Formalism could be a resource both in game criticism and design, if only it wouldn't be considered in conflict with content. In this post I'll try to explain how form and content are entwined rather than be opposite.
Be in the know of a debate regarding games’ form and content makes me think about how young are the games studies. Indeed this is, by far, one of the most disputed argument in the history of art, philosophy and design. Cyclically one takes the upper hand on the other giving birth to artistic movements and schools of thoughts, but without maintaining its limelight too long. And this is for a reason: content and form can be unlikely divided.
Poetry can provide a good overall view on the question. When a poem doesn’t respect none of the rules of form it risks to be indistinguishable from other literary genres, when a form is followed too strictly instead the risk is to produce something that may lack a message or a meaning.
Formalism and structuralism tried to separate the two arguing that a work of art could be studied just as a structure. Formalists and structuralists put themselves in the quest to extract a unique and general form, a sort of narrative matrix. The two best results of these researches are the Propp’s narrative model and the Greimas’s actantial model. But both theories revealed themselves to be too general for the study of a specific narrative piece, indeed, analyzed through them, almost all plots become similar.
On the other hand it’s quite impossible to imagine a literary piece that is made up just of content, to have a meaning every narration has to have at least a basic structure (just think to the consecution of subject and verb).
In this aspect video games are not too different from literature or any other media. Games without sufficiently defined mechanics may not be considered games; games too focused on them instead risk to have nothing to say (and if games should be considered a medium, or an art form, they have to express something).
Alongside these extremes, form and content influence games also in other ways. The limit of the form is that it cannot be reused without changes, this is the reason whereby many AAA titles feel quite similar: same structure, same game. Furthermore works solely based on form (usually puzzle and casual games) can lack the kind of involvement typical of the more content focused ones (just think how the curiosity to know how a story ends could motivate the player). In this regard only really effective mechanics (e. g. Tetris, Hexagon, Flappy Bird, etc) keep the player playing without frustrating her too much.
Though, when content is just attached, it isn’t effective too. If to provide a message or a story the control is kept from the player, something is wrong. Furthermore games too focused on the story risk to have inconsistent or repetitive mechanics.
The solution resides in merging the two approaches: a not brilliant (or already used) mechanic can probably shine if embedded in (and not glued to) a story, or a part of it. At the same manner a story or a message told by a mechanic is incredibly more effective. These two aspects complete themselves mutually, while form improves the experience on the fun side, content enhances it on the involvement side.
Form and content used together can generate a more solid and communicative work. For the same reasons games should be analyzed considering both aspects, as both are constitutive elements of the medium. As noted before, form (mechanics) usually is the main base for the fun, while content has a prominent role in involvement (although this is just a simplification, since fun and involvement are deeply connected).
Virtus stat in medio and until content and form will be considered in opposition something will be always lost, both in the design process and in the analysis one.