What’s a “Mechanic”?

What’s the most common way you use the term “mechanic” used inappropriately? In other words, what are things most people refer to as mechanics when they are not?

Honestly, the word mechanic itself isn’t very well defined. I don’t have a good definition for it, and I haven’t seen anyone else who does either. It’s a hard word to define, much like “game” or “art”.

Like, ostensibly “mechanic” is supposed to be the smallest unit of “game” possible. The elementary (small, unsplittable) rules that games are made out of. It’s worth noting that the word predates video games, and was used in board games, primarily to refer to use of dice, cards, etc. However the trouble is, what’s the smallest unit that comprises a mechanic?

If you’ve ever coded before, it should be fairly obvious how complex this question is. Is jumping as a whole a mechanic? Or is gravity a mechanic? Is the means via which jumping is modulated (holding the button down to jump higher) a mechanic? Is every line of code that assigns a variable a mechanic? Or are these supposed to be summed together into a whole mechanic (jumping) that has various properties (its gravity, initial jump speed, terminal velocity, jump modulation)? What’s the line you draw? It’s kind of a Sorites paradox kind of problem. (how many grains of sand do you need before your pile is a heap?)

Some people have a more rigid definition of mechanic, they define mechanic as any action the player can deliberately initiate, such as jumping, running, sliding, etc. This is much more clear, but doesn’t fit the way people currently use the word mechanic at all. It excludes things like Regenerating Health, or Death, which are not deliberately initiated player actions. It can also exclude automatic actions that occur outside the player’s direct control, like a timer or turn counter, or the interactions of objects in the environment, like many of the interactions in the Chemistry Engine in Breath of the Wild, or units attacking in RTS games (so armor is not a mechanic, their attacks are not mechanics, only the player issuing orders like attack, hold, etc, counts as a mechanic under this definition). As said, this is much more clear and obvious what constitutes a mechanic and what doesn’t, but it doesn’t match common usage and leaves us without a word for these types of common actions that can occur in games.

So my position currently is, I don’t think the definition of mechanic matters too much. I think we can generally just use the word and understand each other and that’s more or less good enough. Oh, and interestingly, Japanese does not have a word for “mechanic”. It has no equivalent for the term.

As for silly stuff people have called mechanics. There’s occasionally been, “Think up an original mechanic” threads on /v/ and the annoying thing about these threads is, nobody thinks up mechanics, they all think up thematics. And I’ve called people on this and been told, “oh, it could be the inspiration for mechanics.” Like reading one person talk about how they imagined that sweeping up floors was clearing out alien scum, which made it more enjoyable for them. Or some person’s fantasy idea. Or someone refluffing an existing mechanic with a new theme.

5 thoughts on “What’s a “Mechanic”?

  1. Jean Valjean March 13, 2018 / 7:18 pm

    Your examples of why a mechanic is hard to define is flawed.
    Yes jumping is a mechanic,
    no, holding the jump button to change the jump isn’t a mechanic, it is a property of the jump mechanic,
    yes gravity is a mechanic, but gravity isn’t linked to the jump
    and the properties are just that, properties.
    Just like real life gravity, the force is the mechanic but that doesn’t mean gravity is the everywhere in the universe.
    Furthermore, if a mechanic is the smallest unit of game, dividing it is utterly pointless to help define the game. Unless you’re talking technical.

    A mechanic is the smallest change possible in a game, ie, losing health when getting hit by an enemy is a mechanic, as is gravity, jumping and modifications of the jump.

    But like you say, defining the word is meaningless as long as people understand each other.
    Defining video game terminology will be the job of video games scholars.
    That is, when we’ll have them.


    • Chris Wagar March 15, 2018 / 10:31 pm

      Then in the example of jumping, isn’t the smallest change possible, just adjusting the velocity of the character each frame, not the whole act of jumping?


  2. stayskeptic December 12, 2018 / 11:01 pm

    Interesting read as usual, you bring up fair points. Shit like this is usually vague but as you said ends up working anyways so we don’t question it.

    I’d treat mechanics the same as a mechanism of a machine, asin, little systems that consist of multiple components that together make up the gameplay. Thus you can have a jumping system, or “mechanic” but as a mechanic has to be a combination of things already, the specifics are just components used to make that mechanic. Where you distinct a new system and components is yeah, vague.

    I see them used kinda like “Tropes” in stories. Elements that together make up the story. And it could be anything. A character archetype. A plot device. In this even specific single things can be a trope, but, I often see mechanic used similarly anyways.


  3. main_gi April 13, 2019 / 3:32 pm

    Where’d the info of Japanese not having a word for ‘mechanic’ come from, because now I want to know what other common phrases exist or not in Japanese 😛


    • Chris Wagar April 13, 2019 / 3:53 pm

      It from the guy who translates for source gaming. He translates a lot of Sakurai’s interviews.


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