Thursday, September 16, 2010

Forwards Compatible Redux

Originally Posted: June, 2009

'Get Gameplay Gone'

This is a reposting of a topic me and various other gamers discussed last year concerning the usage of 'gameplay' in our culture's lexicon. I'm reposting it for Mike Schiller & Ben Abraham, perhaps they'll find something to add something to the topic.

Spearhead Topic by Matthew Armstrong

Like the concept of the genre, the notion of gameplay is starting to cripple under the weight of the 'perceived industry'. I’ve personally been responding to the term negatively for years now, but it seems that people are finally starting to understand my disdain. For the writers, I suspect it’s just a matter of understandable convenience, as not everyone wants to launch into long-winded dialects analyzing the minutest introspects of their opinion. For someone like me however, I revel in the nature of 'experiencism', and I advocate shoving along the common perception for the term 'gameplay'. It needs to reach a critical mass, so we can finally move beyond it.

So why abolish the term? Well, there’s certainly no animosity towards a word, never is. It’s the ideas and concepts tied to the word. Gameplay is an offensive umbrella term, usually lumping any number of things together in order for the player to further or clarify (rather superficially) their own experience with the game. I’ll give three primary examples for why I think the term earns its own disdain. If you think the term is necessary, by all means defend it.

I - Mechanical Collaboration

This means taking any of the numerous aspects of a game and retrofitting them with the term in order to distort or skew the personal perspective of the title itself (it’s 'backwards experiencism' in my eyes). For example, if one enjoys the sound of the game, then they should simply say so (and why). Simply wrapping their quick-witted audio references around flag of gameplay is treacherous (to both the sound design and the game).

II - Subjective Nebuli

To solidify one’s own opinion is a great thing to. What troubles me is when people use the backdoor jumping point of objectivity. People don’t like having their personal views crushed so they often seek out the established world’s perception in order to help validate their own opinion. It’s worked for plenty people throughout the times, but it’s a verisimilitude at best. If you really want to accomplish something, scale the heights of your own opinion, don’t just climb on backs of other people’s work, it’s just lazy.

III - “Genre”lization

We actually covered this as its own Spearhead not too long ago. This is a double-edged sword because not only does it hurt the public perception of what a player’s experience encompasses, it insults what the developers have done in the first place. Furthermore, they become working gears that cater to that insulting whim, which is sad in itself. How many developers have set out in the sole mindset of 'Let’s create a kickass First Person Shooter!' and nothing more? See the inherent problem there? My biggest fear is that the bulk of gamers are too far gone to see it at this point. It’s like they’re staring at a stereogram from an old Highlights for Children magazine. A lot of gamers just need to learn how to cross their damn eyes.

I’m not advocating that gamers stop using the term altogether, but simply clarify their usage of the word (and demand further insight from those that use it). It’s abusive to whatever game is in question when said person begins to hide behind the term 'gameplay'. It’s the difference between hearing someone say “The Patriots” and “La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo”. If a gamer cannot clarify those ends, then they’re nothing more than escapists to me, which opposes me on an entirely different level altogether.

If you don’t look suspicious when someone simply throws out the term now, you should. It’s surprising how some opinions crumble like dirt clods when the guise of gameplay is gutted.

Second Take written by By Jeff Grubb

I understand that some people bristle at the use of the term “gameplay,” the way the term’s numerous meanings work as a coverall can sometimes be annoying, but I think we just all need to decide exactly what the definition of gameplay is. I get the feeling that my consistent use of the word does not necessarily jive with the way the word is used in reviews. Unfortunately, I don’t think gameplay is a word that was devised with a proper definition attached to it, instead it earned its vague meaning through common use. says about the word, “generally, the term gameplay in video game terminology is used to describe the overall experience of playing the game excluding factors like graphics and sound.” I think this definition would work fine if it weren’t for the word “overall.” This makes the term too vague. continues, “despite criticism, the term gameplay has gained acceptance in popular gaming nomenclature, being the only common phrase describing story quality, ease of play, and overall desirability of a game all in one word.” And one number is supposed to sum all this up?

If that is the case then the word deserves all the criticism that it receives, it just isn’t how I have been using the word. When I say the word gameplay it is used to describe the play of the game. If a game’s mechanics are the rules of the game then the gameplay is the way that you interact with or against those rules. If the mechanics of Donkey Kong is to get from the bottom to the top using ladders and jumping while fighting against enemies that die when you hit them with a hammer, then the gameplay is the way that you control and how the jumping feels. If gameplay has never meant that, then there has never been a specific word for describing that.

This comes back to the need to criticize people who write about games, specifically those who review games. The idea that a writer may use the word gameplay to describe everything from control to story is absurd. However, I would hate to see the word be retired completely; I do think it serves a purpose as I defined it. Adjusting a commonly used word’s meaning is impossible to force, that sort of mass redefining is a natural occurrence, so I won’t wait up for that.

While writing this I have to admit that I am sort of flabbergasted. I’ve heard people complain about the use of the word gameplay and I always wondered what the problem was. I figured either I didn’t understand the definition of the word or I just hadn’t been reading the same reviews that others have been. Now that I realize what all those reviews that put a number by the word gameplay intended I am offended. This is no way to be reviewing games. It is the experience that matters, and to try to separate so many different aspects of the experience into some cloudy and formless blob and throw it all under a makeup word is confusing and pointless.

Instead of expecting the writers to get better of their own accord we could also vote with our clicks. There was always a group of reliable reviewers whom all knew how to talk about games, we need to read these people and to make it clear that we appreciate the thoughtful over the lazy.

Roundtable Discussion with Dustin Rodgers, Louis Lantos, Matthew Armstrong, and Jeff Grubb

>>> Dustin Rodgers
Editor, Forwards Compatible

SnakeLinkSonic mentioned a very interesting and relevant point to this discussion, genres. The definition of gameplay is different depending on the game. Because new genres are being created every year, the definition of gameplay continues to expand. If we were to define precisely what gameplay is, it would limit what games can be. Gameplay must remain a blanket-term to ensure the inclusion of new games, and therefore must retain some ambiguity or vagueness.

More specific than genres however, are the games themselves. The gameplay in Lumines is judged in a different way than the gameplay in Call of Duty 4, and even a closer relative, Tetris, is entirely different. While some games share common ground, falling blocks or a first person perspective for example, that is more to do with a genre than gameplay. No one would compare Portal to Mirrors Edge in terms of gameplay, but they could both be described as first-person platformers.

Gameplay can vary widely even within the same series. For example, Super Mario World and Mario 64 share similarities, but the gameplay is very different. When we consider all of the factors that contribute to a game’s gameplay, we can see that gameplay is different for every game. We can’t define a term when it has so many applications. Perhaps it would be best to understand gameplay as the inner workings of a game, whatever they may be.

I prefer to see gameplay as what makes a videogame a game. The rules, the balance, and the game mechanics coming together to make a game, and not a screen saver that requires a controller. It’s not a very good definition, but I don’t see a way to avoid ambiguity.

>>> Louis Lantos
Editor, Forwards Compatible

I think both Jeff and SLS hit on the idea of the term “gameplay” being a useful social tool for people; conversationally it makes it far easier for one member of the gaming public to engage another, on a fundamental level. It tends to open up the doors, as such. Once you’ve used that catch-all, then you can further elaborate on the experience, for instance, “the graphics are pretty incredible” or “the way you can level up your character along the way is cool” e.t.c. Not many people go on the analytical breakdown when talking casually about games, not unless they’re sure they can involve the person they’re talking to on that level. So, as far as social use goes, I definitely think it helps, and fully condone it.

Now, on a critical or journalistic level, I take the opposite stance. Because the circumstances change, and you’re now being paid to breakdown a game to an audience of enthusiasts (or people enthusiastic enough to be reading about video games) you are obligated to be more informative. It’s lazy and pointless to be a journalist who throws down such a broad term and then moves on, it does a disservice to your readers, and makes you look like a shitty writer. Unless I’m reading FHM magazine, and, as always games coverage is an afterthought that reads like it’s been strung together by some douche who’s read a press release and never touched the game he’s discussing, I expect a more evolved level of engagement.

As far my personal spin on the term, and what it means. Me personally, when I describe gameplay to someone, it means exactly what it says: the way the game plays. Gameplay to me is me picking up the controller and getting a sense that I’m enjoying the experience of me pressing buttons to create actions; its a primal reaction to the experience. I would never used the term gameplay to define sound or visuals, it’s purely the act of playing the game. Certainly the audio and graphics have direct implications on that playing experience, but if I want to make a point of those I would normally address them directly, for I cannot control graphics or sound (usually); they’re just there.

>>> SnakeLinkSonic
Editor, Forwards Compatible, The Misanthropic Gamer

Is there anything to be said about how those “lower-tier” write ups receive our literary fecal matter? Like Lou said, there are some contexts in which the term has it’s place. However, if I read something, even in a Playboy magazine, I expect to hear some inkling of individual thought. This is strictly opposed to the reality of what we get, with things like “the gameplay is solid”, there’s no worth in words for that kind of game articulation.

I’m not going to pretend that everyone must launch into in-depth discussions about a game’s makeup, but it really doesn’t take that much to convey what one enjoys or sees beneficial about a game (contrary to however I may write, heh).

Remember what I said about fecal matter. Well, look at it this way. The progenitor-thought writing for games function as kidneys in our own bodies. When we develop our own disorders (i.e. some of us using the term wantonly), the idea gets passed on and accumulates (spreads) across the internet until we have a SUPRISE! kidney stone, a sometimes too-large collection of dissolved materials that cannot be passed by the body in a traditional fashion (an umbrella term that’s become too large for people to really understand what someone is trying to say).

>>> Jeff Grubb
News Editor, Editor, Forwards Compatible

I think that we can safely declare here that the idea of using Gameplay in the body of a review is — as Louis says — a disservice. Even using it as a heading for a portion of the review seems a bit silly. Tell us about the experience of the game and at some point you should be explaining the gameplay. However, if I am in a colloquial situation I don’t wan to be corrected for my use of a word that I know everyone will understand, since chances are I am using it as one step in the path of explaining my thought.

Dustin’s last paragraph is key, though, for those who would choose to “reclaim” the word. The ambiguity of the word comes from the ambiguity of games themselves. There are so many different things that make a game a game and so many different ways of producing play, that we need an ambiguous word to represent that idea. However, and I am repeating myself, the conversation can not end with “the gameplay is good/bad.”