Exercise 3: How Do Games Work?

Do not pass Go


What makes a game a game? There are many parts to the answer to that question. One of the most fundamental elements of a game is its mechanics. Game mechanics are those things that constrain what you can do, or encourage you to do certain things. In other words, game mechanics shape the behavior of players. More importantly for educational games, they shape the thinking required while playing the game. Knowing about game mechanics will make you a better designer.


To complete this exercise, you will work on a team to develop part of DGM, an online dictionary of game mechanics for educational games. For each of your assigned mechanics, your contribution will include:

  • a definition,
  • examples, illustrated when possible,
  • ideas of how the mechanic might map onto educational content.

Since there are so many pages out there about game mechanics, you may well ask why we need to create yet another one. There are two reasons:

  1. Creating and elaborating the definition of a few game mechanics is a better learning experience than passively reading about a long list of them.
  2. Our dictionary will focus on relating game mechanics to content that a game might teach. That makes it unique and valuable.


1. Team Identity Formation

Each of you has been assigned to a team with about five members. As a way to get acquainted with each other, your first task is to give your team a one-word name that starts with the letter you've been assigned. Your second task is to develop a coat of arms that will represent each member of the team in some way. Some suggested steps:

  1. Get together synchronously in a breakout room that will be created for you in Adobe Connect. Exchange contact information with each other and tell each other where you live and what you do right now for a living.
  2. Get the Google account information from each member and create a shared document with those addresses. Please share it also with bdodge@gmail.com. Also add it to this form. These Google accounts are what you'll use for collectively co-authoring docs and sites and setting up hangouts for future meetings.
  3. Throw out some names for your team and try to settle on one or two to be finalized later.
  4. Read this Wikipedia article, and play with this web app for inspiration for an overview of what a coat of arms contains. (Yours need not include a motto or four values).
  5. Discuss among yourselves the colors you'd like and come up with a single iconic way to represent each member of the team. Instead of a lion or castle, a died-in-the-wool Apple fan might choose the Apple logo. An enthusiastic vegan might pick a stalk of broccoli. A Doctor Who fan might pick a Tardis. It's all up to you, but the key is that everyone on the team should be able to point at part of the coat of arms and tell which part is them.
  6. Designate one member to draft the proposed coat of arms and share it with the rest for feedback over the next few days. Create your coat of arms using whatever software you're comfortable with and save it in several sizes: 300, 200 and 100 pixels across.

2. Researching Game Mechanics

Each team has been assigned four mechanics to investigate listed below:

  • Team A - Acting, Betting, Deck Building, Rock-Paper-Scissors
  • Team B - Levels, Progression, Worker Placement, Area Control
  • Team C - Area Enclosure, Route/Network Building, Card Flip Dungeons, Player Elimination
  • Team D - Pick Up and Deliver, Grid Movement, Simultaneous Action Selection, Take That
  • Team E - Variable Player Powers, Murder Train, Story Telling, Auction/Bidding
  • Team F - Quests, Taking Tricks, Pictograph Language, Point-to-Point Movement
  • Team G - Set Collection, Hex-and-Counter, Secret Identity, Negotiation

The first step is for everyone to explore the pages below. Each of the assigned mechanics is listed at least once on these pages.

As you'll see, there is no standardized nomenclature for this domain, though each list overlaps with every other list.

Additional Research

The last link above, Board Game Geek, is an incredible resource. To find additional examples of a given mechanic, use the BGG Advanced Search and filter on Game Mechanics. If your mechanic isn't listed on the search form, see if there is another term for it.

Advanced Search Filters

Searching for "Worker Placement", for example, yields these results.

You should also go beyond the list of resources given and do a Google search for the name of the mechanic (in quotes if it's more than one word) plus "game mechanic". Here's what Google shows for "worker placement" "game mechanic".

3. Writing Your Entry

Dictionary entryYou are responsible as a team for the four pages you've been assigned. You should have one person on the team take the lead in drafting each page, with a second person assigned to edit and do additional research on that mechanic. Once there's a draft to look at, all members of the team can improve all of the pages.

Do not copy and paste words from any of the resources you consult unless it is a direct quote and is cited as such. If you can't put the concept into words of your own, you don't really understand it.

Each page will contain a short definition followed by a longer description with examples. If you mention a specific game, link it to an explanatory page elsewhere.

The third section, content mapping, is the most important: a list of types of content one might teach that map on to each particular mechanic. This third section will require you to think creatively and metaphorically.

Click on the image to the right to see a draft entry in progress. Follow the format exactly so that all the pages will be consistent.

Put your entry for each game mechanic on a separate Google Doc. Be sure to make your document visible to anyone with the URL so that we don't need to beg you for permission to see it.


Your pages will be graded based on:

  • Clear writing without grammatical or spelling errors;
  • Evidence of understanding the concept being described;
  • Quality of examples from existing games provided;
  • Aptness and inventiveness of example content matching the mechanic.

Extra points will be accorded to entries that include self-made photos or illustrations that enhance understanding of the entry.

Due Date

Monday, September 30, 2013. All draft contributions to the GMD need to be completed by noon Pacific Time. Submit your draft pages, one per mechanic, by completing this form for each one. We will spend time in class refining your entries both within and across teams.

Friday, October 4, 2013. Final versions of all pages are due.

Monopoly photo by Bart Cayusa. CC

Draft Results

Dictionary pages already submitted are available for your feedback on this page. We'll have a prettier front end for this once final versions are in.

Return to the EDTEC 670 syllabus.