turn. (Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game, The Resistance)
  • I want to make a game where the player feels alone and is forced to rely on his or her own wits to make progress. (Myst, Another World)

By starting with the feeling you want the player to have, you force the very next question to be “How will I accomplish this?” You get right to the core of what I believe game design to be: deciding what tools from your theme and mechanics toolbox you’re going to use to achieve that specific feeling.

Let’s examine Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game. In the game, players attempt to survive aboard their ship, battling enemies and trying to keep their ship properly duct-taped together. However, there's at least one Cylon traitor aboard secretly attempting to undermine the efforts of their teammates without being caught.

I don’t need a game like this to inform me which of my friends are utter jerks, but it helps.

The hosts of The Game Design Roundtable podcast correctly identify that the traitor mechanic has been around for a long while, but that makes perfect sense to be used here. It’s a natural inclusion in a game based on a television show that revolves around constant suspicion of who the next traitor will be. The mechanics (The Traitor being a large one) combine with the theme (space battles, a ship constantly in danger of breaking apart) to create the specific feeling the game designers wanted: that of being one of the characters on the show, constantly questioning relationships and desperately clinging to survival.

To me, game design is a kind of behavioral psychology. It’s about observing and making sense of human expression and interpretation. It’s the reason I love games; they are a way for me to more deeply understand what it means to be human, and how we all connect with each other. Focusing my own designs on creating a strong feeling for the player is the natural extension of this.

Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics
If this all sounds familiar, you might have read the fantastic paper on the MDA approach to game design. The authors of the paper, Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek describe a unique framework for understanding the differing perspectives between game designers and game players.

The MDA framework shows that most often, the designer perspective of a game is one of Mechanics > Dynamics > Aesthetics, and player perspective is one of Aesthetics > Dynamics > Mechanics. 

  • Aesthetics set the tone and feel of a game.
  • Dynamics create the specific, thematic examples of game affecting the player.
  • Mechanics are the rules affecting the player as well as the player’s agency in the game.

Aesthetics: Terror. Dynamics: Fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, etc. Mechanics: Monsters in the dark.

If you look at the definitions of the framework, you might recognize that Dynamics translates to theme, Mechanics translates to the same, and Aesthetics is that strangely hidden third piece: feeling. The opportunity to design from Aesthetics first translates perfectly to my theory that theme (Dynamics) and mechanics should be subservient to the end goal of a satisfying feeling, and that feeling should be a regular part of the theme vs. mechanics conversation.

(Keep feeling) Fascination
Creating a strong and enjoyable feeling is not an easy thing, but it’s the most vital part of creating a memorable game experience.

Co-host of The Game Design Roundtable podcast, Dirk Knemeyer, mentions that as in his early days of designing games, any time a mechanic would interfere with the purity of the theme in his games, he would squash it, even to the detriment of the overall fun of the game. While I agree that the two do need to be in concert to provide a strong feeling, the more you prioritize theme or mechanics over feeling, the more the feeling becomes harder to embrace emotionally. If mechanics are too abstract, they lose efficacy in supporting the theme. It becomes much less likely the player will, for example, feel like a wealthy Baron, taxing his peasants and sending them to work in the fields. If the theme is too abstract, the context added to the mechanics may confuse the player instead of providing insight.

When the game is over, the feeling of the game is all the player is left with. It’s what players remember most and will evangelize to others. The feeling of defeating the enemy army in a game of Chess, the feeling of using a far superior enemy’s tools against them in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the feeling of being completely befuddled, not knowing where the game begins and ends while playing The Stanley Parable

100% feeling

There are as many examples of why a strong feeling is important as there are good games out there. A strong, focused feeling begins the player down the path of immersion. It kick-starts the state of flow that we as designers work to provide to the player. 

When I’m trying my best to survive hordes of demons with nothing but a shotgun in Doom, I AM Doomguy. When I’m faced with the possibility of losing loved ones because I made a snap decision in The Walking Dead: The Game, I AM Lee Everett. When I equip a group of men and women with the best weapons human science can offer and send them off to die in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I AM the Commander. I am Kaitlin Greenbriar inGone Home and I am the faceless soldier in Battlefield.

I understand my place in the experience, and in that moment, when I connect emotionally with the experience of my avatar, it becomes my own.

More than a feeling
Here’s the Second Big Caveat: A strong feeling doesn’t necessarily mean a fun experience. Monopoly is my go-to example. When you play and succeed, you really do feel like you own a monopoly, but that in and of itself isn’t very fun. The feeling is strong and focused, but it’s not one a player necessarily WANTS to emotionally connect with. 

Another example: Co-host of The Game Design Roundtable podcast David Heron suggests a hypothetical trick-taking card game themed around Boxing.

Great feeling for the puncher, crummy feeling for the punchee and horridly broken game for both.

He theorizes that because boxing itself has a positive feedback loop (the boxer who successfully strikes a blow first will do better and better over time) any game with mechanics that seek to accurately model the sport will also suffer from the same loop, and the game will end up entirely one sided and un-fun for the loser. Even when mechanics and theme are working in sync to create a strong feeling, it isn’t a guarantee of a fun experience.

It’s all that matters
Feeling is, I believe, the reason we design interactive experiences. To this end, it’s only fair to re-prioritize the way we think about theme and mechanics to place feeling at the pinnacle. 

Theme and mechanics are our tools to craft unforgettable experiences for the player. When the player understands their place within a game experience, we have the opportunity to reveal to them more about themselves, and their place within humanity.

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Luis Guimaraes
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I'd promptly swap that relationship you connected to MDA: Aesthetics are Theme and Dynamics are Feeling (and many other things).

You can work directly on Aesthetics, yes, that's what all kinds of Fiction (Theme, imitation of Life in Form) media does. Similarly, you can work directly on Mechanics (simulation of Life in Function), as game does. But you cannot directly manipulate Dynamics, the same way you can't directly manipulate Feelings (not legally).

And yes, Dynamics are the end-goal of Game Design, Felling being part of Dynamics.

However, both Mechanics and Aesthetics allow you to indirectly attempt to facilitate intended Dynamics (Feelings among them) to arise. I agree with you that both work far better together then they do alone. Mechanics alone are limited, and Aesthetics alone are nothing thousands or millions of other people have already done billions of time through the history of humanity (where's the fun in being just one more in that list when we can be the pathfinders of something really awesome?).

Not to disagree again but just to rephrase something: Game Design is not about choosing the best tool for the job, it's about inventing the next best tool for the job.

Game on!

Harrison Pink
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Thanks for the feedback Luis! I decided that Dynamics was Theme and Aesthetics was Feeling for a specific reason. I don't interpret Aesthetics in MDA to mean "visual aesthetics" but rather "the overall effect the game has on the player" which to me maps more closely to feeling. Dynamics, on the other hand, is Mechanics given context and then presented to the player. In my example, the Aesthetic is Terror and the Dynamics are "monsters popping out of dark places in an abandoned and creepy hallway" which speaks more more closely to the theme than the "feeling" of terror.

Thanks again for your thoughts!

Luis Guimaraes
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Thanks for the response, Harrison.

So, just to add examples as you did too, in my model of interpretation:

Mechanics are: player walks around...
Aesthetics are: monsters popping out of dark places in an abandoned and creepy hallway...
And Dynamics are: player is scared, monsters can kill player, player runs away or waste resources...

Simply put, Dynamics are Complex Systems, and they're the heart of what Video-Games are. Game Design being the Art of Creating Complex Systems out of Game-Mechanics, Player-Mechanics, and Aesthetics (IMHO...). Game-Mechanics being the simulation of things in Function, Aesthetics being the representation of things in Form, and Player-Mechanics being everything the player brings into the experience, from skill to critical thinking, creativity, knowledge, cultural background, understanding of the medium, competition, etc.

Dynamics are the magic that happens when you blend it all together...

Well, let's agree to disagree on semanthics and keep agreeing on the fact that both are better than any.

OBS: I really meant Complex Systems as in:

Harrison Pink
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I think both models can work, and further strengthen my theory that the end feeling is the most important goal of the designer. Thanks for your feedback!

Bruno Palermo
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Harrison is totally right! In MDA, Aesthetics has nothing to do with "visual aesthetics". It represents what is experienced by the player.

Your example doesn't really fit the MDA approach. First because the mechanic described "player walks" has no relation with the dynamic described or the resulting aesthetics. Secondly, because you apparently mixed everything (mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics). Things like "player is scared" would definitely be aesthetics, not dynamics, while others, like "monsters can kill player" are mechanics.

Luis Guimaraes
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I guess you guys are right, – and yes, Bruno, I put "monster can kill player" in the wrong group.

But I'm not saying "visual" Aesthetics, but everything the player perceives from his point of view. It includes graphics but don't stop there, there's sounds and story and perception of dificulty and fairness and so on.

Either way, appart from "Feelings" ("Fun" as it's called in there) my definition o Dynamics is the same used in MDA, which is strange then because it puts MDA as it's conceived in an incomplete state. Unless it was purposefully made to be purely ludological and player-centered in it's approach.

Christopher Landry
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@ Luis

Not sure you'e aware of it, but you introduced a 4th actor in your MDA suite, or rather, split the M into separate and distinctly different entities.

"Game-Mechanics being the simulation of things in Function, Aesthetics being the representation of things in Form, and Player-Mechanics being everything the player brings into the experience.... Dynamics are the magic that happens when you blend it all together..."

So your version is GM+A+PM=D

As a huge fan of the Dead Space games in the example, I like your evaluation a lot. It seems to have a certain flow to it.

Luis Guimaraes
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@ Christopher


I think it's not MDA anymore though. :/

Yes, the whole idea of Player-Mechanics is understanding that the design cannot control everything, especially not the player, and must embrace that chaotic element when designing the game's experience. The alternatives being ignoring it (and let crazy things happen) or going the easy route and try to avoid it (locking the player into QTEs or something so she can't do anything), but I prefer the idea of embracing it as parte of the whole machine and designing around it.

Ugh, it opens such a slot for the introduction of Focus Groups in the supposed process of designing a game using this scheme. But the problem with focus groups is actually that the sample used is very often a bad representation of the target audience (or some times not).

EDIT: I made a quick model of the scheme for visualization, and rename Feeling as Experience so I can use Aesthetics as everything Fiction:

Hope it helps you somehow :D

Ian Richard
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I've really never understood this about the video game industry. On the board game side "Tacking on theme" is a terrible insult to your game. It's a sign that the designer failed.

Yet, in the video game industry these days... we toss some monsters into our generic World War 2 game engine and call it a horror game. Unless the mechanics change... it's still just a game about shooting things... not a horror game.

The mechanics should SUPPORT the theme and vice versa. When the mechanics match the story they are trying to tell... it escalates the experience. But when they create a disconnect... the entire experience is weakened.

ganesh kotian
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Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Themes and Mechanics for a better feeling.

Nicole Giebus
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This is an interesting topic of discussion. Recently it seems the gaming community is almost polarizing to one or the other (theme or mechanics) as opposed to using them in a balance. Some of the more popular games seem heavily reliant on mechanics to deliver a consistent money maker. All the while more of the independent games popping up recently seem to put most of their focus on theme as opposed to mechanics, which results in an amazing storytelling experience without mass appeal.

Faust Fang
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The topic is interesting. The combination of Theme and Mechanics to support the newly-invented part Feeling is a nice try.

But I am wondering whether Gone Home is really a game? In my opinion it works like a book, an interactive system rather than a game. It doesn't share anything the same as Chess which is a real game. Same as the Stanley Parable.

Also, MtG will still be the same game if all the artwork of cards (let's say theme) is removed. The part of feeling, if exists, is actually the mechanics.

Rune Andreas
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"Feeling is, I believe, the reason we design interactive experiences."

Hear hear! Nice article.

The only thing I'd like to add is that if you insist on having gameplay in the narrow sense of challenging the player to reach a winstate and avoid a failstate, you strictly limit what kind of feelings you can evoke in the player. This medium lets us simulate interactions that evoke feelings in the players comparable to what they would feel if they performed that action in real life. But gameplay, no matter what you fluff it up as, only really permits two kinds of interactions, winning and losing. That means two feelings, triumph and frustration. (Mainly frustration.) Any feelings evoked by the fluff of the interaction are drowned by these two feelings evoked by the essence of the interaction.

Indeed, it's better to look at the medium as computer simulations rather than computer games. And think in terms of interaction systems rather than game mechanics.

Interaction is not the same as gameplay, after all.

I wrote more about this here if you're interested:

Dan Felder
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Thank you.

Curtiss Murphy
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Finishing the statement: "I want the player to experience X" is powerful! Thank you for reminding me. The simplicity of feeling is important and yet, I'd almost forgotten ...