Memes and Mechanical Transference - The Ultimate Formula
This article will discuss:
What mechanical transference is and how we can harness it.
How we are all meme-machines and why memes are like genes.
A formula for the creation of 'strong' memes for timeless games.
At some stage in every-day life, each of us will undoubtedly have expressed ourselves in terms of a game mechanic. Whether you got the upperhand with a prideful ‘check-mate’ or ‘folded’ meekly in an unfavorable situation. Perhaps you noticed a match with an exuberant ‘snap!’ or upped the stakes with sly ‘I see your [blank] and raise you’. These phrases have become so widely ingrained in today’s culture, that you may not have even realised their connection with tabletop gaming at first use. When a game mechanic breaks free of a game-space to permeate the mundanity of everyday life, it has the potential to become timeless. A catchphrase can give your game the edge it needs to infiltrate the hearts and minds of players.
In order to understand how we might harness the power of catchphrases, we should first establish some thoughts through the lens of Memetics. Meme, a term coined by Richard Dawkins (1989), takes its root from the Greek mimema, meaning ‘that which is imitated’. Memes are a cultural phenomenon involving the repetitious transmission of information through various means. To clarify, they are not simply funny captioned images found on the internet, but extend far beyond such platforms. In a sense they are the ideas that make up those captioned images, the raw materials being hewn together to express a thought or idea. By way of analogy, the internet is to memes as DNA is to genes: a method of organising and propagating information packages for consumption and interpretation.
Wen Chen (2019) explains that there are two levels of meme - ‘weak’ and ‘strong’. Weak memes are noted as having ‘impotent force and fleeting propagation’; strong memes on the other hand, after having undergone a process of ‘assimilation, retention, expression and transmission’, achieve ‘far ranging duplication with little hindrance, everlasting transmission and formidable vitality’. In other words, strong memes are those that have gone viral. Much like a virus clinging to its host, memes rely on us to replicate them (for now). We, as vectors or ‘Meme Machines’ (Blackmore, S. 1999), are the conduits through which these ideas are able to spread.
In their primordial form, says Daniel Dennett (1995), memes were a lot more akin to viruses. They held little purpose other than to replicate themselves, regardless of the consequences. But as they are now - in a symbiotic relationship with self-aware creatures - memes must constantly vie for our attention, thus ‘competition for utility’ has arisen. Much like genetic mutations that hinder survival, memetic strains that do not have some utilitarian purpose to us are doomed to slip from memory. Such is the law of evolution.
How then can we, as game designers, harness the power of memes to create timeless games? How can we possibly shape culture with the power of a single word or phrase? By turning weak memes into strong ones. To do this, we will need to propagate our memes effectively. Get your pipettes out and I’ll walk you through the process of creating a viral meme.
This, effectively, governs the player’s ability and willingness to understand. When you present your memes to prospective hosts, simplicity is key. The concept behind your meme should be easy to grasp for your target audience, as well as the word or phrase itself. Unless you’re going to do a song and dance about it, the likelihood of another form of ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ catching on in the realm of tabletop is somewhat minuscule. As for their willingness, that’s where utility comes into play. Give them a reason to need the meme. It should be an integral part of gameplay, one that can’t be avoided. No one ever won a round of ‘snap’ or ‘bingo’ without calling it out.
Another thing to note is that humans are much more open to learning something if it speaks to them on an emotional level. They should be able to relate to your message or moral. Think about your games theme and the emotions you want to encite - better yet, establish the emotions your audience are most susceptible to and infuse these with your meme. There are countless corporations using this tactic for their taglines today, either by directly referring to an emotion (Coka Cola: ‘Open Happiness’) or alluding to one (Nike: ‘Just do it’, which evokes the kind of energetic immediacy you’d expect from those in need of sportswear). The word or phrase itself doesn’t need to even mean anything, but the emotiveness should shine through in context to build players emotional association.
Now we have some short, snappy memes with emotional relevance to our audience, we should consider how to propagate them most effectively. The simplest way to drill an idea into the minds of players it through repetition. Preferably not ad nauseam, but perhaps once per round. Alternatively, once per game can work but try to have it sitting on the tips of their tongues. As the tension rises and they await that perfect moment of catharsis, the repetition will occur internally.
Like genes, the meme that is most effective in helping players defend their win with a triggered defence mechanism will be most effective. If the alternative to remembering your catchphrase is certain failure, players will do half the work for you. There are many other ways to encourage ideas to move from short into long term memory banks. Rhymes, mnemonic devices (acronyms) and visual stimuli can all help you here, so take some time to plan your infiltration method.
Now, what are players going to do with your snappy, emotionally fuelled, repetitious meme that breaks tension with the catharsis of the Deathstar defeat? They are going to express it to others outside of the game-space. Since your meme is now firmly associated with an emotion, consider other situations in which it may be applicable? Can you hear kids shouting it across the playground? Would grandma whip it out in a conversation over tea and scones? Consider the context - more widely applicable memes (like the most adaptable genes) will undoubtedly prevail.
Many successful examples are also highly preformative, they express emotions or information to other players. Thus, memes that encourage hosts to perform - such as those that are formed of ardent exclamations like 'Bingo!' or 'You sunk my battleship!' - are likely to get more exposure. They are designed for others to hear them and send out a purposeful, personal message. Usually something like 'Haha, I win!'.
Now your have your vectors primed and ready, they will (however consciously) attempt to transmit your viral meme to other unwary victims. You can increase the spread of your meme by ensuring it is not easily overlooked. Make it unique. Make people stop and say "What the heck was that from?". Others will be more susceptible if they are shocked or confused by something, a need to understand will inevitably arise in order to avoid the dreaded FOMO (fear of missing out).
That concludes my reasoning regarding how we might harness the power of memes to transfer our game mechanics into everyday situations. Here, then, is a condensed version of the formula. Please, use it wisely. With great memes comes great responsibility.
A formula for viral memes:
> Keep it simple and useful.
> Relate to players on an emotional level.
> Repeat, rhyme or break tension to infiltrate long term memory.
> Consider applicable situations outside of gameplay.
> Make sure it is preformative and relays a message to others.
> Make sure it's unique (this also avoids copywrite issues).
> Play on peoples FOMO.
Blackmore, S. (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chen, W. (2019). A Study on the Network Catchphrases from the Perspective of Memetics. Journal of Language Teaching and Research.
Dawkins R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dennett, D. C. (1995). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. London: Penguin Press.