5.4. Designing vs Playing

A key point in the MDA paper is the idea of the fundamentally opposite way designers and players interact with a game’s mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics.

The Process of Design

So what does the MDA framework tell us about the process of game design? One key insite is that the game designer only creates the Mechanics directly. The Dynamics emerge from the Mechanics, and the Aesthetics arise out of the Dynamics. The game designer may want to design the play experience, or at least that may be the ultimate goal the designer has in mind… but as designers, we are stuck building the rules of the game and hoping that the desired experience emerges from our rules.

This is why game design is sometimes referred to as a second-order design problem: because we do not define the solution, we define something that creates something else that creates the solution. This is why game design is hard. Or at least, it is one reason. Design is not just a matter of coming up with a “Great Idea” for a game; it is about coming up with a set of rules that will implement that idea, when two-thirds of the final product (the Dynamics and Aesthetics) are not under our direct control.

The Process of Play

Designers start with the Mechanics and follow them as they grow outward into the Aesthetics. You can think of a game as a sphere, with the Mechanics at the core, the Dynamics surrounding them, and the Aesthetics on the surface, each layer growing out of the one inside it. One thing the authors of MDA point out is that this is not how games are experienced from the player’s point of view.

A player sees the surface first – the Aesthetics. They may be aware of the Mechanics and Dynamics, but the thing that really makes an immediate impression and that is most easily understood is the Aesthetics. This is why, even with absolutely no knowledge or training in game design, anyone can play a game and tell you whether or not they are having a good time. They may not be able to articulate why they are having a good time or what makes the game “good” or “bad”… but anyone can tell you right away how a game makes them feel.

If a player spends enough time with a game, they may learn to appreciate the Dynamics of the game and now their experience arises from them. They may realize that they do or don’t like a game because of the specific kinds of interactions they are having with the game and/or the other players. And if a player spends even more time with that game, they may eventually have a strong enough grasp of the Mechanics to see how the Dynamics are emerging from them.


If a game is a sphere that is designed from the inside out, it is played from the outside in. The designer creates the Mechanics and everything flows outward from that. The player experiences the Aesthetics and then their experience flows inward.

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