Theme vs. Mechanics

When I’m thinking about Game Design there are two elements that I’m trying to use in order to make my point, Theme and Mechanics. (For those of you that don’t know, I design games to explain the complicated systems that are involved with aspects of sustainability.)


While there are games out there that are abstract, or have a specific storyline, more often you are going to find that games have a theme.   In Ticket to Ride you are competing to build train routes, Agricola deals with farmers & resource management, and  Battlestar Gallactica deals with… well it follows the plot.

When playing a game that deals with a particular topic you are doing the education through the story or the theme to get your point across.

The other option is to make the mechanic do the teaching.  For example, in a game where I’m trying to teach about recycling I would have an interaction in the game that gave a benefit to recycling.  It wouldn’t have to be called recycling or even have that topic at all, but simple by gaining benefit over and over for that type of action players would become better recyclers.

Habits are practiced actions which is why games are so good at teaching.  If you repeat something over and over again you are more likely to hold on to that habit.  People seek new behaviors in life regularly for purposes such as diet, exercise, et cetera and over the past 10 years we’ve seen a great influx of games for purposes other than just the sake of play.  Gamification of the online portal or website is also on the upswing as the internet becomes crowded and companies are seeking to create a draw to their sites.

The games that I’m working on are didactic because of this.  Having the desire to change is only part of the equation.  Going green means a shift in actions many of which are lifelong ingrained habits.  Those habits worked for us up until now, but with the world on the precipice of wide scale extinction we need to shift into high gear.  So how do you eradicate habits that aren’t good for you?

So when I’m choosing to build a tool and I have to decide between theme or mechanic it really depends on the nuance tat I’m going for.  Am I trying to make someone think about the topic?  Then it’s the theme.  If I’m trying to ingrain a shift in habit?  Then it is mechanic, for sure.

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