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A Defense of Gameplay part.2
by Richard Terrell on 04/24/12 09:50:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

 

I concluded part 1 of this series by outlining the premises behind my argument. After defining the terms game and gameplay, making a case for the necessity of complexity, then explaining understanding and enjoying complexity requires learning, I posited that gameplay is inherently not what most people find fun or entertaining. Now the question is, why not?
  
     
The Theory
 
It's a common notion that we have to work in life to achieve a high level of success. If you want to be an engineer, you have to work hard in math and in other disciplines. Perhaps you'll go to college and study for years prior to landing an internship. From there you work until your job title says "engineer." This arduous journey is about the same for becoming a pianist.  
  
When you first start to play piano you may have all kinds of expectations about what it'll be like to play great music. You may imagine that before long you'll be tickling the ivory like you've always dreamed. It's obvious that such expectations are probably set too high. Before a new piano player can play high level music, years of practice are typically required. And during this protracted practice and learning period, the beginning piano player's expectations and freedom will likely be narrowed; squeezed smaller and smaller until they better align with reality. And the reality is, to really play piano well one must typically learn great amounts of information by "the book." For example, while not the most exciting, scales and finger exercises are important for building technique. And only after embracing these lessons and consistently practicing, does one begin to see, understand, and experience all of the wonderful freedoms of being a pianist. Like exploring a new world, "the novelty" of these freedoms can only be experienced by those who have put in the work. In fact, hard work through learning seems to be a requirement for all complex (knowledge stressing) activities.
   

  
"Nah...studyin' sucks!" Brave Fencer Musashi
 
I theorize that this process of "the squeeze," "the book," and "the novelty" is universal when learning any consistent-complex system while pursuing a specific system-determined outcome (goal). This squeeze-book-novelty process (read more about it here) aligns with the eureka-style, eye opening effect learning has one our minds. For example, have you ever learned a new word, and all of a sudden you begin hearing the word everywhere? This phenomena is called the recency illusion and the frequency illusion, and they are the result of the filter we create based on our learning experiences. It's not that the world changes, rather your perspective has (listen about it here at 10m:35s). You're eyes are more open than before, and you're able to pick up on more details. 
  
I've personally experienced this squeeze-book-novelty process with piano, violin, academics, art, athletics, and my relationships with people. I find it incredibly familiar and interesting to have the same kind of experience playing a video game. With every rule I learn I can sense my brain adjusting, I can feel my finger motions changing, and I can see the results via game feedback. This experience is an inherent part of learning and embracing complexity. Describing learning this way may make it seem like the most interesting experience in the world, but there is a downside.
  
  
Learning takes work. Hard work. And I have yet to discover any short cuts. Another way of expressing this idea is with a phrase that I often use on this blog; complexities cannot be compressed. This concept explains why we must learn individual complexities one at a time. So as works of art increase in complexity so too does the necessary time commitment to understand them. And while complexities can be glossed over or ignored with passive works, the interactive, rule-based, challenging nature of video games can make the knowledge skills and therefore learning required.
 
I believe that many people understand that learning is hard from common life experiences. Life is hard because there are all kinds of forces and influences that act on us, and we have to learn to avoid these things or suffer the consequences. The squeeze is a kind of pressure or stress that the system puts on the participant through rules and limitations. Though knowledge is power and learning is great, the squeeze isn't so easy to live with. For analyzing gameplay we have terms like contrary motion, interplay, counters, and others to describe elements that make it more difficult for players to win (i.e. squeezers). For most games, player actions have consequences that cannot be undone once made. And for most games there are more ways to fail than there are to win thus making guesswork less effective and skill required for success. So it's no surprise that being successful with most games takes learning and practice. When you fail in a game, it's all on you. And that's a kind of responsibly that many people find too stressful. 
   
It's important to make clear that while there is plenty of learning one can do within a purely interactive system, having a goal or a system of rules that score the value of different emergent outcomes is absolutely essential for the kind of structured, skill building, functional kind of learning. It's this kind of learning experience that creates the squeeze-book-novelty process. It's just not the same for interactive, non-gameplay systems. In the absence of any kind of measurable goal or value system provided by the game system, the player is left to create their own objectives and goals. While a dedicated and honest player might stick to their goals set at the beginning of an activity, most players will bend or alter the rules as they go along because they're in charge. After all, if you're losing at your own game, it's easy to just change the rules and escape the squeezing pressure. Even the most honest player cannot consistently referee their own interactive experience for complex games with complex, real-time interactions. Being one's own referee just doesn't work. Put simply, the squeeze doesn't work if you can wiggle your way out of it. 
  
  
Putting it all together, to embrace and appreciate gameplay you must embrace the fact that learning is a crucial part of most gameplay experiences. This means that playing most games won't be without bumps, mistakes, and other drawbacks of learning. This also means that you may be held back by your brain instead of your will to progress. Gameplay is stressful and learning gameplay systems is player driven. For anyone looking for an activity to kick back, relax, and unwind from the stresses of real life, gaemplay may not be a first choice. Compared to the more easily obtainable pleasure of passive entertainment, gameplay may seem like too much work. When I think about it like this, I realize that gameplay is a tough sell. If I find it hard to convince someone to be patient, contemplate, and practice in order to ultimately enjoy a great gameplay experience, then the gaming industry and entertainment industry must find it impossible. 
  
  
In part 3 we'll consider the market trends by looking at which games sell and considering how underlying cultural ideas may gradually push the Western gaming market away from appreciating gameplay. 

 


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Comments


Eric Schwarz
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"And that's a kind of responsibly that many people find too stressful."

This is true, but after reading this piece and re-reading the first part, I'm not convinced that your arguments are applicable to any more than a certain portion of the market. Why do you learn violin? How to be a carpenter? Forensics? To be a better partner in a relationship? Everyone has their different goals and different people are willing to invest different amounts of effort into certain ones.

Common logic would say that "people just want to kick back and be entertained", and games are too complex to provide that simple entertainment, but I really have to disagree. Even the base act of learning how to understand a story, or becoming comfortable with the vocabulary and language of, for example, film (editing, establishing shots, plot conventions and devices, foreshadowing etc.) is something we take for granted. It's built up over the course of years and years and years.

I can't use a cell phone very well. I struggle with the interface a lot of the time, I'm not used to the conventions and standard practices in using one, etc. Meanwhile, 10-year-old kids who have grown up with cell phones can pick up any single one of them and instantly get to it. Hell, they can type an essay faster on a touch screen than on a standard keyboard. That's not coincidence - it's a result of years of learning and experience in their most supple and ripe stages of life. When kids grow up with videogames, is it any surprise that they have an almost inherent understanding of how they work? This even extends to certain genres - grow up with RPGs that have quest compasses and GPS systems, and they'll find going to one without those features near impossible.

I suppose, getting down to it, I totally agree with everything you're saying here. The problem (or at least the one I'm projecting onto your article) is that this isn't really news. Getting into something takes time and effort - so is it any surprise that non-gamers don't want difficult games? And that they're attracted more to the idea of gaming itself? As I commented on your first article, there's nothing wrong with making games for these markets, and if even a fraction of those players go on to become more serious gamers, then that's also fantastic... but I don't think you can draw broad judgements about gamers and gaming in general based on an audience which traditionally has had very little interest in games in the first place.

Richard Terrell
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@Eric

All I will say for now (because we're only on part 2) is that you made a perfect response. The points you explained very clearly are exactly the kinds of things I'd hoped my audience would think at this point. Also going by your comment, I think you'll enjoy the sort of "twist" that comes later in this series.

Thanks

Sean Kregness
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Ah, but what happens when the gaming audience expands to accept individuals who haven't adapted to working for their entertainment?

Eric Schwarz
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Then we get Wii Sports.

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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@Eric
And Journey.

Richard Terrell
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@All

I guess the more serious answer is the industry meets them half way. We make things more accessible for them and we hope that they adapt to accept more and more of what games have to offer.

Making things more intuitive and less threatening is one way of doing this. I love Wii Sports. I don't think Journey belongs in the same category. Wii Sports is all about gameplay.

Gerard Comerford
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Well, to preface, I read through most of your own blog, Richard, and it's interesting discussion.

I think that you're erring if you claim that the complexity of a rule-base is inversely proportional to the entertainment. The Sims series has one of the most complex rule-bases, has complex interactivity, and has agency and it has sold 150 million; furthermore, I cannot quantify the percentage, but we can agree that the majority of Sims players are not hardcore games, right. My ten-year old sister started playing the Sims series when she was 10, and after three years, she still plays the newest version. Her mastery of the game is awesome and it is not distinct from the million other Sims players.

Learning is relative. If my pre-school brother enjoys reading ABC book, it is a result of its complexity being relative to him. His learning and growth will accelerate as a result of reading progressively complex books. The skills and knowledge enabling him to read ABC book will eventually enable him to read Hemingway etc. Skills and knowledge are transferable: I do not need to learn how to discretely read a book after learning how to read; hence, I do not need to learn how to discretely play a FPS after learning how to play a FPS. The difference between different books, or games in a genre, is content, not form/style. Reading through a book or playing a game is an exercise in understanding its internal logic or rule-base and its application in the universe it has created. The more books read, games played, films watched, music heard, the more complex logic or rule-base can be understood; you are going to enjoy media relative to your ability to understand and learn from it.

I came across a bit of research that claimed (the jest of it from memory) that women needed ten hours of FPS game-time to reduce the gap in spatial cognition between them and men. Ten hours is a single FPS campaign.


Also, any entertainment that detaches a person from reality and attaches, to one fictionally constructed is a break from "real-life". Look forward to the next part, Richard.

Richard Terrell
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"I think that you're erring if you claim that the complexity of a rule-base is inversely proportional to the entertainment. The Sims series has one of the most complex rule-bases, has complex interactivity, and has agency and it has sold 150 million; "

At some point in this series I make a distinction between interactive systems and interactive systems that have goals (or goal like pursuits). The Sims is complex with rules that govern its interactions, but I'm not sure how much of a game it is. From my understanding, people explore and tinker around with the interactive systems like "playing house." Do most play the Sims as a sandbox where they have "god-like" control to change the game and see what happens? Either way this kind of play is great, but it's not the same kind of situation as gameplay systems. I don't know too much about the Sims or how many different versions/expansions account for that 150 million figure (do the My Sims games count too?).

Also, I haven't looked at any real data of sales trends over the past 10 years. I'm sure there are some cases like the Sims out there. But depending on how much of a game The Sims is or how people play it, those 150 million gamers could be supporting my side of the argument. Hmmm.

_________________

" furthermore, I cannot quantify the percentage, but we can agree that the majority of Sims players are not hardcore games, right."

I know what you're saying here. But for clarity, I'd like to say that to me hardcore means "dedicated" and casual means "occasional." You can be a hardcore or a casual player with any kind of game. So, in the same way that I played Animal Crossing in a hardcore fashion, I think that players like your sister are hardcore Sims players.

____________________

"Learning is relative. If my pre-school brother enjoys reading ABC book, it is a result of its complexity being relative to him. His learning and growth will accelerate as a result of reading progressively complex books. The skills and knowledge enabling him to read ABC book will eventually enable him to read Hemingway etc. Skills and knowledge are transferable: I do not need to learn how to discretely read a book after learning how to read; hence...."

I think a better way of putting this is... learning is cumulative. I think the main points you're making are about how learning accelerates and how skills and knowledge are transferable, right? I think many skills are transferable, but knowledge (the long term memory or muscle memory of specific complexities) is not transferable. This information can be broken down and categorizes so it can be applied to the equivalent pieces in other cases. And of course it's easy to draw general connects with one's knowledge. But for the most part, specific learning doesn't transfer.

Put another way, you don't need to know how to discretely read a book after you understand the language and how to read it. However, understanding language, knowing how to read, and even reading any number of books will never give you the knowledge (a specific kind of skill) of a book you've never read. You have to acquire that knowledge one word, one sentence, and one page at a time. So while one's max level cognitive capacity is the direct result of previous lessons learned (cumulative), one must begin learning specific knowledge of anything from scratch.

______

"...hence I do not need to learn how to discretely play a FPS after learning how to play a FPS. The difference between different books, or games in a genre, is content, not form/style. "


I think we can't lump games of the same genre or even of the same series into a single category and claim that the difference is content instead of form and style. For example, the JUMP mechanic in every 2D Mario platformer is redesigned from scratch (according to Nintendo). They do not just import the jump physics from game to game. Therefore there are real coding differences and by extension subtle interactive differences between the JUMP mechanics and everything else in the games for that matter. You can learn everything there is to know about the JUMP in Super Mario Bros., but that specific level of knowledge won't transfer over to any other game. The skills/knowledge will transfer in general because of the similarities between Mario games. But if you look closely enough you'll find a lot of subtle yet important differences.

With that said, all of your general reflex, timing, dexterity, and adaption skills are transferable.

____________________

"Reading through a book or playing a game is an exercise in understanding its internal logic or rule-base and its application in the universe it has created. The more books read, games played, films watched, music heard, the more complex logic or rule-base can be understood; you are going to enjoy media relative to your ability to understand and learn from it."

Agreed, much of learning is cumulative. The more we know, the better we can understand similar things with intuited thinking.

______

"I came across a bit of research that claimed (the jest of it from memory) that women needed ten hours of FPS game-time to reduce the gap in spatial cognition between them and men. Ten hours is a single FPS campaign."

I'm not sure how this connects. Is it supposed to support the idea that learning is relative/cumulative and that people can catch up given enough time?

_______

Good comment. I welcome the deep thinking. Until next time.

Gerard Comerford
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In The Sims, there are values that you need to maximize; neglected Sims can die. I think that it is a "gameplay" system and primarily played as such but also used as an interactive system. I would agree that my sister is a hardcore Sims player, but based upon that, I wouldn't claim she is a hardcore gamer and she was not a hardcore gamer before she picked up The Sims series.

"I think many skills are transferable, but knowledge (the long term memory or muscle memory of specific complexities) is not transferable"

I think knowledge is transferable, too. What is the 'Jump' mechanic or virtually any game mechanic? It's pressing input at a given time dependent upon the rule-base. So, one rule a player may create in Super Mario Bros.: if anticipate ground collision with an enemy, press 'Jump', because of the rule that ground collision with an enemy loses one life. This is a boilerplate rule that can be applied to other games in the 2D series and other 2D platformers. There are boilerplate rules in all genres.

The execution of the specific 'Jump', strictly, will not necessarily be transferable; however, as we agree, execution skills are transferable and accelerate the mastery of the execution of any specific mechanic based upon previous learning, practise and/or experience. The player isn't learning how to 'Jump' from a blank state or "from scratch". The reader must start on page one and player, level one, but there isn't a set amount of time universal to every reader or player to assimilate any given book or game; some will assimilate fast and others, slow (as reflected in that research on spatial recognition in women). The time spent will be relative to each individual's past learning, practise and/or experience.

We have to design games for the 'modern' customer that assimilate slow, lack execution skills etc.; I don't think that's an attack on "gameplay". It's co-opting customers for the industry.

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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Many good games strive for a smooth learning curve where difficulty and complexity ramps up with progress without the player getting squeezed too hard.

Learning can be fun. Games already help by providing a more attractive environment where the motivations feel more appealing. But there can be a fine line between frustration and engagement.

I do agree with the statement that gameplay has been devalued as of late and I personally don't mind. If I really wanted superb-genius gameplay I might go play more chess or GO to fully delve into understanding a system. But for me, games as entertainment is about all those other stuff and gameplay and how they work together to create a good and entertaining experience.

Richard Terrell
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@ Rasmus

Learning is fun, at least to me. Like you said, there are many ways to take the edge off of the harder parts of the experience. Smooth learning curves help also.

Sure. I welcome the full range/spectrum of products between passive entertainment and full focused gameplay experiences. As long as the product is made well, that's a win in my book. The blend between the two is a great middle ground to have. One thing I'm trying to make clear is that there are inherent design and craft limitations when you try to fuse them, which makes creating such products particularly difficult.

I think we should dive deeply/take seriously most of what we consume, especially entertainment. Chess and GO are just two of thousands of games worth diving into (i.e. deep and balanced enough).

Good comment.

Shreerang Sarpotdar
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Your argument that gameplay is inherently stressful and therefore can feel like 'work', I feel the best gameplay systems are the "easy to learn, hard to master" types. If the gameplay learning curve is well-balanced, your brain should be getting the pleasure bursts from the aha! moments at well-spaced out intervals of learning time. Invoking the flow state is key, so that even repetitive actions don't feel like work.I think fighting games rely a lot on this aspect, as do twitch games in general (to a lesser degree). Even completely cerebral games can get this; however, the feedback can be less emphatic. I remember going over annotated chess games from the masters as a kid (still an amateur, though) and trying to imitate them when I played my own. It was a painful learning curve, but I enjoyed it - being able to last more moves every game was the benchmark, and the occasional victory.Thanks for this series; look forward to the next one.

edit: heh, beaten by Rasmus. scary how similar the posts are. :)

Chuck Bartholomew
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I find this article (and its predecessor) quite fascinating. I particularly appreciate the perspective that games ask players to work pretty hard to learn how to play them. I am inclined to agree, though I reserve the right to change my mind depending on what the next installment in this series has in store. But what I find conspicuously missing thus far is the reason why we can ask players to work so hard to learn a game. In many cases it may be the player's interest in the game's story that compels them to put in the required effort. When Counter-Strike presents players with their choice of equipment, FPS controls, and a hand-full of unique missions its not a lot to ask given that the real world alternative involves months or rigorous physical, intellectual and emotional conditioning, unpredictable scenarios, and risk of injury or death.

A very good and thought-provoking read. I look forward to the next.

Richard Terrell
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@ Chuck Bartholomew

"But what I find conspicuously missing thus far is the reason why we can ask players to work so hard to learn a game. "

I think I touched on the answer this way... to express complex interactive/gameplay ideas we have to present complex systems for the player. Players generally understand these ideas by learning the rules of the game and overcoming mandatory challenges. Some games are simple and require less work. Some are incredibly complex. And many games are in between. Some games make it easier to learn with great tutorials and other ways for the player to adjust the difficulty of their experience to keep them engaged and happy (flow zone). Other games just throw you in without as much as a "press start" prompt and expect you to find your way to the right information one way or another.

I've written more about the "why complexity" in other places. Let me know if you want me to point you to them.

Thanks for the comment.


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