The features, mechanics, situation and purpose which define an element’s function in a game
According to Aristotle, we can claim to have knowledge of something only when we have understood its causes. These causes come in four types: the material cause – the matter of which the thing is made, the formal cause – the pattern or idea which that matter takes, the efficient cause – the motivation which formed the matter, and the final cause – the purpose for which it is used. Once we understand all four causes, we know an object fully. In game design terms, once we can explain all four causes, we know an element’s role.
The Material Cause
Video games are not physical objects, so technically they don’t require a material cause. However, they do have underlying components that make their existence in the game possible, like models, textures, effects and sounds. They also require other engine features like physics, particles, etc. Some elements even require completely unique features, and explicitly specifying these features is important to defining the role.
The Formal Cause
This aspect of a game element is what we traditionally think of as “design.” The form of an element is the pattern that it follows and the systems in which it operates – the game mechanics that constrain it. Aristotle is referring to the Platonic idea of an object, but in-game design this is the Paper Design. Just as in Plato’s theory, real life cannot match the perfection of the world of ideas; the in-game experience will never realize the paper design exactly, but it does provide an objective standard. Much like a craftsman making a chair is attempting to create a material version of the ultimate idea of “chairhood”, the designer tunes an experience to get as close as possible to the original game design.
The Efficient Cause
Often called the “moving cause” because it provides the motivating force for an object, the efficient cause is closest to our modern concept of “cause and effect.” In game design, the efficient cause is always the player and their desires. A game element that does not have a corresponding player desire will never be used (at least not without coercion) so it is crucial to identify and meet those needs.
The Final Cause
The most important cause, at least to Aristotle, is the purpose for which an object exists. In a game, this is especially true because games are fundamentally about using tools to solve problems, and game elements are usually classified by the types of problems they solve. This is why it is so important to limit an element’s power so it is only effective for its designated role; if an element is an effective solution for multiple types of problem it becomes difficult to tell what its purpose is intended to be. This is also why a problem should be presented before or at the same time as the solution, or else the player will not have a way to categorize the solving element. This purpose is communicated to the player through affordance and reinforced by rewarding feedback.
Taken together, these four causes define an element’s role. The features that allow it to exist. The mechanics that give it a form and constrain its use. The situation that creates the player’s need for it. The purpose for which the player will use it. Once a designer understands all four causes for an element, they understand an element well enough to implement it successfully.