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The MDA Framework

The MDA Framework

MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research is a paper borne out of talks and workshops given by its writers, Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek, with the aim to formalize the understanding of games by splitting them into three parts: Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics.

Since its inception, the MDA Framework has been introduced into game design programs as one of the chief approaches to the structure of game design. The paper is thorough and succinct, and if you are a reader of my blog you will have likely read it, or at least heard of it. In the odd case that you haven’t, do so, so that you may contextualize the ensuing discussion.

The MDA Framework is a good starting point in shaping your thinking about game design, specifically from the deconstruction point of view: it provides a neat way to separate games into “the rules”, “how the rules interact to produce gameplay”, and “the resulting fun of the game”. It’s also useful in moving towards a more unified vocabulary of discussing the structure of a game, most notably in the Aesthetics portion, where it details different types of fun, and how a game’s Aesthetic can be described by the techniques of fun that it employs.

However, there are a number of issues with the MDA Framework which are particularly relevant when looking at it through the lens of a designer or developer, especially in the context of how to apply the MDA’s discrete chunking to aid in the design process:

Inconsistent Granularity

MDA is inconsistent in its granularity, and, subsequently, much more useful to those deconstructing games: critics, researchers, and players, than to those constructing them: designers and developers. Breaking up games in these three pieces brings up a problem: while mechanics and dynamics describe tangible components of a game, aesthetics acts as a lumping of “everything else”. There is a big jump between the game’s core systems and the player’s experience. Where do we include the game’s presentation, or emotional responses that are not “fun”?

Where’s the Beef?

Being an academic paper, the MDA Framework is more focused on categorization than presenting a thorough picture of the components of a game. MDA presents games as rules->system->fun, which begs the question: Where is the narrative, content, interface, visuals, sound, feedback, and progression? No matter how hardcore a ludologist one might be, these are glaring omissions.

Categorizing Fun

In boiling down a game’s aesthetics to different types of fun, the MDA Framework leaves no room for emotional responses that are not fun. It’s easy to chalk it up to the youth of the medium, but such a narrow view of games’ emotive potential writes off their ability to create meaningful experiences, much as we might expect from a book, play, or movie.

Describing a game’s aesthetics as a collection of its fun types is not only limited, but also rather muddy and useful mostly in hindsight. In MDA terms, it’s easy to describe Quake as having the fun types of “Challenge”, “Sensation”, “Competition”, and “Fantasy” because we know what Quake is; but analyzing a game’s aesthetics as a collection of its fun types is a rather arbitrary task that makes the sweeping assumptions that everyone experiences the game in the same way, and that certain types of fun are more important or intended than others. Is Quake not also about a player-made “Narrative”, the “Fellowship” of working in teams and creating clans to support the metagame, the “Discovery” of new areas in a map or new tactics, the “Expression” of map/mod creation, and the “Submission” of firing up a quick game to pass the time?

What is it Good For?

Not absolutely nothing: while the MDA Framework does little to aid in the game design/development process, it is a good starting point in beginning to think of games as functional constructs made up of rules that act cohesively to form a system which the player then experiences. Certain core concepts it presents, such as the orthogonally opposed perspectives of designers and players, are critical and very much part of the day-to-day considerations of designers and developers. At the very least, it is an historically important paper in shaping the thinking around games and generating meaningful discussion as to their components.

Although my design process, and (as far as I understand from conversations, podcasts, interviews, etc.) that of a large part of game designers and developers is by no means formalized, the next installment of this series will outline my own MGPE Framework, which speaks more directly to the components of a game from the creators’ perspective.