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.