January 28, 2009

Glossary: Gameplay

Defining terms is an important step in the design process. There are some concepts for which I find it useful to create new or more specific definitions when discussing game design. See a collection of all glossary posts, here.


At its most basic level, game design is presenting a player with carefully selected stimuli, with the intention of encouraging a response behavior that the player enjoys.

Gameplay: Anything that a player does or thinks as a direct or indirect result of a game's mechanics.
Gameplay includes any thinking about strategy or tactics. Any of the advice you'd read in a game guide or on a webpage tutorial are generally also gameplay.
A quick rule for identifying gameplay is that it's anything the player would proudly or angrily describe to a friend later:
  • "So after distracting everybody with an explosion inside the base, I flanked the whole squad, knocked out their leader, and dragged him off before anybody else even noticed me."
  • "Then, on the river card, I finally made my flush, which surprised the hell out of him because I knew he could tell I was bluffing."
  • "And then that asshole camped my corpse for like 2 hours! I bet he regretted it though when I logged in on my main and killed him 12 times in a row."

In the basic game of Tag, the typical gameplay consists of the player who is "It" chasing players who aren't "It." It's important to realize that running around isn't a game mechanic. There's no mechanic that can ever force the player who is It to chase anybody else, but all the mechanics do encourage it.

Because basic Tag has so few mechanics, it can support a huge array of gameplay besides the "right" gameplay. Here are some examples I remember from my neighborhood as a kid:
  • "John hadn't seen me get tagged, so I just walked up to him really calmly like I was on his team, high-fived him, and yelled 'You're it!' as I ran away. He was so mad."
  • "Man, Billy's such a baby. After he was it he just sat there on the grass for 20 minutes until somebody finally came up and let them tag him."
  • "Brad's big brothers are so mean. They grabbed him by the arms and held him down until Joe got over there and tagged him."
  • "I got Janie's brother to yell out that she had a phone call, and I hid by her back porch so I could tag her when she tried to go inside."
New game mechanics are often added in response to undesirable gameplay. For example, most kids probably play Tag with a rule of "no tag-backs," and there are many variations of the basic game with slightly different gameplay.

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