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Attempting to Define Gameplay

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The final definition of gameplay is there is no definition of gameplay. Learn how gameplay is not a sigular entity but rather a combination of many elements and how its definition moves from defining a term to explaining a concept.

Any game designer should agree that gameplay is the core of the game. Given an ideal world, designers would probably claim that gameplay should be put above all other considerations. And in a lot of cases, were it not for external pressures, these same game designers would attempt to treat the gameplay with the level of importance that it deserves. There's just one problem with this: There is no universally accepted definition of gameplay. Gameplay is an important, if nebulous, concept. Many times during discussions of games, we have heard comments such as, "This has great gameplay," followed by a detailed description of the particular aspect of the game. However, if instead you were to ask the question, "What is gameplay?", most answers would attempt to explain by example. Indeed, explanation by example can be helpful, but it requires that you infer a definition of gameplay by induction. Describing gameplay without using self-reference is similar to trying to explain the concept of red without reference to color. It is difficult to conceive, but not impossible.

There is a reason for this difficulty: The concept of gameplay is extremely difficult to define. Each designer has his or her own personal definition of gameplay, formed from exposure to many examples over the course of a career.

Gameplay is so difficult to define because there is no single entity that we can point to and say, "There! That's the gameplay." Gameplay is the result of a large number of contributing elements. The presence, or lack thereof, of gameplay can be deduced by examining a particular game for indications and contraindications of these elements. (These terms are borrowed from medical terminology: An indication is a positive sign that implies the existence of gameplay, and a contraindication is a negative sign that implies that gameplay does not exist.)

Use of Language

In other fields, such as engineering, architecture, and mathematics, the spread of ideas is facilitated by the use of a common language. Each engineer or mathematician knows how to express ideas—even brand-new ideas—in the given language of the craft.

The vocabulary and mechanism for expressing ideas is already there, formalized and developed over many years of practical use and theoretical study. As game designers, we do not have that luxury. Although there has been talk of defining a universal frame of reference for game designers, no such lexicon has been attempted in earnest. Any attempts that have so far been made have not gained major acceptance, and there is no real coordinated effort or cooperation between alternate factions (to the best of our knowledge).

This chapter attempts to define gameplay without reference to itself or reliance on examples of itself for definition. That doesn't mean that we won't give examples, but those examples will not serve as definitions. Instead, they will be used in their traditional role to illustrate the definitions previously laid out. This will give us the beginnings of our lexicon of game design. This might or might not become a standard, but it is at least a starting point that we can use to explain our ideas in this book.

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