MDA in Game Development (no, not the drug)

Recently I was reading a paper about the MDA approach in game development. Like the four forms of play by Roger Caillois, the MDA approach explores what people like about playing games. But the MDA approach goes a bit further and also touches on the subject of how to use this principle in everyday development life.

Man, Play and Games

In his very famous book ‘Man, Play and Games’ Roger Caillois argues that we can understand the complexity of games by referring to four play forms:

  • Agon, or competition. (For example a race.)
  • Alea, or chance. (For example playing poker.)
  • Mimicry, or role playing. (For example LARPing.)
  • Ilinx or vertigo, in the sense of altering perception. (For example riding a roller coaster.)

While these categories make sense to me and I certainly can see that some people are more drawn towards one of this forms and others to another, this concept just never was important to me in my everyday life as a developer. Yes, I could categorize games, for example that D&D is a mixture of Alea and Mimicry while something like Counter Strike probably is more Agon and Ilinx. And yes, that may help you to think about your target audience. But still, the concept was just too far away from the challenges I’m facing in my job, so it always was something that you learn at university and then never talk about again. Recently I was introduced to a approach which is still academic and probably based on theories like Caillois’, but it has a bigger focus on an applied designs.

All a matter of perspective

At the core of the MDA framework stand Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics  (which also give the approach its name). Mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics are the result of the framework’s try to formalize consumption of games, or in other words: To break them into distinct components:

So when playing a game, there are rules, which create a system when interacted with, which then generate the fun a player experiences. Those three components have counterparts in the design of the game according to the framework:

  • Mechanics describe the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation an algorithms.
  • Dynamics describe the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others’ output over time.
  • Aesthetics describe the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when they interact with the game system.

While this description is quite complicated, the terms can also be explained in more understandable way: Mechanics are the things provided by the game. In Counter Strike for example, there are weapons, ammunition and maps. The developers did code and design those mechanics. Dynamics are what happens when the player starts to interact with the mechanics. Some players start to camp, since it’s a successful strategy with the mechanics (in this example weapons and maps) provided by the game. And the aesthetics are things people experience while playing the game. For example the joy a player feels when they take revenge on their camping opponent.

And this is what makes game development so hard. A dev only has complete control over the mechanics, only partial controll over the dynamics and even less over the aesthetics. And yet the dev has to try to shape dynamics and aesthetics to create an enjoyable experience for the player. This can be done by altering and iterating the mechanics for example. The player on the other hand does look at the game primarily through the perspective of the aesthetics. To the player it’s important if the game is fun and entertaining, and if they enjoy the dynamics of the game. It can be said that in this concept, the view of developers and players are complete opposites.

I think this is a very nice illustration, why it is important as a dev to not only look at the features of a game. To put it in the words of the authors of the MDA framework:

When working with games, it is helpful to consider both the designer and player perspectives. It helps us observe how even small changes in one layer can cascade into others. In addition, thinking about the player encourages experience-driven (as opposed to feature-driven) design.

So… what does fun exactly mean?

When writing or talking about games we often hear the phrase “this game is a lot of fun” or the exact opposite. A lot of people have trouble describing why exactly they like or dislike a game, besides of “nice graphics” or “lots of bugs”. As this falls under the aesthetics in the MDA framework, the authors offered some tools to categorize why a game is fun. This vocabulary can help to articulate design goals, discuss game flaws, and measure progress in an iteration process:

  • Sensation, or games as sense-pleasure
  • Fantasy, or games as make-believe
  • Narrative, or games as drama
  • Challenge, or games as obstacle course
  • Fellowship, or games as social framework
  • Discovery, or games as uncharted territory
  • Expression, or games as self-discovery
  • Submission, or games as pastime

Here is where there are certain similarities to Caillois’ theory. A lot of these categories are extensions of Caillois’ concept. Challenge for example is clearly agon, while fantasy, narrative and expression could be summarized as mimicry.  Same as with Caillois, a game can also feature several of these categories. Playing Overwatch for example probably features challenge, fellowship and even elements of fantasy (since people often like a certain character in Overwatch because of their look or background story). But these categories also miss something that is in Caillois’ system. I don’t think that Alea is included in any of these expressions, even though it is a vital part of games. Alea not only describes games such as poker or slot machines, but also things like randomized monster drops or loot boxes, concepts which are widely spread and loved.

Why is MDA suited for everyday development work?

So at the beginning of my post I mentioned that MDA also touches on the subject of everyday work as a developer. What I meant by that, is that in my eyes MDA describes something that developers do by instinct. We’re creating a game, the audience is playing it, we observe how the audience reacts and tune the game according to the results as well as our expectations concerning those results. This is basically nothing else than the concept described by MDA. But it seems to me that mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics are not as strictly separated in the dev’s mind as it is in the framework. Oftentimes dynamics are seen as very tightly coupled with the mechanics or as a direct result of them, without taking the necessary interaction of the player into consideration. Even though mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics are only three terms, thinking with this vocabulary can help me reflect about my game. How do I have to change my mechanics so I can encourage or punish certain dynamics? How does the art and sound influence these topics? Which aesthetics are created by the dynamics? Sometimes it’s nothing more than some words or a simple figure which helps to better understand the things I am doing without thinking too much.


In “Man, Play and Games” French Sociologist Roger Caillois talks about the sociology of play and games or, in Caillois’ terms, sociology derived from play. Caillois interprets many social structures as elaborate forms of games and much behaviour as a form of play.

MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research” was written by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek in 2004. The MDA framework was developed as part of the Game Design and Tuning Workshop at the Game Developres Conference, San Jose 2001 to 2004.

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