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Author Topic: About that mechanics/mechanisms thing  (Read 4134 times)
Thierry Michel
Member

Posts: 177


« on: April 07, 2005, 02:46:28 AM »

It always bothered me, as a second-language speaker.


Am I correct in believing that mechanism is the word I want when I mean 'process' and mechanic is the guy that repairs my car?

Or is the use of mechanic as process one of those things that is done in real life but not mentioned in my Big Dic?
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contracycle
Member

Posts: 2807


« Reply #1 on: April 07, 2005, 03:25:12 AM »

No you are quite right.  We should speak about "mechanism" but the habit is so ingrained now that it is hard to break.  I am trying to use 'mechanism' more consistently.
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Rich Forest
Member

Posts: 226


« Reply #2 on: April 07, 2005, 05:28:19 AM »

I can be pedantic in the birthday forum, right?

Yes!

Thierry, your question makes sense  -- “mechanic” as a singular noun is most often used in English to refer to someone who works on/repairs a machine (at least in the random sample I pulled from the Collins Concordance Sampler. Like an auto mechanic. Gareth’s answer of course reflects a native speaker intuition about that frequency.

But! There’s more to this story.

First, you have to consider what you’re going to count as good evidence when you’re talking about language, and empirically minded linguists tend to come down on the side of usage. Native speaker intuition is also very valuable, but it's also really inconsistent (as we'll see in a minute), so it's not enough. What people are doing with the language is the language, frankly, and a dictionary is an attempt at describing that. But it’s not a source of authority in and of itself – good, modern dictionaries tend to take usage data from language corpora into account, now that it’s available and we can get at it properly with computers. So the situation’s getting better in that respect. But actual usage is the data that any good dictionary is based on, so it’s the source.

And with “mechanics” in the sense of “game mechanics,” well, that usage is very widespread in RPG and gaming circles, and that's the real deal, the actual language itself in action. And game mechanics seem to be more commonly talked about than game mechanisms. So you have the data, and you know that’s how the thing is talked about in gaming circles, so in a sense you could say, “Well, yeah, for some reason that’s the convention (and all language “rules” are epiphenomena – generalizations/descriptions of conventions -- the "rules" of a language are, in a sense, a description of a bunch of ingrained habits). And you could stop there. You could also ask how, historically, it came to be. I don’t have the data to do that.

But you could also go further with trying to figure out what’s going on here. Why did we end up with “mechanic” instead of mechanism? Should we switch to mechanism? Would that make more sense?

I’m going to answer “Nope.” In fact, I think switching to “mechanism” is a form of hypercorrection – it’s imposing an incorrect generalization of a “rule” onto the existing form. It’s not irrational – in fact, it makes perfect sense. But it’s still the result of a mis-analysis.

Here’s why. “Mechanic” in the sense used in “game mechanic” is most likely a singular form derived from the plural usage of “game mechanics.” Now if you’re used to thinking that the singular form of a “word” is necessarily the default form, and the plural is an alternate version, that’s not going to make much sense. But the thing is, that’s not how the language necessarily works. In many cases, the singular and plural forms of a “word” behave very differently from each other. “Word” itself is a folk linguistic concept, and it carries with it a lot of assumptions that may not really reflect how language really works. Given the case of “mechanic,” I did a corpus search of “mechanics” plural (again random, again using the Cobuild Sampler), and you’ll find that in plenty of cases it doesn’t refer to any person who might fix your car after all. In many, many cases, it refers to something much more analogous to the usage of “mechanics” in “game mechanics.”

Say like in “quantum mechanics.”

So in a sense it might be easiest to think of these as two different words. You have “mechanic,” with the default (unmarked) form being the singular, referring to people who work on machines, and which can of course also be plural when you’re talking about more than one of them (as some of the lines in that second concordance sample reflect). And you have “mechanics,” which has a default (unmarked) plural form when it refers to something like “underlying mechanisms/rules/etc.” but which can be used in the singular if you’re just talking about one specific example of the mechanics in question. And that’s how you get the "mechanic" in “game mechanic” from "game mechanics."

I may have missed or glossed over something (or even gotten something wrong!) because that’s a real quickie analysis, but I think I hit the main points.

Rich
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Thierry Michel
Member

Posts: 177


« Reply #3 on: April 07, 2005, 05:38:17 AM »

Quote from: Rich Forest
In many, many cases, it refers to something much more analogous to the usage of “mechanics” in “game mechanics.”


It is indeed a branch of physics - I should have thought of it.

What shocked me is seeing it actually on paper as opposed to the less formal use in discussion forums (incidentally, the same book has on the back cover a disclaimer starting with "Contains contents..." which made me think that the editing had been sloppy, hence my question) .

I'd prefer device or contraption myself.
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Walt Freitag
Member

Posts: 1039


« Reply #4 on: April 07, 2005, 06:02:36 AM »

It's because of the analogy to "quantum mechanics" and similar constructions that I prefer "mechanism" (singular) and "mechanisms" (plural) when referring to specific procedures of game play.

"Quantum mechanics" is not really a plural form, it's a sort of "cumulative" form (I'm sure there's a real linguistic term for this) referring not to "more than one of" but rather "the entire set or class of" those rules or principles derived from quantum theory.

I've never heard a physicist or science writer refer to the Schroedinger wave equation as a "quantum mechanic." A physics lecturer who started a session with, "today I'm going to cover two more quantum mechanics: superfluidity and superconductivity" would be laughed at. Similarly, we don't call Newton's Third Law a "physic" and we don't call a triple twisting dismount from the high bar a "gymnastic."

However, I have to admit that we do call a single piece of quantitative data a "statistic" and we do call a single image a "graphic" (and I wonder if there are distinguished elderly statisticians and graphic artists out there who lament those usages, and would prefer we call them "statistical figures" and "graphic images" instead). So perhaps I'm spitting against the tide arguing for "game mechanism" instead of "game mechanic." But in the cases of "graphic" and "statistic" there were no one-word alternative singular noun forms of the words available, while "mechanism" already exists and suits the purpose just fine.

- Walt
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Walt Freitag
Member

Posts: 1039


« Reply #5 on: April 07, 2005, 06:13:38 AM »

Oh, and by the way. Doesn't the thread title: "Cute/Clever Mechanics Swap Meet" sound like some kind of dating service for repairmen?

I rest my case.

- W
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Rich Forest
Member

Posts: 226


« Reply #6 on: April 07, 2005, 06:29:06 AM »

You're spitting against the tide! Analogy is not a process that operates through particularly logical mechanisms :-)

Those "cumulatives" you're talking about, I've seen them referred to as "mass nouns" and as "non-count nouns." I'm sure there are other names for them as well.

As far as "Cute/Clever Mechanics Swap Meet" goes...

it certainly does now.

Rich
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Walt Freitag
Member

Posts: 1039


« Reply #7 on: April 07, 2005, 06:42:02 AM »

Quote from: Rich Forest
it certainly does now.


Then my work here is done! [swirls cape, leaps out window]

- W

[distant thud]
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Selene Tan
Member

Posts: 167


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« Reply #8 on: April 07, 2005, 04:30:12 PM »

Dictionary lookup!

Mechanics:
1. The branch of physics concerned with the motion of bodies in a frame of reference
2. The technical aspects of doing something, e.g. "the mechanics of prose style"
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Walt Freitag
Member

Posts: 1039


« Reply #9 on: April 07, 2005, 07:12:53 PM »

But Selene, no one is objecting to "mechanics" as a term indicating game procedures in general, or some class or type of game procedures. The issue is whether "mechanism" and "mechanisms" are better than "mechanic" or "mechanics" when referring to a single specific procedure or a number of specific procedures, respectively. (Reading back over the thread, it appears that no one made this clear. My bad.)

Here are four different usages:

1. Universal: "Game mechanics aren't necessarily the most important or the most difficult element of role playing game design."
2. Class or Type: "Game X has very well-designed mechanics." "The superpower mechanics in Hero System are very flexible, if you can handle their complexity."
3. Specific plural: "My three favorite new game mechanics in the new edition are carrying over fate points, borrowing successes, and raising the stakes with the doubling cube."
4. Singular: "My new Dolcett RPG needs a mechanic for cumulative effects of gradual asphyxiation."

Usages 1 and 2 are fine with me. For usage 3 I'd use "mechanisms" instead, and for usage 4 I'd use "mechanism" instead. That's all.

- Walt
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Selene Tan
Member

Posts: 167


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« Reply #10 on: April 07, 2005, 07:45:48 PM »

Well, I posted it as more of an explanation as to why the term "game mechanics" came about to begin with.

And also because I have one of those dictionary programs where you can just highlight the word and hit the shortcut key, so I love looking up words. ;)
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Emily Care
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Posts: 1126


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« Reply #11 on: April 08, 2005, 05:04:11 AM »

I'm partial to using it as an adjective, "mechanical procedures", to refer to rules that require specific, reproducible steps (eg roll a die, compare stats, take turns framing scenes etc). But I know that's wonky & not likely to be adopted.  

best,
Em
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