Four Game Mechanics

Agon: This ancient Greek word—meaning “struggle” or “contest”— defines those games in which some aspect of a player’s or team’s skill is measured against another player or team. Any game that is based on skill and eliminates luck is a game of agon. The best examples of this type of game are athletic games such as wrestling and baseball. The games of chess and checkers are also classic examples of agon. Contemporary abstract strategy games, such as those in the Project GIPF series (i.e., GIPF, TAMSK, ZÈRTZ, DVONN, YINSH, PÜNCT, TZAAR) are more recently designed examples of agon games. All games of agon attempt, in their rules and in practice, to level the playing field between and among players/teams as much as possible.

Alea: A Latin word that means “dice” and implies chance defines the class of games that are not about skill but rather about fate or luck. These games all have some element of unpredictability that makes the game either more exciting or more harrowing—depending on your perspective. Caillois (2001) says of these kinds of games, “The player is entirely passive; he does not deploy his resources, skill, muscles, or intelligence. All he need do is await, in hope and trembling, the cast of the die” (p. 17). One can see this expressed in games that are purely alea in nature. Chutes & Ladders is a pretty good example of a popular game. Ultimately, what can you as the player do but hope for the best as you roll the dice? In this regard, these games “negate work, patience, experience, and qualifications” (Caillois, 2001, p. 17).

Mimicry: Where games of agon and alea are interested in the balance between skill and luck, expertise and fate, or activity and passivity, games of mimicry are all about assuming a different identity. These games, which cover entirely separate activities such as acting and opera, give the player an opportunity to envision himself or herself in a completely different context, place, or setting. They also call on the player to assume that new identity and breathe life into it to such a degree that a spectator willingly believes the transformation. Role-playing games of all sorts fall squarely into the mimicry mechanic. Dungeons & Dragons is the “granddaddy” example, but there are many independently produced games (such as Call of Catthulhu, in which the players take on the role of cats fighting against Lovecraftian horrors) that give players the chance to take on new identities and ways of seeing the world. Many board games also use this mechanic. In the game Legends of Andor, each player takes on the role of an adventuring hero with a personality, backstory, identity, and unique set of powers.

Ilinx: This concept is given life by the Greek word for “whirlpool.” There are no games that are based entirely on this concept, which Caillois (2001) likens to vertigo. He writes that games designed as ilinx experiences “consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind” (p. 23). They give the player the chance to engage “the desire to temporarily destroy his bodily equilibrium, escape the tyranny of his ordinary perception, and provoke the abdication of conscience” (p. 44). I expand this term to include those moments within a game experience that are surprising or shocking because they are so unexpected. Dexterity games are particularly good examples of game design where ilinx is essentially hardwired. Jenga, a classic dexterity game, is predicated entirely on the ilinx moment of the collapsing tower. Villa Paletti, the 2003 Spiel des Jahres winner (i.e., the German award for best game of the year), expresses its ilinx nature even more powerfully. One role-playing game, the horror game Dread, even integrates this ilinx nature into its gameplay. Whereas most role-playing games use dice to resolve conflict, Dread uses a Jenga tower to great effect. Mind you, it is hard to design and plan ilinx into a game design, but doing so is essential to a fun experience in any game.

An ilinx moment is one in which players will return to again and again as they retell the story of their play experience. For example, it could be when a 25-person raid team in a World of Warcraft dungeon suffers a reversal and sees most of its members die, but one or two characters survive long enough to deliver a killing blow to the boss right before they themselves die. Everyone’s dead . . . but the team won. Another classic example is when Bill Buckner (of the Boston Red Sox) allowed a ground ball to roll between his legs during the 1986 World Series—which lost them the game and, ultimately, the championship. Unscripted and unscriptable, ilinx moments are nevertheless possible because they are embedded within the structure of the game itself.


Folksonomies: games gaming mechanics

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 Level Up Your Classroom: The Quest to Gamify Your Lessons and Engage Your Students
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Cassie, Jonathan (2016), Level Up Your Classroom: The Quest to Gamify Your Lessons and Engage Your Students, ASCD, Retrieved on 2017-03-10
Folksonomies: education gamification