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A Defense of Gameplay part.4
by Richard Terrell on 04/26/12 09:32:00 am

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.


One reason that I've kept this series light on the examples, data, and graphs is because your appreciation of gameplay reflects your cultural background and other world views. It's a deep rooted issue that is built up from many unvoiced desires and motivations. For these reasons, thinking that we're talking about mere opinion is an understatement. So, I want to talk about the American cultural history that may be driving our gaming industry. 
Possible Cultural Sources 
It's one thing to see the trends I listed in part 3, and it's another thing entirely to explain why they exist. The trend that the gaming industry is moving away (in proportion) from embracing and understanding gameplay is the result of three realities that work together. The first is that the gaming industry is growing. With such growth and popularity comes the emergence of the mainstream; or at least, the mainstream is easier to identify. The second is game design adapts to appeal and cater to the largest gamer group (the mainstream) due to pressure for profit in an increasingly crowding market . The final reason is that gameplay is the most unfamiliar and complex part of video games. Without the language for gamers to clearly talk about it, gameplay doesn't get discussed. Instead people talk about the parts they're more familiar with like graphics, sound, and story. The root of the first 2 reasons is the mainstream audience. Now the question is, what drives the mainstream? 
In a recent article titled I Can't Let This Blow Over, I critiqued a video interview of Jonathan Blow. One line in particular that stood out to me was when Blow supposed that the different design trends of Japanese games isn't rooted in culture; "I don't think that's an actual cultural difference." The potential ignorance of this statement greatly concerns me. How are trends determined by the individual desires, motivations, and decisions of millions of people within a culture not the result of their cultural ideologies? To become a trend, something consistent must be influencing all of their choices. The reason that Japanese games sell well in Japan and Western games don't sell well in Japan is because there are differences in the content (including the design) of both types of games. It's obvious that the Japanese developers typically create games that appeal to Japanese people. Japanese developers do this by designing the rules, interactions, and themes that resonate to the Japanese. 
About four years ago I wrote an article about the possible source of Japanese, then called "classical," game design. I noticed a common thread between Japanese history and cultural ideas like "the way of the samurai" and how the Japanese write their fiction and design their games. Within each is a respect for actions and a way of conveying ideas through the act itself. Internal character changes are often externalize through the particular interactions and rules of the actions the characters specialize in. And when the action is fighting, characters often grow, bloom, and die in battle.  
Likewise, American game design trends are motivated by deep running cultural ideologies. Though my study of cultures is curious and cursory, I believe the following theories offer compelling explanations of why modern games are designed without a focus on gameplay in the Western-American market. 
Exploring Worlds
When I pondered why so many gamers strongly defend and demand fictional universes and interactive game "worlds" I wondered if the appeal comes from a sense of escapism with roots in the founding of the United States. When the North American continent was yet to be colonized, there was a strong push to journey forth motivated by religious freedom. In the time of Emerson and Thoreau there existed the lure of the wild or the romanticized nature. The expanse, the untapped world begged to be explored, or so the people believed. Pushing westward there emerged the concept of Manifest Destiny; a belief that Americans were destined to expand and explore Westward. This lure of the exotic coupled with ideas of exploration strengthened the American love for Cowboys. As Cowboys managed and tamed the wilderness, eventually the love for this life was transferred into Astronauts during the Space Race; for space is the final frontier. Or so we thought.
As America rode the wave of technology into space, the lingering effects of American history and exploration were put into technology. Now, though the dream of flying cars died, the promise of virtual worlds is becoming more real by the day. Is there a more accessible escape into worlds unknown than into the virtual where every person can be an island on the internet? The pressure to escape from the real-world into a virtual and the allure of exploring unexplored places is what I think sits at the core of many gamer's strong support of fictional universes and virtual worlds. 
The appeal of for virtual worlds and universes is nothing to be ashamed of. We should embrace how culture manifests in the art that is video games. We should stand up for the design features we love. However, for reasons that I will detail in upcoming articles, open world games and large game worlds generally work against gameplay design. And while many games have large game worlds and rich fictions, the type that is most popular in America are fully detailed, 3D game worlds. Americans seem to really be drawn to realistic graphical styles.
Options and Freedom
When I pondered gamers who request and require lots of "options" and "freedom" in their games I wondered if the source is rooted in the American Dream. Dreams are often the hopes one has for oneself. And the American dream is all about building a better life for oneself financially and socially through hard work. This idea, I feel, has morphed over time as the success of generations were passed down to the next. For once a family is fairly successful in these areas, instead of hard work being the focus of this dream, parents encourage their children to be anything they want. Just pick a job class and go for it. Yes, work hard, but mostly go for it.
As we grow older and life gets harder, we experience something like the squeeze. We often find that we can't do anything and be anything we want, even after we've put in the hard work. Sometimes you have to be lucky. Or sometimes to get what you want, you have to make some tough sacrifices. Such are the realities of life. I can imagine that many long for a simpler life just wanting something was enough to almost have it without ever having to consider the consequences of your choice. I can see how this desire stems from the lingering American dream that the world is open, and that your life is completely governed by your choices. The fantasy is for a world that bends to our will and our whim without major consequences. Instead of molding our choices and expectations to the experience, I find that gamers who love options and freedom the most want the game worlds to mold itself to their desires. 
In many ways games cannot fulfill the fantasy described above. The rules and goals that make games work and the learning that's required to understand the complexities create the squeeze. And it's the squeeze that creates the consequences and limits player freedoms, guiding the player toward better understanding the system itself. Understanding the system then understanding yourself within the system is the typical gameplay experience. The fantasy is more about using a system to reinforce one's own ideas and desires. Do you see how they are opposites?
In the 5th part, I look at common complaints of gamers. 

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Ryan Marshall
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I've been enjoying this series so far, but this one comes across as mildly offensive. Maybe it's just me. (In general, I like to stay away from demonym adnouns.)

I'm not sure that I buy into "culture" theory, which seems to be underlying your premise here. The core of the theory seems to rely on Values Dissonance: the idea that groups can have different ideas about what is considered favorable or unfavorable and to what degree.

It seems more likely that an individual looks for those games that meet (or interestingly subvert) the hopes and expectations of what he or she is looking for in a game, but those expectations are set by the individual rather than the society around that person. I mean, I know what I like and don't like, and I can point out the parts I like or dislike about any particular game.

Likewise, I know that I don't like labels, especially those based on something as arbitrary as my physical location on this planet.

Richard Terrell
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@ Ryan

I hear what you're saying. Thinking about labels and culture in these ways rubs many people the wrong way.

I hope it was clear that these ideas are just ideas to think about. I wanted reader to think seriously about where their opinions and motivations come from. Whether you think it all comes from your choices or a combination of your environment and you, those are the important things to consider.

No worries. It's just a minor detour before we dive into part 5.

Thanks for sharing.