Modern gamers do not like gameplay. This statement (exaggerated for effect) is the result of over 4 years of writing here at Critical-Gaming and a lifetime of observation. Though seemingly straightforward, breaking down and supporting this argument will require an elaborate and sophisticated approach. I do not make this statement lightly. But after staring into the heart of gamers from as wide of a perspective as I can comprehend, I believe in full confidence that I can shed light upon a part of gamer culture. With a profound sense of respect and care for gamers and a deep appreciation for one of the most complex artistic medium on earth, the following article seeks to identify, outline, and source a serious trend in gaming culture while making a case for why gameplay is the best part of video games.
"If video games are not art, then they are something better." Richard Terrell (KirbyKid)
First, I will unpack and qualify the exaggerated, attention grabbing opening statement. By claiming that modern gamers do not like gameplay, I'm not trying to draw a specific timeline to mark the cutoff between a "modern" gamer and older gamers. I used the word modern to indicate a current trend that's only growing stronger. When I say that such gamers don't like gameplay, I mean they don't like gameplay over other elements and features that are commonly found in video games like graphics, sound, story, and even interactivity (a distinction I outline below). My argument deals with player preference; what it is, where it comes from, and what it means for the culture of gamers. I considered alternate versions of the statement like "most gamers don't like gameplay as much as they think" or "gameplay is no longer the primary attractive feature for gamers." However, these variations all generally get at the same idea, which centers around the word "gameplay."
Here at Critical-Gaming, words, terms and their definitions, are extremely important. They set the very foundation of game design concepts by bringing explicit order to the chaos that is human feelings, perception, and experience. Higher levels of cognitive learning are not possible without a solid foundation of language and concepts. This not to mention that words are also an incredibly effective medium to communicate ideas between people. So before I defend gameplay, I have to explain what gameplay is.
What is Gameplay?
"A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome... and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable." ~ see A Dictionary of Video Game Theory
Games require rules, measurable outcomes, and player interactivity to influence these outcomes. The reason watching TV isn't a game is because the TV program isn't interactive. Changing the channel or interacting with the TV in any other way doesn't change the outcome of the TV programs. Similarly, the reason surfing the web isn't a game is because the various outcomes (websites) you can peruse aren't assigned different values by the internet system. In other words there is no goal to the internet; it's simply a series of connected pages filled with content to explore and consume.
Though we typically think of the outcomes of game goals in pairs of "you win" or "game over," examples of games like Tetris show us that a game can only have one eventual "game over" as the outcome. By playing Tetris, players manipulate shapes to change the game state and therefore the outcome which the system scores with points. And though we find it easy to add goals to any activity we engage with, when we talk about games we specifically refer to the rule-based systems which must include the goal-like rules. Put another way, the goals have to be built into the game, not up to the player to supply or enforce.
When I use the term gameplay I specifically refer to the act of interacting (using mechanics) to influence an outcome of a game challenge. Gameplay does not include any player actions while the player engages with a video game. Video games are filled with systems, interactivity, modes, and events that are not gameplay. Pressing start on the menu for Super Mario Brothers is not gameplay. Adjusting your settings in the menu is not gameplay. Messing with your internet router to gain an advantage in online play is not gameplay. Staring at the game screen and devising strategies is not gameplay. And setting up a Chess board or taking notes during a match is not gameplay. Though these interactions may be entertaining, engaging, and tied to gameplay actions, they are not gameplay. Gameplay is solely about the player interactivity with the rule-based system that most directly affects the outcomes that are assigned value by the system. Gameplay is the player actions that instantly shape the outcomes that are measured by the game system to determine wins, losses, and score.
By the above definitions of game and gameplay it's clear that it doesn't take very much to create a game and therefore gameplay. In other words, a game can be extremely simple featuring few complexities, little interactivity, and almost no challenge. A lot can be said about a simple game like Rock Paper Scissors or even Pong. But as soon as the games get as complex as Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros and beyond, we have new issues to consider. Like with any artistic medium, the most simple examples don't reflect all the complexities of the medium. A small dot on a canvas may be a painting, two notes may be a song, two sentences may create a story, but our consideration of any of these mediums would be incomplete if we didn't take more complex examples into consideration. So in our investigation of gameplay, we have to carefully examine what happens as gameplay becomes more complex.
Most games have coherent gameplay. Though one can surely find or make examples to the contrary, most games have fairly consistent visuals, sounds, and rules. There are several good reasons why this is the case. In life we find meaning in that which forms patterns and consistently so. Because the world around us is largely consistent and pattern filled, when we take our lived experiences and abstract them into the design of video games, our framed, filtered, and simplified representations reflect the same kinds of life-consistencies. But perhaps the most important reason that most video games present consistent, coherent, rule based interactive systems is to support player participation.
Because life is extremely complex and consistent, we tend to create video games that are complex and consistent so that players can learn to operate in the game world in the same way that they've learned to operate in the real world (e.g. exploration, experimentation, trial-and-error, informed decisions, etc.). While I'm certainly a fan of the profundity of simplicity, I cannot deny the vast range of possibilities that come with increased complexities. In other words, there's just more room for gameplay to be more unique as more complexities are designed into their systems. The difference between StarCraft 2 and DigiDrive's multiplayer gameplay may seem small if you step back and look at the overall gameplay. However, it is all the specific complexities of each game that make them unique in how they play to how they sound and look. Complexities are necessary for creating complex gameplay and communicating complex ideas. And it is here where I will begin my argument.
The crux of my argument revolves around the fact that most gameplay, even relatively simple gameplay, requires learning (especially when winning is the intent). For games aren't really games if the player can't exert effort to influence the outcomes. This effort is done by manipulating the designated gaming controller. And the real intentional control we exert (our agency) comes from our skills. I've created the DKART system as a model to organize the various kinds of skills players use to play games or to perform any other activity. Out of the 5 core skills (dexterity, knowledge, adaptation, reflex, and timing) knowledge is the most important. Every pattern we recognize in a game, rule we learn, or analysis we make of the game state requires our knowledge skills. And having more knowledge skills helps us better use the other 4 core types of skill. The more complex the gameplay, the more knowledge skills are stressed.
The only way to gain knowledge is by learning. The reality is our learning processes are painfully slow. We're not like computers. We don't have the ability to just download information and have it at the ready. For most people, learning requires lots of repetition, mental focus, and time. Fortunately, the entire process of learning (e.g. storing information in one's long-term memory or muscle memory) is significantly aided when we are mentally and emotionally engaged. Strong emotional events tend to stick in our minds better. Likewise vivid sensory associations help our memory as well. Video games can be even more effective than schools and colleges in terms of creating effective, learning environments when they provide players with the tools to learn, the structure for practice, the freedom of pacing, and the feedback to make it all work. And on top of it all, when a player plays and learns simultaneously, the intrinsic motivation only makes learning easier. Still, even with the best games, learning is a slow, self reflective process.
Here's the bottom line. Complexities are a necessary to achieve a wide range of gameplay experiences; such complexities must be learned by the player to build skills in order to have control or influence over the usually increasingly difficult gameplay outcomes; and learning is a slow, self reflective, and often repetitive process. These premises make up the argument that states, the core of what makes video games unique and interesting (complexity, gameplay, interactivity, and agency) are at odds with what many people find fun and entertaining. Understanding this simple yet core argument will shed light on the current trends and opinions expressed throughout the gaming industry.
In part 2 I theorize why it's hard to make learning entertaining.