5.2. Aesthetics Of Play

Aesthetics are the hardest element of MDA to define. They are the things that motivate players to actually play a game - the appeal of a game. This extra credit video does a nice job of quickly recapping MDA and explaining different aesthetics.

As a reference, here are the aesthetics listed in the MDA paper:

  1. Sensation - Game as sense-pleasure. What a game makes us feel by stimulating our senses. Consider the audio and video “eye candy” of video games; the tactile feel of the wooden roads and houses in Settlers of Catan; or the physical movement involved in playing sports or Dance Dance Revolution.
  2. Fantasy - Game as make-believe. Allowing the player to explore a role they can’t in real life.
  3. Narrative - Game as drama. The story either of the embedded kind that designers put there, or the emergent kind that are created through player action.
  4. Challenge - Game as obstacle course. Mastering a skill to overcome challenges.
  5. Fellowship - Game as social framework. Our need to feel like part of a pack.
  6. Discovery - Game as uncharted territory. The joy of learning new things or exploring new content.
  7. Expression - Game as self-discovery. The possibility of expressing our selves.
  8. Submission (Abnegation) - Game as pastime. The need to zone out.

And the extra one introduced in the video:

  1. Competition - Game as expression of dominance. A counterpoint to Fellowship - our need to establish a hierarchy and desire to claw our way to the top of it.

One of the things that all good games do is to identify key aesthetics they are trying to serve; design mechanics that produce those aesthetics; and then market the game to players in a way that sells those aesthetics. Even if a game has successful mechanics, players will be disappointed if they pick it up for the wrong reasons. Players who bought Destiny hoping to explore an entire universe were quickly dismayed to realize that there was actually very little to discover.


Extra examples: This blog entry has a bunch more examples of games that display each aesthetic. If you aren’t sure you “get” one of them, check it out.

Materials on this page adapted from:
Game Design Concepts by Ian Schreiber (CC BY-NC 3.0)