Jan 22 2014
by Jarrod S. Lipshy
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.
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.
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.
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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