Gamers and game designers admire video games where the game’s mechanics (what the game allows you to do and how you can do it) and its “content” (the problems you solve in the game) are well matched.   For example, many games have a jump mechanic—the player can make an avatar jump.  That is a game mechanic.  The jump mechanic can be combined with other mechanics in different ways to solve different sorts of problems, such as moving quickly across posts of different heights fast sinking in a rising body of water (yes, I’ve done it).

When game mechanics work well to solve problems and solving them takes some practice, strategy, and thought, we get a good match between form (game mechanics) and function (play = problem solving).  The popular game series Angry Birds uses a simple sling-shot mechanic to allow players to solve interesting physics problems involving force, motion, trajectories, and vectors.  It is a thing of beauty when a simple game mechanic or set of them leads players to be able to solve complex problems.  It gives rise to a feeling like a driver can get when stepping on a gas pedal in a car: such power comes from such a simple mechanic!

Plants vs. Zombies is another game that has a perfect and simple match between game mechanics and problem solving.  The player can pick from a number of different plants and place them in the front yard of a house.  Depending on the plant and its placement, and the other plants around it, the plants protect the player’s house from a swarm of zombies coming in row after row.  Things speed up over time and the player has to make quick decisions, keep the plants coming, and quickly replace ones that have been killed.

Plants vs. Zombies strips a game down to (almost) its bare basics.  It is a real-time strategy game in which the simple acts of choosing and placing plants with different powers ramps up to complicated strategic thinking requiring quick decisions.  Each level becomes harder and harder and the player needs to learn and perfect different strategies across different levels of the game.

When I said Plants vs. Zombies strips a game down to its basics—game mechanics married perfectly to a certain sort of problem solving—this is not completely true.  Why plants and zombies?  The designer could have chosen other things than plants and zombies.  The form-function match would work as well.  Indeed, the designer could simply have used different shapes (as in Tetris), say triangles against squares, each with different powers.  The designer chose an anime (cartoon) style of graphics, eschewing realism altogether.  Why?  And there is music—why is this needed?  All these things are “extras” that do not fit in any straightforward way with the form (game mechanics) – function (problem solving) match that is the heart and soul of a video game.

Almost all games have such extras (Tetris is perhaps the nearest thing to a game that is purely a perfect form-function match).  One of the common extras in many, but not all, video games is a story.  Since a game is a set of problems to solve it is does not demand a story and some games have none.  Furthermore, when the story has little to do with the problems being solved and how the player uses the game’s mechanics to solve them, it can become an irritating distraction, especially if the player has to watch long cut-scenes that interrupt play to experience the story.

So why have extras?  Why have stories, in particular, since they can be long, complicated, and take time to tell that may remove the player’s attention from play?  There are several different answers to this question, but, to my mind, the most important one is this:  These extras are there to answer several crucial questions for the player.  These questions are:

  1. What am I doing?
  2. Why am I doing it?
  3. Why should I care about it?
  4. How should I feel about it?
  5. How should I value it?
  6. Who am I supposed to be when I am doing it?

These questions are important for any activity that humans carry out.  They create a condition I call “lucidity.”  Humans do not perform well or learn well when things are not lucid for them.  They are, after all, creatures tropic to meaning.  So answers to these questions are crucial in classrooms, though too often go unanswered there.  Students learning algebra, for instance, need to know the answers to these questions if optimum learning is to occur.  That’s just the way humans are: they are not very good at learning things that do not matter to them or which they do not “get” in a meaningful, valueladen, personal way.

The “extras” in Plants vs. Zombies tell the player that this is game, a rather whimsical one; that it is in the anime category, not realism; that it is not a triple AAA blockbuster game, but an independent, small-scale game; that it fits with the “save the world” theme in many games, but also with the current craze for all things zombie; and that solving problems of complex thinking is not always best done as work but often as play.  All this tells players in the know what sort of gamer identity they are supposed to bring to this game (not their Halo hat, but not edutainment either).  It tells them, too, what sort of cultural milieu they are meant to swim in here.  Note that there is a minimal story here (zombies), but that is enough to get the job done.  Of course, since is a game, they can choose to play or not once they have gotten the answers to the requisite questions.

In school, students often have no choice about what to study, so how the above questions are answered is all the more crucial.  There better be wiggle room for different sorts of students to customize the answers to their own interests and desires.  Furthermore, in school, the last question is the most crucial.  When young students are confronted with a subject like physics in school, they need to know: Who does this? What is it really? Why do they do it? Why does it matter and how?  What will I do with it?  Who am I supposed to be when I do it (which amounts to knowing how one is supposed to think; act; dress; interact with people, things, and tools; speak, listen, write, read; feel; and value while doing it).

The issue of extras and lucidity arises in an interesting way in architecture.  Just as with a game or a classroom, people who function in a designed space need to get answers to the above questions.  The extras that go beyond mere form-function matching need to answer these questions and, here, too, there needs to be wiggle room.  I suspect, also, that the identity question is equally important here as in school.  And it may (as in school) be about identity at several different levels—individual, social, historic, communal, and civic—at one and the same time.

I write this in an old farm house on a small farm I have just moved into.  I have never been a farmer and am not one yet—soon I hope—but the farm house, the pasture, the neighboring houses and fields, all yell out the answers to the above questions loud and clear.  It is lucid and I feel the call to a new identity.  Already the “extras” have taught me an important lesson.  The gopher holes all over—in this context—speak (as do so many other things here) about choices between life and death that come not with dominating the earth but husbanding it.  Yesterday I did something that I thought I would never ever do in my life.  I bought a trap.