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A Defense of Gameplay pt.6

  • "Modern gamers do not like gameplay" is a bold statement designed to get us to consider what is gameplay, what we like in our games, and how we discuss these topics. If you do not know what you like in gaming and why, I encourage you to investigate.
  • The definition of "game" has several parts (rules, variable outcomes, valued outcomes, player influence). Understanding these parts makes it easy to identify what gameplay is and its nature. 
  • Gameplay is about as straightforward as playing a game. But it gets trickey because what we commonly call video games are products that can feature various amounts of interactive and non-interactive content. Furthermore, not all interactive content involves systems that are games. Gameplay specifically means the use of mechanics (player actions) within a game system generally to win or a positively valued outcome. 
  • Though not all games are complex, are winnable, or are very interactive, many are. Complexities are important for giving designers the ability to create unique content and and content that reflects human complexity. 
  • Because games require participation and tend to be complex, learning is a big part of nearly all gameplay experiences. We gain knowledge of a game through learning just like we do when learning anything else. Because learning is a slow and repetitive process, so too is the nature of gameplay. 
  • Learning requires time, effort, focus, which is basically hard work. The upshot is when you play a skill-based game your victories are real victories and your failures are real as well. And because learning is difficult (requiring work) and games are challenging by nature, gameplay inherently involves a lot of failure. Many people do not find this fun, or as fun as other forms of (passive) entertainment.
  • As the industry grows so too does the mainstream audience. Tapping into the mainstream can be extremely profitable for game developers. For this reason, there have been trends in gaming that include a lowering of the skill floor and the integration of more passive forms of entertainment. 
  • With the emergence of the mainstream audience we can consider underlying cultural motivations that may influence the desires of the masses to help us understand why certain trends exist in the gaming industry. 
  • Finally, there are many complaints gamers make that reveal a lack of gameplay as their experiential priority when playing video games. It's one thing to express disappointment of a feature. But it's clear that when one complains about qualities inherent to gameplay and demand features that have nothing to do with gameplay or even work against it, that one doesn't have a love for gameplay. 
For the Love of Gameplay
There is a whole range of ideas and experiences that are not well communicated via text, visuals, audio, or any other means except through the interactivity in a rule-based system. I have lived a life full of such experiences that I am driven to express. I write fiction, non-fiction, make visual art of many kinds, compose music, and make films. If any combination of these mediums could convey all of the ideas I cherish, I probably wouldn't be writing this article series or this blog for that matter. With the same respect that I have for people and the way we interact in life, I want to share experiences with people by building these rule-based gameplay systems in hope that the players will meet me half way. I want players to dig in a bit, put in some work, have some fun, and meet me gazing into the novelty framed by my design. 
I love the half-reality of video game gameplay in particular. I love how gameplay systems are fair, consistent, and responsive. I love how regardless of my feelings and opinions that there's no other way to reach that victory screen than to buckle down and put in the work. I love how putting myself through the squeeze quiets the weakest parts of myself, while the version of me that I hope to become grows stronger in silence. I love listening to the thoughts of my inner mind develop from comments, to sentences, to speeches, to entire dynamic conversations as the learned complexities of the system gives me that inner language. 
I love gameplay because everything I just described deals with real complexity, real details, and real consequences. Because I have to participate and learn to make gameplay work, I bring the real me to the equation; exactly half of the equation. I find that the squeeze and the struggle to test my limits in the system reflect myself so clearly it's frightening. It' scary that I can see my life baggage manifest in how I play games and the excuses I make. It's chilling to see the same bad habits and tendencies from life creep up in my playstyle. And it's beyond exciting to take the same lessons and techniques from any other complex, skill-based system and apply it to the game. And visa versa! 
Some people find enduring the squeeze in any system incredibly stifling to their creativity, expression, and freedom. I find that not being squeezed, shaped, or otherwise influenced by an external force to be stifling. To me, ignorance is not bliss. Rather, knowledge is power. The more I avoid embracing and learning complexities the less creative and expressive I am. I've talked to so many aspiring creators who were absolutely obsessed with creating something "no one else has created before." It's great to want to be original and express yourself, but you can't truly strive for this goal unless you survey what everyone else has created. Putting on blinders and burying yourself within your own world of ideas and knowledge will only have the opposite effect that you want. It's by studying what others do, considering why they do it, and finding out what you would do differently that you find your true expression. I've found that anyone who clings to "freedom" and avoids the squeeze simply dooms themselves to repeat their same choices. They aren't free at all, but trapped by the lure of the familiar and the dangers of sympathetic resonance.  
By enduring the squeeze I find that I learn novel things about the system and myself. Did you realize that the novelty is the new perspective and understanding that opens up to reflect the system and you? I've learned so many things about myself that I would have never discovered if I wasn't limited. To use a funny metaphor; I love to dance. If you put weighted shoes on my feet I'll dance like a robot. If you tie my legs together, I'll do the worm. If you bind me into a chair, I'll work on arm-waves. If you restrict my arms, I'll bob my head. No matter how you limit me, I'll find a way to express myself. If you don't limit me at all, I'll likely never discover how to express myself with my head alone. 
Recently I realized the gravity of my work here at Critical-Gaming. My quest to find the language to talk about game design has also been a quest to describe and defend gameplay. Now that I've explained so clearly why gameplay is such an odd and unique type of entertainment, I realize that my aspirations to become a game designer might put me into a battle where I am vastly outnumbered. In other words, I'm not what anyone would consider a mainstream gamer due to any eclectic or discerning tastes in video games. It may be that I'm not a mainstream gamer because I have one particular difference in my tastes. I love gameplay. And I always have since I was a little boy. This simple difference puts me on a particular side of this waring industry. And nearly everything that I've written and everything that I understand about game design pushes me deeper into my trenches. 
"Every author, as far as he is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed: so has it been, so will it continue to be." ~William Wordsworth (1815)
At least, that's the grim view of things. The way things are now is actually quite interesting. While there are many AAA and indie games that aren't designed with gameplay as the main selling point, there are plenty of gameplay games to go around. I think this diversity is a good thing. I realize that most of what I strive for in terms of innovations in game design are true innovations of gameplay. After 4+ years of writing on this blog, I have the language to explain all of my ideas. So for the next half-year or so, I'll be making games and writing to get us all on the same page. 
The Defense rests.  
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Reader Comments (9)

Quite a declaration you've put together, can't wait to see where you go next.

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathanS


Thanks. I was waiting to see what people thought by the end of it all.

If you can get through this series without leaving me forever, then I'm sure we'll go to many wonderful places.

Great post . We are waiting for more and more updates.

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBest New Video Games

This series has really clarified some things for me. On a more personal level, I realize why I have increasingly avoided playing games in my free time - it's because I'm experiencing so much gameplay (squeeze, stress, learning) in my day job as a game programmer that I have no desire for more. All I want is rest or entertainment, which are different things - listening to music, experiencing, consuming, sleeping. etc.

It is also very clear that this trend away from gameplay is behind not only "casual" and "social" games but also the AAA console space and the people making "art games" and such, and that none of these are purely anti-gameplay either. I'm not strongly in favor of one focus over another, but I definitely see how the word "gameplay" can be so often misunderstood and misused by people who are not actually all that interested in gameplay.

April 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteraxcho


Thanks for sharing. Indeed, it's hard not to gravitate towards what you're familiar with as you have less time and less energy to endure the squeeze/learn. I think many gamers like us who are getting to "that age" are having similar experiences. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to gamers say something along the lines of... "I don't have time for _____. I just want to come home from work and ______. It's too much work to learn the controls. Why can't it just be intuitive and just work."

Yes. I wanted to make it clear that the trend away from gameplay is happening all over the place as the industry expands while trying new things here and there. Games are complicated. And they're only getting more difficult to talk about for reasons like this.

I'm learning to cut things out of my life that only distract because I don't have endless time and energy. It's somewhat unintuitive, but removing these stimuli from my life helps me relax more and enjoy what I do put my time into better.

Take care.

Thanks at all for this information.

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterangelinamaben

Thanks for such a great article. One thing that I wanted to add is that although your observation regarding trends in gameplay elements of games is correct and is what I feel playing many games, most of it apply to only singleplayer modes. While many people might only play the singleplayer campaigns, those who want to play multiplayer part are forced to learn the gameplay and master its inner workings. One might call those hardcores but I think many games these days put more emphasis on online multiplayer scenarios.

And IMHO, singleplayer and multiplayer parts balances out the gameplay aspect of a game: if you don't want to learn and adapt to gameplay, you will be able to enjoy the singleplayer mode. And if you are willing to learn and extend your entertainment with online gameplay, then you are forced to learn, practice, fail and win.

Just my 2cent :-)
Thanks again for this great read.


May 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAS

@ AS

Interesting idea. It's true that in many ways multiplayer games have retained their focus on gameplay. It's true that it's easier to drop the skill floor of a single player experience than a multiplayer experience.

I've also noticed that there is still a clash between players within multiplayer games. Some players want to goof around, while others want to win. Some buckle down and put in the work, others want a way to "win" without working for it. Some people think the multiplayer modes are inherently different from single player modes. Others see it as an extension of their single player play which includes all of their playstyles and attitudes.

Thanks for the comment.

Completely agreed. The level of competitiveness in many multiplayer games is also decreasing and many players are seeking cheats or even worse are able to buy enhancements (weapon/armor etc) or experiences/skills.

An these two trends (singleplayer and multiplayer) are in fact related to each other: a gamer starts with an easy ride in singleplayer mode which teaches him very little skills about the gameplay and then enters online scenario where it's full of other players presenting significantly more difficult challenges. And hence, out of frustration (or lack of interest in learning) they start looking for easy ways out (cheats or payments etc).


May 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAS

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