On Gimmicks

I hate the word "gimmick".

So, let's hash this out right at the beginning. What am I talking about when I say "gimmick" in relationship to game design? Describing a game as "gimmicky" I've found is pretty standard across folk-who-play-games, so I won't bog us down with too much description. I think the generally understood notion is that it's a special feature built into the design of a game - either a physical component used in play or a component of the play itself - that is superfluous in regards to the mechanical structure of the game, or that resolves a portion of play mechanically in a way that is excessive or unnecessarily complex or bizarre. Games without gimmicks, that embrace a more Occam's Razor style approach to game design, approach each corner of their game with direct, clear, no-frills components and game mechanics. The game does what it needs to do and doesn't get caught up putting on a big show or showcasing weird components. An Occam's Razor game looks at each part of the game that needs a mechanic-for-resolution and implements the most straightforward and obvious way to implement those mechanics. A simple roll of the dice for example.

Chess is a great example of an Occam's Razor game. Every single piece is exactly what it needs to be, and every rule does what it needs to do. But every single variation away from normal chess gets more and more gimmicky.

Um. What?

Um. What?

The conception about gimmicks in games is that they're A Probably Bad Thing. They're removable components of a game that don't affect play (or do so in an unnecessary way) and should be either removed since they don't matter, or changed into something simpler, clearer, and more direct. Gimmicks can make games bulky when and where they don't need to be, or get in your way so that you can't really see the game itself. So, that's what we're talking about here.

So, let me tell you a bit about why gimmicks are awesome, and to start that out let's take a look at where the word gimmick comes from.

The word gimmick comes from probably the best root for a word imaginable, which is to say mysterious roots that no one is really certain of. What is commonly believed however is that gimmick is a sort-of anagram of magic (or in this case, mmgiick) and originally was a term used to describe any apparatus used by a magician. 

Okay, so, that's awesome. And perfect, right? Bear with me here while I inject some personal emotion, but games like tabletop RPGs are absolutely magic. What else would you call a book whose words hold all the knowledge you need to open a portal to another world, allowing you to transport yourselves and your friends into grand adventures and even greater danger! Games are absolutely magic, and magic is not simple. There is no Occam's Razor magic, not really, because magic is meant to amaze and impress, and magicians use everything from flourishes and stories to magic wands and giant cages to take something that may be as simple as sleight of hand and turn it into an experience

Imagine for a moment, the oft-seen trick of sawing a person in half. Forget about the fancy paint job on the box though, imagine instead a plain wooden box on wheels. Imagine no fancy magician's cape or hat, no magic wand or magic words, and certainly, certainly, no saw. Assistant climbs into box, toes wiggle, magician separates box, magician rejoins box, assistant climbs out of box, trick over. Mechanically, did the trick function the same way? Sure. Was the intended effect still demonstrated accurately? Sure. But... did it feel the same?

Tomatoes inbound, I repeat, tomatoes inbound!

Tomatoes inbound, I repeat, tomatoes inbound!

I mean... no, right? When we watch magic we want to see a spectacle because every splash of color, every tap of the magic wand, every abra-kadabra, every puff of smoke or note of music, every crunch of that saw further immerses and emotionally invests us in the story that is being told right in front of our eyes. 

When magicians use gimmicks, they are not superfluous. They are absolutely necessary, because in order for you as an audience member to buy into that world, a world where magic exists, magicians need to use every tool at their disposal to help you make that leap to fully embrace the illusion. 

In game design, designers are magicians. Do I enjoy chess? Sure? But I absolutely would rather play MOTHAFKINWIZARDSCHESS every single time because I am going to be more thrilled, more invested, more emotionally involved, and more captivated every single time I play. Gimmicks allow for you to embrace a fiction, and are a vehicle of potential for getting players invested in a game.

BRING IT BISHOP!

BRING IT BISHOP!

Do some gimmicks fail? Yes. But every part of a game can fail. Every single mechanic and component of a game can be good or bad on it's own merits.  Why I hate the word "gimmick", or more appropriately, why I hate the baggage that comes with that word is because to me gimmicks are just another piece of a game. Gimmicks aren't different, they're just another part of the experience. However, while rules are too often assumed to be good until proven to be horrible, gimmicks are far far too often assumed to be horrible and have to fight to be proven good. I have to fight tooth and claw as a designer to show people that a "gimmick" is there for a reason. I have to bite my tongue when people walk away from my convention booth mid-pitch with an eyeroll after I mention that Ten Candles uses candles, because it's easy to explain the mechanics in my rulebook but hard as hell to explain the emotional experiences that will come from them.

Could Dread just have players roll dice to see if they die? Sure. Could Ten Candles use a ten-sided die that you mark down as you go through scenes? Could Fall of Magic have descriptions of new places on cards you read, rather than a map? Sure. Would the games mechanically be the same? Absolutely. Would they feel the same? No.

Whether gimmicks are integrated with rules and mechanics, or have no bearing whatsoever on a single shred of mechanical game structure, I guess I just ask that you Give Gimmicks A Chance. Bring your all to the game and see what happens, because gimmicks are one of the most powerful tools that designers have, especially with indie games, especially with emotional games, especially with experimental games, and I increasingly feel like they've got an unfortunate and unfair reputation. Rolling a die may fulfill mechanical requirements of a game, and may be incorporated in the game's mechanical design, but gimmicks are one of the best means to fulfill the emotional requirements of a game. Emotional design is a critical part of turning a project from a game into an experience, and if I need to incorporate some gimmicks in order to craft an evocative, immersive, and emotional experience, then all I can say is: Alakazam!