Mechanics as Metaphor


  • Students will review strategies and purposes for critiquing artwork, and critique several digital games as works of art.
  • Students will critically examine a number of games which use game mechanics to metaphorically evoke an idea or experience, and discuss the metaphoric potential of various interactions.
  • Students will create their own metaphorical game, applying the values and concepts derived from critique of exemplar games, and the skills developed in previous Game Maker units.

Teacher Materials

Currentlab – Game Curriculum by Ryan Patton, Luke Meeken & Meredith Cosier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on a work at

Exemplar Art and Commercial Games Used in This Unit

An effort has been made to include on-line playable versions of each of these games on this site, which will hopefully not be blocked by school internet systems, and which will function equally well on Windows, Mac or Linux systems.

Loneliness – Jordan Magnuson (2011)

Play Loneliness online on the CurrentLab site
Play Loneliness at Jordan Magnuson’s website
Loneliness is a metaphoric game Magnusson made during a period of time when he was living and teaching in a number of different countries away from his home in the US. As part of his “GameTrekking” project, Magnuson made a short game based on hi experience in each country he traveled to, including Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Loneliness is based on his experience teaching children in South Korea, as well as on reported statistics of childhood happiness in the developed world which indicate a high level of dissatisfaction with life among Korean children and which cite “loneliness” as a significant factor.

Lim – Merritt Kopas (2012)

Play Lim online on the CurrentLab site
Play Lim at Merritt Kopas’s website
LIM is a metaphoric game relating mechanics to social experience of “passing” or “fitting in” and the aggression that can result when someone doesn’t “fit in.” While the metaphor is autobiographical and stems from the artist’s identity as a queer woman, the abstraction of the game has allowed players to draw connections to bullying, social anxiety, and other personal experiences.

Idealism – Jason Rohrer (2008)

Play Idealism online on the CurrentLab website
Download the original GameMaker file and a Windows executable file from the author
A metaphoric “sketch” game by artist and game designer Jason Rohrer relating mechanics to loss of ideals and taking shortcuts in life. As the levels become more complex, players can take shortcuts to save time and have a higher score, but taking shortcuts can turn allies into enemies and make the level harder. The game was actually made in Game Maker, and the download includes Rohrer’s original Game Maker file.

Passage – Jason Rohrer (2007)

Download Passage for Windows and Mac from the CurrentLab website
Download Passage for Windows, Mac, or Linux from Rohrer’s website
Passage is one of the most widely celebrated ‘art games’ of the 21st century so far. It is a “memento mori” game in which you control a character over the course of his life from birth to death during a time span of five minutes. The mechanics and systems of the game all map metaphorically onto this core idea in different ways, many of which are detailed in Rohrer’s statement for the piece.

Socioeconomic Pong – Naomi Rockler-Gladen, Estelle Domingos, & Matt Taylor (2014)

Play Socioeconomic Pong, hosted at Capella University’s Webpage
Play Socioeconomic Pong, hosted at CurrentLab
In traditional Pong, players are each given equally-sized paddles, and therefore neither has an advantage. In Socioeconomic Pong, the size of a player’s paddle is determined by socioeconomic factors entered in a survey before playing the game. The purpose of this game is to demonstrate that the socioeconomic advantages and obstacles faced by an individual at birth have a strong impact on the likelihood of that individual’s success. While many of the games discussed in this module use mechanics to express a personal or sentimental experience, Socioeconomic Pong does so to express a political and social idea.

The Free Culture Game – Paolo Pedercini (2008)

Play The Free Culture Game online on the CurrentLab site
Play The Free Culture Game at Molleindustria
The Free Culture Game is a “playable theory,” which uses its mechanics as a metaphor for the way individuals contribute ideas to culture, and how those ideas can be co-opted or claimed by corporate interests. While many of the games discussed in this module use mechanics to express a personal or sentimental experience, The Free Culture Game does so to express a political idea.

The Mechanic is the Message – Brenda Romero (2008-present)

Watch Romero discuss this series on the TED website
Download a copy of the video from the CurrentLab site (if TED streaming is blocked at your school)
Brenda Romero (formerly Brenda Brathwaite) is a game designer who has worked on several commerical digital games, but who also personally creates board games as unique art objects which visitors can play at exhibitions. The Mechanic is the Message is a series of six nondigital games dealing with historic tragedies, which use mechanics as a way to force players to relive or participate in them. The games include The New World, dealing with the Middle Passage of the slave trade, Train, which addresses the Holocaust, and Síochán Leat / The Irish Game, which recreates Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland. Three in-progress games in the series include One Falls for Each of Us, a game about the Trail of Tears, Cité Soleil, a game about contemporary violence in shantytowns in Haiti, and Mexican Kitchen Workers, a game about the working conditions of immigrants to the United States.

The End of Us – Chelsea Howe & Michael Molinari (2011)

Play The End of Us online on the CurrentLab site
Play The End of Us at
From the artists’ statement/philosophy:
“The End of Us” was designed to evoke friendship, attachment, and affinity without overt narrative. The orange comet’s behaviors – introducing itself with a walloping hello, then running away can-you-catch-me style, circling around you for attention or chasing after the stars (what do those do, anyway? Do you just want them because Orange does?) – are intended to endear. It might not arise directly from the actions (Orange spends a non-trivial amount of time bashing into you after all) but emerges from the familiarity of friendship, good and bad, and the hollow that arises after one-to-one attention vanishes, permanently, for whatever reason.

As you grow and age and eventually start to fade alongside your friend, you come upon an asteroid belt that chips away at both of you. Your final (only?) choice in the game is who will take the fall, and who will have to suffer a solo existence after.

Elude – Doris Rusch and GAMBIT (2010)

Play Elude online on the CurrentLab site
Play Elude at the MIT GAMBIT website
From the project’s research statement:
For people who have never experienced it before, depression is difficult to understand. It is not simply sadness, as many may think; it is more akin to an all-encompassing hopelessness, a failure to connect to or derive meaning from the outside world. By tapping into the experiential aspects of the video game medium, Elude’s metaphorical model for depression serves to bring awareness to the realities of depression by creating empathy with those who live with depression every day.

Elude aims to raise awareness for depression and to inform about this dangerous illness. It is specifically intended to be used in a clinical context as part of a psycho-education package to enhance friends’ and relatives’ understanding of people suffering from depression about what their loved ones are going through.

Modeling what depression feels like by contrasting it with other mood states (normal and happy), Elude portrays depression metaphorically. The various parts of the game-world represent emotional landscapes that correspond to different moods with the gameplay changing according to mood changes. The core gameplay (i.e. “normal mood”) happens in a forest filled with “passion” objects that resonate and act as power ups when one calls out to them. Only when infused with passion is it possible to overcome the obstacles on the way to the tree tops, where one reaches “happiness”.