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3:24pm on Monday, 15th December, 2014:



I've just finished writing a "discussive comment" for the up-coming special issue of the Psychology of Popular Media Culture journal. One of the things I noted was that psychologists throw the word "game play" around as if it meant something like "the playing of the game", which it doesn't. Unfortunately, it took me 700 words to explain what the term actually meant, which unbalanced my reply somewhat.

Yes, you're right to panic: rather than waste the time it took me to write all this, I'm subjecting you to it instead.

So, this being a journal about the psychology of playing games, several of the papers I read mentioned that there is violence inherent in a lot of gameplay. There isn't. That's because psychologists don't understand what gameplay is.

The artistic content of games is embodied in the mechanical system with which players interact to generate events. It's not embodied in the surface level — the fiction — or in the symbols that game objects betoken. These can inform the artistic content, but they are not themselves the content. If they were, games would be much the same as any other medium, and a game designer may as well be writing novels or screenplays. It's the fact that games have moving parts, and that this movement can carry meaning, that separates games from other media. The movement is influenced by the players and gives rise to the gameplay.

Now there may well be a lot of violence carried by the surface symbols, but those are (technical term) dressing: the real power of games, where they can speak to players in ways unavailable to other media, is in the underlying systems and their mutual interaction: this is the gameplay. It's extremely hard to characterise these systems as "violent". I'll explain.

Imagine a game in which two players simultaneously roll a die. Each adds their own roll to their own running total, then both roll again. The first to get to a predefined number wins. This is a mechanic common to many games, which for obvious reasons is called a race. First to 100 wins! It's a straight race, because neither player can affect the other's progress.

Now let's complicate it a little. Suppose we each have a 4-sided die (d4), a 6-sided die (d6) and a 10-sided die (d10). Separately and in secret, we choose which one we're going to roll for the current round. I may choose the d4 and you may choose the d6, for example. The rules of the game are the same as before except that if one of us chooses d10 and the other chooses the d4, only the roll of the d4 counts. Now we have another mechanic — rock, paper, scissors — overlaying the race. The result is still a race, but it's interactive rather than straight. It's also rather more fun to play, as it has a bluffing element to it. I want to roll the d10 but you may roll the d4, so I'll roll the d6 (which will tend to beat you), only you may roll the d10 (which will tend to beat me), so maybe I should roll the d4, but then you could choose the d6...

What I've described so far is an abstract game. Let's add some fiction. The players are trying to build a bridge across a river. They can lay a short span (d6), a long span (d10) or a deep pile (d4). Laying a deep pile causes the ground to shake, meaning that if the other player is laying a long span at the same time it collapses. The player experience is different to that of the abstract game, but the gameplay is the same. Is it a violent game? No; well, not unless you regard all contests as being violent.

Now let's say that the players are in mortal combat. They can attack each other cautiously (d6), recklessly (d10) or defensively (d4). If you attack defensively, you won't do much damage to your opponent but you will be able to block completely any reckless attack. Is that a violent game? Would it be more or less violent if we added blood and guts to the animation? Well it certainly looks violent, because all the tokens are couched in terms of violence, but the gameplay is the same as for the bridge-building game. It's basically just an interactive race. Experienced players who played the bridge-building game and then the combat game would recognise it as being the same game, reskinned.

Now context clearly does add something to a game, otherwise designers wouldn't bother with it. The fun of the game comes from its gameplay, though: that's ultimately why people play games rather than consume other media.

Please, if you're going to talk about gameplay, talk about gameplay. What the psychologists are usually talking about is dressing. They're looking at the syntax to divine the pragmatics but the term they're using relates to the semantics. To use an analogy, it's as if they're writing about hate speech and its effects on individuals as being inherent in grammar, whereas what they mean is that it's inherent in the vocabulary used.

Hmm. Yeah, probably a good call not to put that in a Psychology journal.

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Copyright © 2014 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).