My favorite part of learning a game is that special moment when all of the independent rules and bits suddenly snap into focus and unify into a gestalt experience. Suddenly there is something that is hovering above the game, something with depth and richness and a life of its own that, while dependent on the bits, is also beyond them.

This phenomenon is what I call the "Holographic Experience" of the game. It is like the 2d bits are projecting a 3d experience of the game into my mind. How does this happen?

Anatomy of the Holographic Experience

In a way, every game has many dimensions. The first, and most immediate, is the actual bits. The board (if it has one), cards, pieces, markers, tracks, tokens, meeples and every other physical component.

Then there is the design and the art. This can range from minimal to mind-blowing, but either way there is generally some effort made to unify the art across the bits so that everything seems consistent in the gestalt.

Then there are the rules. These are the allowed interactions you can have with the bits and with other players. In general, if you have the rules right, you could play with any bits as long as all the players agree on what they all mean and what corresponds to what.

Unifying the bits

At the ultimate level of all this is where all of these things come together: the experience. The experience of a game is a mystical thing. In the end all of the bits and art and rules and everything else that exists in the world is a platform for the experience to happen in the minds of all the players. The mind is where the game actually happens.

If everyone were cognitively capable of tracking everything, we could all dispense with the bits and just play directly in our minds. (I had a friend who we would try to play chess just by calling out the moves and tracking everything from memory. It worked for the first handful of moves, but inevitably lead to disputes.)

But it is more practical and fun to use the bits to support the game that is happening in everyone's mind. The bits serve as an independent authority on the state of the game, and as a focal point for shared action that everyone can witness as it happens. The bits unite everyone's independent experience into a shared one.

Sometimes the bits itself are mistaken for the game, but this is an error. The bits trigger things in the mind, but the mind is where the action is. Without the mind to give them meaning, the bits would just be inert and pointless things.

Theme and Experience

So this is where the art and mechanics come in. They are there to encourage a mind to have a certain kind of experience. Every game has a variety of experiences they trigger, and it is this experience that the game player is seeking. And this gives us a clue as to what a "theme" is: A theme is the kinds of experiences a game encourages inside a mind beyond simply the mechanics and decision space. Did you just score 12 points? Or did you just slay the dragon terrorizing the village? Since we exist in a sea of experiences and since experiences are the medium of the mind, a theme can evoke an experience that is just as real as an experience we have out in the world.

This is where the relationship between games and reality occurs. The world is full of "bits": rocks, trees, sky, fire, other people. Our mind is the thing that turns them into experiences. So essentially, the same dynamic is at work whether the experience happened in the "world" or whether it happens in a "game". Experience is experience.