Gameplay, what is it?

This post will be of a slightly informal tone, I’m afraid. It’s been nine months since I posted and a lot can change in that time. The race of a few hundred million spermatozoa will be whittled down to that one successful applicant that will start the process of forming a new human life, gestating right up until the point it needs its ass slapped in order to start crying at how miserable the world is, all in nine mere months.

And I too have changed in such a time. I started this blog with the intention of providing an almost-academic approach to the analysis of the videogame as an art and entertainment form; mostly via the dissection of interactive spaces, but also eventually expanding to how this interplays with user/player input to create the iterative feedback relay I’ve come to know over the years as ‘gameplay’.

Except I’ve mostly been put off that kind of thing by actual videogame “academics”, who prefer a contextual approach (read: a primarily-Feminist analysis of narrative content seemingly fueled by the debunked mountain of horseshit that is cultivation theory) over the more coldly-objective approach I’d love to see. And I don’t want to be associated with all that, such people are the kind I’d be polite to in real life because I know they’re well-meaning and all; but if I saw them at a pub I’d probably wave ‘hello’ and then find somewhere else to sit, preferably in a dark and stinky corner unlikely to appeal to their curiosity. Ah shit, I have to walk by them to get a drink – does this place have a bar upstairs?

I’ve even seen a lot of criticism, direct and otherwise, about the word ‘gameplay’ itself to the following symphony and its movements:

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I do not condone the content of that last one, sorry.

Except it has to be noted that in any new field, especially an entertainment medium that is only around half a century old such as videogames; incredibly young compared to most of its peers, traditional games and film and literature and even film; there are inevitably going to be concepts specific to such a medium for which there is no accepted nomenclature, or indeed words already equipped to convey. Who thought to call framing a slice of recorded movement a ‘shot’ when there are no guns inherent in film-making, and why should an isolated picture-and-words combination framed apart from the others be named a ‘panel’ when comics are not furniture?

Words are tools, constructs of language designed to convey meaning. As such, if one does not exist to convey a specific meaning, then it is not out of the ordinary to create one. After all, a certain William Shakespeare apparently did that around 1,700 times.

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And actually, Google knows what the word means. Sort of. A personal caveat of mine though, is that little bit – do you see it? – where it states “such as [a game’s] plot”. Well I beg to differ on that one. And finally, I get to the meat and spices of this writing.

I once, way back as a wee bairn; only around a dozen years away from my own post-incubation arse slap; remember having a frustrating discussion with my dad. You see, father dearest had decided that Streets of Rage and Street Fighter had the same gameplay. Identical was, I believe, the word he used. And he did indeed say “identical gameplay” and yet this ran contrary to what the words meant to me. Nobody had expressed to me what ‘gameplay’ meant, but I had read it in ye olde CVG and Mean Machines and from the context in which it had been often used, pieced together the following:

‘gameplay’ is the interaction of a game, how player avatars and/or cursors react to control device input and the feedback ingame entities provide to alter such interactions impacts upon that experience.

Maybe in not-so-flowery vernacular, as I was about twelve at the time. Actually, I totally lacked the vocabulary to express how a side-on six-button fighter versus a sole opponent with ‘up’ for jump and ‘down’ for crouch played significantly different to an orthographic-perspective three-button brawler versus multiple foes with its own jump button, no crouching, and the ‘up/down’ keys dictating a character’s lateral movement. All we had was that common word with two different definitions: gameplay. Frustrating.

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I confess, I want to see use of the word ‘gameplay’ unified to mean what I know it means. Me, me, me. But that’s because things like ‘plot’ (although it can indeed inform the gameplay, and is literally the difference between filling Nazis full of bullets and animals full of feed despite being the same mechanic) have their own damn words; the interplay between player and game, and to a lesser degree the study of what makes all that stuff work, doesn’t. Well, it does. That word is ‘gameplay’ and it’s how we should be using it.

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