Jan 22 2014

Don’t Say “Gameplay,” Say What You Mean Instead

Published by at 7:44 am under Editorials,Video Games

by Jarrod S. Lipshy

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What I am about to propose may come as a shock. It may even make some people feel upset. I know this because I, too, felt defensive when I first heard the idea. This is a normal reaction when you are suddenly forced to question something you’ve taken for granted your whole life.

What I’m suggesting is that we never use the word “gameplay.” Ever. Not in casual conversation, not on message boards or comment threads, and least of all in professionally published pieces. This isn’t to pick on anyone in particular. Saying “gameplay” is something we all do, because we’ve been trained to do it by game journalists, marketers, and also occasionally by the game designers themselves. But now we need to stop, because the word doesn’t signify any specific meaningful aspect of game design, and actually harms our ability to discuss games at all.

Consider the following phrases (as invented by the author of the article that began this line of discussion, Alex Kierkegaard).

“This book has good bookread”

“This movie has good moviewatch”

Both phrases illustrate the outright ridiculousness of the word “gameplay.” A game is something you play. Period. To try and skirt around this issue by separating elements vital to the definition of a videogame – the “gameplay” – from elements that don’t actually affect how the game is played misses the entire point of what makes a game good in the first place. When referring to the “gameplay”, you lump together a massive wad of things that make a game enjoyable or even worth playing at all.

I honestly understand how this term came about, and why people choose to refer to “gameplay.” Once videogames became more commonplace in the early 80′s, different arcade games had to compete with one another for potential players’ quarters. One of the easiest ways arcade games stood out was to have better-looking graphical displays with higher resolution, brighter colors, or more advanced effects. This eye-candy would lure players in with enticing demonstrations of how cool the game would look in what was called the “attract mode”. Some players discovered, much to their dismay, that often a game that looked flashy might not actually be much fun to play at all. Thus, the discrepancy between “gameplay” and “everything else not contingent to the actual quality of the player interaction” was born.

This rift only expanded as home consoles competed from the late 80′s into the mid 90′s. Add-ons like the Sega-CD boasted “futuristic” graphics that were one step closer to the supposed holy grail of virtual reality. People who purchased consoles like the Sega-CD peripheral or the expensive 3DO soon realized that while fully-rendered cutscenes and bumped-up textures could look neat, “primitive,” unfuturistic games like Sonic 3 still had a lot more to offer in terms of overall quality. Having impressive processing power didn’t matter squat if the game itself was a piece of crap. So, creating a term like “gameplay” was vital for distinguishing the meat and potatoes of a game with what amounted to window dressing.

wingcommander

For this reason I think a more accurate analogue of gameplay would be “foodeat”. There’s lots of ways to make food seem appealing. Having it smell good or look pretty could indicate to your brain that “this is something that I might enjoy eating,” but sometimes there’s something off about a food item. Maybe one of the flavors is too strong, the texture is weird, or maybe the food is just at the wrong temperature. So, in this instance, would a food critic say “the presentation of the dish was quite exquisite, but overall the foodeat was lackluster”? I doubt it. Instead, they would refer specifically to what was unappealing. When reviewers and consumers started addressing “gameplay” issues, they were failing to pinpoint why they didn’t like a game and instead just ruling out the things like graphics or sound.

So what all does gameplay include? The control scheme? The movement mechanics? The level design? The difficulty curve? The way enemy AI plays out in a particular situation? What about small aspects of combat like damage values or bullet spread? All of these things affect the supposed “gameplay”. Instead of referring to these things specifically, though, people instead say things like “the gameplay is as good as the graphics” without understanding what worked particularly well within that game and ostensibly without the need for further explanation.

Instead of saying vague things, we should try to be specific about what we mean when we say that a game has good or bad gameplay. If anything, we’re much better at describing the non-gameplay elements based upon our tastes in other media. For instance, people can refer to why they liked the plot better in Bioshock than they did in Killzone, but fail to address the different styles of FPS control and combat design.

We also fail to recognize the diverse array of criteria required in making a game good. Early games like the Final Fantasy series have traditionally been separated between the overworld view and the combat. Does walking around in town and buying new equipment qualify as gameplay? Does looking for treasure in dungeons? Essentially, strategically selecting attacks from the menu in battle mode qualifies as the only player/game interaction in the strict sense, but talking to NPC’s and modifying your character comprises a large chunk of these games, and isn’t something that happens autonomously by any means.

ffIX-shop

You can begin to see with this example why I think the umbrella term is useless in the first place. Referring to the overworld walk speed, the gradual implementation of more powerful items, the repetition of battle strategies, as well as the particular magic system all demand specific attention and bear mention. But instead we try to describe how “there’s not enough gameplay” when what we mean is that “it doesn’t have the type of player experiences I demand”.

I’m not demanding a shift in game types, either. Designing a game is a tricky business. Luckily, players have a broad array of genres and tastes to satisfy, and a large company like Konami or Nintendo is going to try and appeal to these niches when they are deciding on their upcoming lineup. That’s why it’s ok to have a game like Heavy Rain that favors cinematic experience over player interaction

This difference is why when we talk about certain games like Super Smash Bros. Brawl (as opposed to a game like Metal Gear Solid 4) we don’t really talk about the gameplay except for as an introduction to “is this a good Smash Bros. game?” and then move on to why we think it’s good or bad. Even then, being specific is still a persistent problem, which is the underlying reason many people prefer Melee over Brawl but lack the critical vocabulary to explain why.

I even admit I get caught up in this type of conversation. While writing, I luckily have the benefit of a delay in communication as well as resources like a thesaurus, so I can think around the shortcut of saying “gameplay”with ease. In conversation, however, it’s difficult to breach the subject of precise game critique.

For example, I wanted to find out if the new Pokemon X was a good game, so I tried to ask a friend who had recently bought it. When discussing Pokemon, however, lots of things not contingent to “is it a good game” come up, things like side modes, or how good the Pokemon design is. I tried to ask about the content, the battle designs, the challenge, the environment progression, but if I had just asked my friend “how is the gameplay?” the conversation would have been on cruise control as he described the aspects that jumped out to him.

pokemonxy-art1

This anecdote would seem like a justification for using the word, but it just illustrates that when we say “gameplay” we are using the term as a placeholder for a lot of ideas that are open to interpretation. That’s not a good word to use, then. Having it mean many different things can be a way to weasel out of actual arguments as to why a game is or isn’t good.

Revisiting the Kierkegaard article, he provides the example of a friend who is involved in game design. This person’s superiors would occasionally gripe about the gameplay and not have to justify why they did or didn’t like something. As a result, the man’s profession was made more frustrating trying to pinpoint the component that the director didn’t enjoy. Often, the discrepancy just boiled down to a matter of “it’s not the type of game I like/think audiences would like” rather than trying to critique why the game wasn’t adequately achieving the project’s goals.

So let’s all do ourselves a favor and put video game critics in the hotseat by demanding more specific vocabulary. We can easily mention whether or not we like the voice acting, the HUD, or whether an art style is appealing, but often we don’t bother to say “the emphasis on shooting from cover makes the Modern Warfare series frustrating for new players, especially considering how fast your health drains,” instead we utter “I like the gameplay in Halo 3 better”. This change should have positive effects like making a “gameplay trailer” seem like the only trailer that should legitimately be used to evaluate whether or not a game will be good. So for the sake of progressing the art of video games, let’s try and step our conversations about them up a notch and get rid of the nefarious crutch/catchall that is “gameplay”.





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16 responses so far

16 Responses to “Don’t Say “Gameplay,” Say What You Mean Instead”

  1. goseebananafishon 22 Jan 2014 at 9:21 am

    I think the word “gameplay” is a generic term that equates to the “taste” of food or the “plot” of a book/movie. it is ok to ask a friend if they liked the plot of a movie, but a movie reviewer would never say “I liked the plot” and then move on to describe the costume design. A studio executive should never say “great movie, just fix the plot and it will be ready to distribute.”

  2. Eric Juneauon 22 Jan 2014 at 11:41 am

    I always consider “gameplay” to be shorthand for the overall experience of playing the game. That includes the combination of aesthetics and mechanics/play control. To continue the analogy to books, it could be the combination of style + plot. Or food: taste + presentation.

  3. Nick Verboonon 22 Jan 2014 at 1:25 pm

    Not only am I going to continue the use of the word gameplay, but I’m going to integrate foodeat, bookread, and moviewatch as well. How cool will I be? Way cool. Gameplay to me means how well a game plays. If the mechanics are janky and unresponsive, the gameplay is bad. If they are smooth and intuitive, the gameplay is good. Is this an unusual view of the term?

  4. Christopher Robisonon 22 Jan 2014 at 2:22 pm

    I have to say this article makes no sense. Gameplay is the way the game is played. In conversation it is a starting off point. How is the gameplay? then if someone doesn’t hit on what you specifically want to know you can ask a specific question pertaining to it. Example:

    Hows the gameplay?
    Really good, super easy to learn and really fun.
    Are they controls like Halo or MW?

    And your example of a director not saying specifically what was the problem is just an example of a poor director. A good director would say this isn’t the type of game I like to play, lets get some focus testers. But to him the gameplay is bad. Its all relative and equal. Gameplay is a phrase that is here to stay my friend.

    And the examples of Foodeat, bookread, and moviewatch are not quite relative to gameplay because they aren’t how does the food eat, or movie watch. But you can say How does a book read? is it a fast paced book or is it slow and boring with a few good parts.

  5. Jarrod Lipshyon 22 Jan 2014 at 3:48 pm

    Why not just say “Is it a good game?” Can you have a good game with bad gameplay?

  6. Jarrod Lipshyon 22 Jan 2014 at 3:55 pm

    Best counterpoint/discrepancy I’ve heard so far. Thanks for the feedback. “Gameplay” can be a jumping-off point despite the vagueness. It still sounds ridiculous to me now after reading the Kierkegaard article, though.

  7. Mr Moggyon 22 Jan 2014 at 8:28 pm

    As a game designer, “gameplay” is shorthand for the interactive parts of the game or the parts of the game that the player can directly control, i.e. the mechanics, controls, progression, etc. It is entirely separate from aesthetics side of the game or the parts of the game the player has little to no control over, i.e. how it looks, the narrative, sound etc. Typically, the game designer is responsible for the gameplay (also possibly story), artists and sound engineers are responsible for the aesthetics, programmers are responsible for making things work and directors/producers are responsible for making sure everything works together.

    A great game is strong in both aspects (gameplay and aesthetics) but a game can still be good if its strong in either side. For example, Final Fantasy games have always been relatively simple gameplay-wise for example, but bring out so much aesthetic quality it makes up for it. Alternatively, Super Mario games have such great gameplay (in this case, varied and challenging mechanics) that it doesn’t matter that the story is simple and graphical elements get reused over and over.

    To a consumer/end-user though, specifics like that don’t matter too much and become blurred, so it becomes a case of simply: “All factors considered,is the game fun or otherwise worth playing?” A good critic (and they are out there) knows why or why not and will address it in their review.

    To compare this to a movie for clarifications sake:

    A movie is a composition of plot, dialogue and characterization, cinematography, special effects, editing, etc. It’s hard to split this into categories like games, but there’s clearly a narrative aspect (plot, dialogue) and an aesthetic side (cinematography, editing).

    A great movie contains strong narrative and aesthetic aspects, and it’s usually a good director coming together with a good cinematographer, screen writer and actors. A movie with a strong narrative (i.e. great screenwriter) can still be good, in spite of looking rather average (Straight up action movies with good characters, like Die Hard for example), same with a movie that’s shot amazingly (i.e. great cinematographer) but has an average story or dull characters (These tend to be a little more art-housey, but for the sake of keeping it Hollywood: Avatar).

    So yeah.. Gameplay may be an odd world if you think about its literary origins, but to stop using it because some people use it wrong is a little silly. It’s like saying “Well all these morons using the word ‘swag’ as a shorthand way of saying ‘swagger’ have ruined the word and now we shouldn’t use it to describe free stuff we get from trade shows or a bushman’s sleeping bag/tent.’ Also, just wait until you find out about “gamefeel” (another odd sounding but equally viable word).

  8. Christopher Robisonon 22 Jan 2014 at 11:01 pm

    I could argue yes. Heavy Rain I thought was a great game with an incredible story and the controls fit the type of story that was told. Having said that I would tell people that there really isn’t much to the gameplay.

  9. jackon 23 Jan 2014 at 2:04 pm

    If we stop using the word “gameplay” my youtube searches will become much more difficult. How would I make sure it doesn’t show me another trailer or cut scene?!

  10. Jarrod Lipshyon 23 Jan 2014 at 2:29 pm

    That’s kind of my point; gameplay should be the operative mode when we are posting videos, discussing, etc and things like cutscenes and art styles should be secondary. Therefore it should, in an ideal world, go without saying.

    I always search for “longplay”, but sometimes that doesn’t work. It is frustrating sometimes trying to find somebody trying to play the damn game and “gameplay” does help as a search term. Sidenote: I hate youtube uploaders that feel the need to stream commentary while they play. Stfu and let us watch the damn game, not amateur comedy hour.

  11. Nikolai Perezon 23 Jan 2014 at 2:42 pm

    Just play the games… I read this article and all I can think is “why are you thinking this much into something thats just supposed to be enjoyed”. Video games are just mindless tasks and objectives we set ourselves on completing to make us feel good. So how about instead of analyzing, you just PLAY THE GAME!!!

  12. Jarrod Lipshyon 23 Jan 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Then you could just say “It isn’t much of a game. Most of the times you interact with it are quick-time events. It’s still a good experience.”

    We are making the wrong kinds of distinctions, I feel, when we go along with “no gameplay still = game.” I’m sure Heavy Rain is an awesome experience, despite not being much of a game, as I said in the article.

  13. Jarrod Lipshyon 23 Jan 2014 at 3:25 pm

    Thanks everybody for your responses! Even if no one agrees with me I still enjoy this conversation being started! It’s always good to evaluate assumptions even if you decide you still agree with them.

    I think the heart of the disagreement stems from the types of conversations we have about games. We don’t always just assume “gameplay” when we discuss games. The “window dressing” as I called it still contributes to the overall feel of the game, and leads to things like plot and flavouring the GUI. Advance Wars is a great example of this; the war theme colors every aspect of what is essentially a amped-up chess game. I think we need to see through the theming, though, and that will help us talk more specifically about the different types of experiences a game can offer through player interaction alone and not just style.

    Games are an interactive experience unlike books or film, though, so it’s hard to discredit the atmosphere of a game like Resident Evil and label it “Tomb Raider with zombies.” It ends up being so much more than that through atmosphere alone.

    I still encourage people to expand their vocabulary! I, too, have been involved in game design and the word “gameplay” never came up because the artist and the programmer were all working on every facet together.The GUI was seen as a top layer over the 1′s and 0′s and the theme/style of the game controlled how the art related to the game mechanics. Art was always secondary to control and design, though, so people should never forget this when talking about a game like Limbo that had great style and some fresh level design in the beginning but was basically just a jazzed-up puzzle/platformer!

  14. jackon 23 Jan 2014 at 5:52 pm

    I don’t really feel any is either primary now secondary, rather sometimes I want to see “just gameplay.

    I do totally agree with you on commentary though. Especially Amateur commentary. If it’s some professional review site fine. If it’s Zero Perfectionist that’s especially okay. When it’s just some kid talking while playing a game it’s annoying.

  15. Dani Vegaon 23 Jan 2014 at 9:24 pm

    To me, “gameplay” tries to grasp how a game feels like. At first, I thought, this is a legitimate evaluation of a game but I see your point of it being a highly subjective and vague one.
    Any game “feels” different to different people, thus I agree with you saying, we need to be more precise to able able to pinpoint more acurately what exactly we like and don’t.

    Thumbs up!
    Vega

  16. Dani Vegaon 23 Jan 2014 at 9:40 pm

    That’s actually not a bad point. Reflecting on “gameplay” as being too much of an umbrella term aka. it could mean anything means analyzing, criticizing, take things apart.
    Thinking too much about the reasons why you like something may take away the experience or the immersion and therefore make it less enjoyable.
    You don’t love a book, a movie, a videogame, because you like how the characters act in scene XY or how music interacts with images or whatever else. You love them because you feel being taken away completely to a place in your head, your heart or wherever your feelings take place. A place where you don’t need to explain, only to experience fully and to enjoy.
    In this case, “gameplay” serves best.
    Vega

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