Insomnia | Commentary

The Stupidest Word in Videogames

By Alex Kierkegaard / April 20, 2007

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influences of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

George Orwell

I don't recall exactly when this started bothering me, but it recently got to the point where I can't ignore it anymore. I am talking about the word 'gameplay', which I believe is the single most useless and misleading word in videogame terminology. But let me explain myself before you start booing.

Consider the following sentences:

This book has good bookread.

This record has good recordlisten.

This movie has good moviewatch.

So yeah, I've just made up three new words: bookread, recordlisten and moviewatch. Now these words may sound stupid to you, but that's not all there is to it. These words are also useless. To demonstrate this I'll rewrite the above sentences without using them:

This is a good book.

This is a good record.

This is a good movie.

See where I am going with this? Just keep in mind that people have been discussing books, records and movies in the English language for a long time, without ever feeling the need to invent ghastly word-constructs like "bookread", etc.

At this point some readers will doubtless be thinking, "But, man, there are just things I want to say that can't possibly be expressed without using the word gameplay".

You are wrong. There is nothing one might want to say that can't be expressed without using the word gameplay. I could start going through random videogame publications picking examples, but I'll just do one of the most frequently occurring ones and trust you to figure out the rest. Here it is:

"This game has great gameplay but shitty graphics."

This means exactly the same as:

"This is a great game but it has shitty graphics."

And now we come to the misleading part. By far the biggest problem with the word gameplay is that it's too all-encompassing to be of any use. When you say "this game has bad gameplay" you are not really giving me any more useful information than if you had simply said "this is a bad game". Besides, it seems that different people have different ideas of what gameplay is supposed to mean; there is nothing like a widely accepted definition (check also: dictionaries). So, to the eyes of an astute reader, the term has come to basically signify that the writer cannot be troubled to specify what it is he likes or doesn't like about a game.

In the end, sloppy use of words promotes sloppy thinking, and before you know it you are spouting nonsense such as "The most important part of a game is the gameplay". If this sentence doesn't sound dumb to you it's because you've been brainwashed from seeing it in print a billion times. For perspective, this sounds just as stupid to a normal person (i.e. one whose common sense has not yet been perverted by constant and long-term exposure to inane videogame-speak) as the sentence "The most important part of a movie is the moviewatch" would sound to me or you.

In closing, I'd like to quote a friend of mine who works as a game designer, and who will remain anonymous for reasons soon to become obvious.

As a designer, I dislike the word gameplay mostly on the basis that it's extremely vague and is the easiest "get out of jail free" card that a higher-up can use to not describe why it is he likes or doesn't like the thing you just did. The problem with it is that it has different meanings to everyone, and mostly it boils down to "it is, or it's not, like my favourite game in some way". Some people maintain that gameplay is about controls, or A.I., or mechanics, or a balance of all the above, but none of this is useful. I try to avoid the term as much as possible, and instead opt for a variety of much more specific terms such as mechanic, loop, system, world, rule, mode, flow, object, behaviour, and others, to get people describing exactly what the problem is.

This approach sometimes works, but often it doesn't because the person reporting the problem is simply too used to saying "the gameplay's wrong" and then pointing out extremely minor things that they see as wrong, many of which have nothing to do with the design (a favourite example being the exec producer who told me that the gameplay was wrong because he didn't like a particular explosion effect), waving their arms around like idiots, or using truly inane corollary examples.

So there you have it. If you are involved with games on a regular basis, you stand to gain a lot by crossing out this useless word from your vocabulary, and replacing it either with the word 'game', or with more specific ones such as: mechanics, controls, level design, etc., as appropriate.

P.S. If you find you are having trouble expressing yourself without the stupid word, feel free to get in touch with me (either by email or through the forum) and I'll help you out. Just send me whatever sentences are giving you trouble, and I'll rewrite them for you, gameplay-free.