It has just occurred to me that the three terms in the title ought to have more in common rationally than I think they do in practice.  In fact, if we were entirely rational with their use, then it would make sense that they would lie along a continuum:


whatever that continuum might represent, but whichever way it worked out, “gameplay” would somehow rationally fall between “game” and “play.”

And yet, this is not really how we use these terms.  There’s the whole paidia/ludus argument, which argues play amounts to those kinds of activities we engage in that are chaotic, lacking in much structure, in fact only enough to perpetuate itself, while game is that sort of thing that has definite rules, plenty of structure, and perhaps most importantly, a definable and recognizable end state.

If we apply this to the “video game” industry, its pretty clear most of the things we buy for our consoles and PCs are “game,” although there are some clear exceptions, such as The Sims and  Spore.  Complicating matters is the way game and “simulation” are often presented as a binary pair, with game remaining relatively similar to the description above, and simulation being something that has definite rules and structure but more opportunity for “play” and no definable end state.

And then there is “gameplay.”  I’ve been participating (somewhat blowhardedly, or at least that how it feels in comparison) in a thread over at Zen of Design on the role of “immersion” in which some commenters present the binary “gameplay”/”immersion”.  And then I see another author writing about games produce “gameplay”/”story.”  Which raises the evil spectre of the narratology/ludology or story/game discussion that at least game studies scholars had a while back but is now considered somewhat passe.

To summarize:

  • Game opposes Play
  • Game opposes Simulation
  • Gameplay opposes Immersion
  • Gameplay opposes Story
  • Game opposes Story

What arises for me is, first, a frickin mess.  Does this come about because of the interdisciplinary nature of the new medium?  Lots of people talking about games from lots of different perspectives might be one answer.  Does it come about because of the different ways academics and producers talk about games?  Different needs engender different practices which in turn necessitate different (though not distinct, but instead overlapping) vocabularies?

Second, I see a noticeable slippage between “game” and “gameplay” (although really the linchpin is Lee Sheldon’s piece in Third Person, “On And Then There Were None.” in which he opposes gameplay and story; its this binary that allows us to see the slip across the two terms, and perhaps this is not what was meant in the piece).  So what is “gameplay” such that we need the term at all?  That is, as a distinct term from “game”?

I really like the definition of “play” Eric Zimmeman proposed in First Person, “Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four Naughty Concepts in Need of Discipline” (and his project in that article was similar to the one I’m about currently, that is, trying to productively discipline terms):

Play is the free space of movement within a more rigid structure.  Play exists both because of and also despite the more rigid structures of the system (159).

I like it in this case because it helps explain why that “play” has been stuck on that “game” when, in some cases, the terms seem to be used interchangeably.  Using Zimmerman’s definition together with the understanding of games from above, gameplay becomes a term to describe the “free space of movement” within a game, or what it is you can do within the game.  This would oppose the notion of being “on rails,” in which the prominence of story is so great that one feels as if one is simply on rails, running down narrow corridors from one cutscene to the next.

Take gameplay too far, though, and you end up with so much variation that what you now have is a simulation, not a game, because the free space of movement is so significant that a player may lose sight of the ultimate goal or end state of the game.  In my own personal experience playing World of Warcraft, this was sometimes the case, in that I often finished a play game session (though maybe it should be “play”) wondering what it was I had actually accomplished in the game, apart from my enjoyment in having been immersed in a simulated fantasy world.

And that might work against some games in the end.  The fact is, I often loved just exploring the world Blizzard had created for me, without any real sense of goal or end-state: I would hate it if I one day realized I had now explored everything there was to explore (even though logically I know that if I keep playing long enough, it will one day happen).  Too much play in your game makes it cease to be a game, too little and you wonder what your role in the process is as a player.  So gameplay becomes this grail-like enzymatic feature of the game that brings balance to the GAME-PLAY forces tugging at each other.

But if that’s the case, if its this elemental force of balance, why compare gameplay to immersion or story?  I’ll have to get back to you on that.