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The use and misuse of the term 'gameplay'

Brandon Erickson's picture

Mirror's Edge

Video games are still a relatively young medium, and as such the vocabulary that we've developed to describe them is similarly immature. Nowhere does this seem more apparent to me than in the way the term gameplay is used. Most people who play and read about games probably have the same general sense of what the term means. As I understand it, gameplay refers to the experience of playing or interacting with a game without reference to things like graphics and sound. This seems pretty straight forward. But the more I read and write about games, the more I find the use of this term problematic.

I'll use an example from Mirror's Edge to illustrate my point. If I say that I really like the "core gameplay" in Mirror's Edge then most gamers will get that I'm talking about the immersive (to use a made up video game adjective) quality of running around as that character. But let's go back to the definition of gameplay. Does the quality of the "gameplay" in Mirror's Edge really stem from elements that exist outside of graphics and sound? The more I examine it, the more I'm inclined to say no. The way the screen shakes and gets blurry around the edges, the sound of the air rushing by, the sound of the character's footsteps and breathing, I would argue that all of these cosmetic aspects of the game are what make the gameplay feel so cool. So when I say that that Mirror's Edge has great gameplay, I'm actually doing a pretty poor job of conveying what I like about that game.

The discourse around first-person shooters is another prime example of this. I've heard all sorts of discussions comparing the quality of the "shooting gameplay" in various FPS games, when people are really just comparing the look and sound of the guns, the reload animations and the way the enemies look when they've been shot. I'm as guilty of this as the next guy. While listening to the Rebel FM podcast the other day, I had the privilege of hearing an often ridiculous debate around whether Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3 have better "shooting gameplay" than Half-Life 2 (for the record, the guys arguing for Half-Life 2 were wrong, but I digress). It really reminded me of how confused people get sometimes when trying to articulate why shooting a gun in one game feels cooler than in another.

I don't necessarily have a problem with the way gameplay is defined, and I'm not really suggesting that its definition be adapted to conform to how it's often used. In fact, most of the time I don't even really mind that terms like gameplay aren't used with extreme precision. It's just that a lot of writers never bother to distinguish between gameplay in a strict sense and the more cosmetic aspects of a game. And when those distinctions go unnoticed, I think it does a disservice to games. If we can't really articulate what it is about a game that affects us, positively or negatively, then it makes meaningful critique and progress that much more difficult.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3  
Genre(s): Adventure/Explore   Shooting  

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So why not be more

So why not be more specific?

"I like Mirror's Edge for the controls."
"I like this FPS for how satisfyingly intense the battles are."

..or something.

What's in a game?

You make a very valid point, which nicely illustrates the difficulty of defining what, exactly, makes video gaming "fun" at all. On a superficial level, we all know that many games are good at least partly because of their great audiovisual presentation. But if one were to take a closer look at a lot of games with your specific problematization of "gameplay" in mind, I suspect one would find surprisingly many examples of well-received titles which, strictly speaking, aren't made such enjoyable experiences primarily by any of the characteristics which separates them from non-interactive entertainment, but rather by the very same elements one would find and appreciate in other forms of entertainment (in which they are obviously anything but "cosmetic"). And if so, what's the rationale for playing these games at all; rather than watching a good movie, reading a great book or listening to a fine album? And could these kinds of qualifications constitute a dangerous Trojan horse for rabid game bashers such as Roger Ebert to exploit? Just thinking out loud here...

Mechanics vs. Aesthetics

To me gameplay has always referred to the system by which the player interacts with the game, which is how I try to refer to it when I write. I.E., an overarching term than encompasses things like controls, responsiveness, learning curve, etc. If a game has good gameplay, then it means interacting with the game is easy to learn. By that definition (which is again, just my own), gameplay is one side of the entire experience along with aesthetic aspects such as music, art style, writing, world/level design, etc. So in a nutshell, gameplay consists of the player's interaction with the game world, and aesthetics consists of the world with which the player is interacting.

However, I do agree that the term "gameplay" is used a little to liberally.

Blurred definitions

It's a really interesting point that it's sometimes hard to distinguish gameplay from graphical and audio non-gameplay elements. As you rightly say, there's a constant feedback between how a game looks and sounds and what the player does about it - a bit like style and content, which are basically indivisible (change one and you change the other). But still, everyone knows the difference.

In another sense isn't the definition of gameplay really easy? It's is what the player can do: move, jump, attack, defend, duck, climb, reload, pick up, discard, hit switch, and all the other things. It's also the rules (i.e. how those actions are constrained: you can move here, but not there) and what the opponents (AI or human) will do to stop you.

Whether or not those things are satisfying is where an appreciation of a game's aesthetics tends to blur with them, which may be why gameplay is sometimes used more loosely to mean the experience of playing a game rather than its basic mechanics.

You may be interested in

You may be interested in this discussion of the artful interplay of gameplay, music, graphics, and other design elements.


Certain aspects of the graphics should probably be considered part of the gameplay because the visuals are a form of feedback integral to player control. For example, camera movement has a dramatic influence on gameplay and the feel of the game. Likewise, the nature of the graphics enhance or detract from the gameplay. I'm not talking about how pretty the game looks. I'm talking about how the graphics influence the players ability to navigate and control the game.

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