There is a theory that posits when most people are confronted with a mess, the natural instinct is to clean it up. This propensity toward cleanliness, or “solving” the mess, is what I believe is one of the two most powerful fundamental elements of game design.
In Pac-Man, the mess is the maze full of dots. You need to clean them up to achieve your goal of cleanliness. In Space Invaders, the aliens are the mess. Clean them up and you reach your goal. In Bejeweled you are presented with a messy screen of jewels. Arrange them in groups of matching 3′s and you clean it up, one match at a time. Chess? Clean the board of your opponent’s pieces, specifically his King. The ancient game of Go? Same mechanic.
The other powerful mechanic in game design is that of Building. Most great games combine these two mechanics such as any successful RTS like Age of Empires. Build your empire one unit at a time until you need to clean up your enemy’s mess of units. In Katamari Damacy, you are cleaning and building yourself constantly. RPGs are all about building and cleaning up the messy landscape of enemies.
Sometimes this mechanic exists at multiple levels within a game. Looking at the meta-design, you know that Resident Evil 4 is all about cleaning up the game world of zombies. Within this game you need to keep your inventory briefcase clean and optimized as well. And all the while you are building your arsenal to make all the cleaning easier and more fun.
World of Warcraft is the epitome of these two mechanics and both are executed at multiple levels in the game. Your character, you are building. The world, you are cleaning, so you can build more. Professions are building so you can make items that help with the cleaning….which feed into more building. The cyclical nature of the design is what all designers hope to achieve.
This tidiness theory, this instinct toward Order rather than Chaos, may be evolutionary and part of our DNA. My question is: if a person, when presented with a mess in any kind of medium, chooses not to clean it up, are they in danger of failing evolution? And are games, as a form of teaching how to build and clean various abstracted messes, helping us evolve?