Like our genre names, many of the terms used here are not new. They’re not supposed to be new. They are meant to repurpose and revisit terms that might have been used before, but which could be used better if applied correctly, especially when used together. As an example of doing this in the past, I’ve tried this with “metagame” in an attempt to get closer to the structure-impetus concept; and I’m happy to try again with some other terms. Don’t be shocked if some of it is fairly “duh”.
Game Design Terminology
Regardless of a game’s genre or style, actual discussion of the game experience demands terminology that provides insight. This is something else I find lacking in the current game industry, and while I’m not as confident in these terms as I am in the genre proposals, I consider this a good first step in fine-tuning game design language. This will be fairly abstract at first, but I’ll try to give examples along the way to show how this terminology becomes useful when applied.
By having a single catch-all term for every individual aspect of gameplay we interact with, we can parse the experience into recognizable pieces that form a greater whole. Gameplay is the emergent experience when you put all the elements together, but if we fail to visualize these elements as a network with its own shape and flow — its own bottlenecks and vistas — we might get stuck paying attention to only one or two elements catching our attention at any given moment.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s important to state that periods of non-interaction may be part of gameplay in the most general sense, but they are not “play” itself. The less interaction a game offers, the less play happens. Instruction dialogue, loading screens, cutscenes, and interruptions to interactivity may provide information to consider (see next point) but they are not play per se.
By recognizing that players are always investing into the game, we can quickly understand why games can become frustrating when players don’t receive entertainment in return. Games that require a greater level of time/energy raise expectations of a greater payoff for their work. Consideration, participation, and activity are useful terms for distinguishing one kind of energy expenditure from another. Games that demand intense consideration of relevant data streams but very little activity are entirely different than games which ask us to keep very little in mind but constantly stay active with our inputs. Participation the middle ground, where we are compelled to make mental choices about how to do what we want, even if we’re not yet enacting those choices with inputs.
Separating interaction into these four types allows us to make mental note of how much pressure the game puts on us versus how much it simply offers as available. Situations in games often fluctuate between voluntary and coercive, with choices being forced on us, but with many options available for how to respond. However, some games only have one correct solution to a coercive situation, with failure (ie. a waste of the time/energy we’ve invested; see below) being the consequence.
When gameplay is taken as an economic model in which players invest time and energy in exchange for access to more features and interactive elements, special consideration must be given to those elements that can potentially negate our investments (forcing us to retry and spend more time/energy to get back to where we were), as well as those which affect the price of accessing new elements. A heavy element is not necessarily one that negates our efforts, but rather, it soaks up a lot of effort whenever we participate with it — such as solving a complex puzzle. Other examples might be fighting a tough opponent who can take a lot of abuse; or even just trying to use an interface that’s unwieldy and confusing. Light elements are efficiently resolved, like flicking a light switch. Grippy elements reward players with access to more elements, whether those elements are new (collecting some new sword) or familiar (fast-traveling back to your choice of previously visited towns). Slippery elements require a disproportionate amount of interaction for what we get in return, and may not grant access to any different elements at all; in other words, whether they take a lot of energy or not, they ultimately don’t reward our effort.
Using this language, we could say that a certain enemy type is a “heavy, slippery design element” if he requires a lot of work to defeat and still doesn’t change anything when we defeat him; on the other hand, a friendly ally in the game might be called a “grippy, light design element” because with one simple press of a button he opens up a large and helpful selection of options we can make use of.
In the future, I plan to use these terms more often when discussing game design. Whether it’s part of a review or just a general commentary on game design practices, I want to be able to dig deeper and talk clearer about what’s really going on in the psychology of game design. Like any subject that lacks a good language, it is simultaneously mystified and oversimplified. It’s impossible to comprehend, yet it seems trivial and obvious. That’s a symptom of missing language. By introducing some of these terms into our lexicon, we may be able to keep the discussion pleasantly grounded and enlightening, and actually move forward with game critique and game design.
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