Defining Gameplay in Video Games


A term commonly thrown around when talking about video games is gameplay. I’ve already done it multiple times myself on this site.

But what exactly is the definition of gameplay?

Gameplay in video games describes the interaction between the player and the game, how this interaction occurs, and the immersive sense of play the gamer experiences. The interaction starts before the game loads the first time, unfolds during, and lasts even after you’ve completed the game.

So how did I reach that conclusion?

As with all research, I stand on the shoulders of giants. Thus, the definition above distills several prior definitions of gameplay.

Definitions of gameplay

So let’s take a quick look at some gameplay definitions.

I’ve read many definitions of gameplay through the years, so here I’ve tried to summarize what best covers the term.

Gameplay as a parameter in gaming reviews

Gameplay is often used in game reviews where it is assigned a grade (like 8/10 or 4 out of 5 stars).

As such, gameplay is one of several parameters on which a game is measured and compared to other games.

Other parameters can include graphics, sound, story, and a final grade based on all of these.

In the Danish version of the Nordic computer magazine Gamereactor, Martin B. Larsen writes (and I translate):

Gameplay is a difficult thing to define, because the concept isn’t very tangible, but the gameplay tells something about how fun it is to play a specific game – more or less. Does the game frustrate you more than it rewards you, are you sucked into the experience, or do you get the urge to quickly put the controller or keyboard down? Is the game coherent or does it feel fragmented, like it’s missing something, etc. The gameplay is absolutely the most important thing, since your whole experience of a video game relies on this. Without good gameplay, no fun.

Martin B. Larsen ( 2007)

According to Larsen, gameplay tells us something about the quality of the gaming experience.

Before the gaming experience is great, the game has to offer you an immersive emotional experience. Good gameplay is the basis for a good game.

So when a game critic judges the quality of a video game’s gameplay, it is also an estimation of how much fun the game is to play. And by fun, I mean how much you get immersed and emotionally invested in the game.

I think the “having fun” part is an important element to include in a definition of gameplay because video games are entertainment.

In Game Design, Secret of the Sages (1999) (link to Amazon), Marc Saltzman writes something which supports this and stresses the importance of gameplay:

All the glitz and glitter poured into games these days, such as expensive art, animation, real actors, or the best musicians, cannot cover up for poor gameplay.

Saltzman (1999: 16).

I think most will agree with this. I know I do, although I must admit, that I’m a sucker for good graphics, and I more than once have finished games that didn’t have the best gameplay because they just looked so damn good!

Gameplay as an academic tool for analysis and understanding of video games

The academic world has also had several attempts at defining gameplay.

In his book Game Design:: Theory & Practice (2001) (link to Amazon), game designer Richard Rouse III defines gameplay as:

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A game’s gameplay is the degree and nature of the interactivity that the game includes, i.e., how the player is able to interact with the game-world and how that game-world reacts to the choices the player makes.

Richard Rouse (2001, xviii.)

Rouse’s definition focus on the interactivity possible in a video game itself. But he doesn’t include the player experience in his definition.

In the article Listening to fear: a study of sound in horror computer games, the video game and film researcher Guillaume Roux-Girard writes:

[…] gameplay must not be understood as ”the” game system but as the ”ludic experience” emerging from the relation that is established between the gamer and the game system.

Roux-Girard. in Game Sound, Technology and Player interaction. Concepts and developments (2011:195)

By ludic experience, Roux-Girard means the experience of playing the game, the gamer experience from playing the game.

So Roux-Girard expands the definition of gameplay to include the player experience and the game as an interactive system.

In his book Half-real. Video Games between real rules and fictional worlds (2005) (link to Amazon), Danish game researcher Jesper Juul writes about gameplay:

It is important to understand that the gameplay is not the rules themselves, the game tree, or the game’s fiction, but the way the game is actually played […]

Juul (2005:83)

And he goes on to define gameplay as:

Gameplay is the interaction between the rules, the game tree, the players pursuing a goal, and the players’ personal repertoires and preferences […]

Juul (2005:200)

Juul adds to the equation that gameplay also has to do with how a game is played.

So both Juul and Roux-Girard stress the importance of the interactive nature of the gaming experience.

In other words, the gameplay has to be viewed as a mix of what the game brings to the table (rules and fiction) and what the player brings to the table in terms of experience and taste.

Gameplay as a magical cycle

In the book, The video game theory reader 2 (2009) (link to Amazon), Game researchers Dominic Arsenault and Bernard Perron have developed a theoretical and graphical model which seeks to encompass this human-computer interaction concerning gameplay.

In the article, In the frame of the magic cycle. The circle(s) of gameplay, in The video game theory reader 2, they describe the gameplay in video games as Magical Cycle.

The magical cycle can be viewed as a metaphor for that magical space and time created when a player gets immersed in a video game.

They are inspired by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s concept of the magical circle, which happens in play. Huizinga describes it as such:

All [play-grounds] are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart

(as quoted in Arsenault et. al. 2009:113).

When we enter the magical circle, we volunteer to accept the meta-communicative premises (rules and fiction) which exist within the circle.

When two kids battle it out with two Minecraft swords made from rigid foam, they must know that they are only playing a game.

If one somehow breaks the rules, hits the other too hard, or otherwise gets frustrated with each other, the magical circle is broken.

When we play a video game, we also enter a magic circle, and we must voluntarily accept the rules and fictional world of the game. I call this the fictional game space.

The game determines the rules and the fiction, and we must accept these if we want a successful gameplay experience.

If we experience a glitch in the game, it has a boring story, or the graphics or the sound draws too much attention to itself, the magical circle is broken.

In this sense, gameplay can be viewed as a continuous loop between the video game and the player.

The problem with using a circle to describe this loop is that playing a video game happens over time. So Arsenault and Perron suggest using the term a magical cycle instead.

It will take too much space to unfold the whole concept in detail here.

But a key takeaway is that the gameplay starts before the player begins playing (we might have watched the trailer and played similar games before), unfolds and expands during the game, and continues even after the game is finished (we might reflect on the story of the game or write a review about on Steam).

Another key takeaway is that we get to know the game’s rules through the fictive world and vice versa. An example is the many games that include a tutorial mission now.

In closing

Gameplay is used differently in many different contexts. It’s used as a tool or parameter to review a video game.

But behind that simple grade, gameplay expresses something much more complex and describes the metaphorical space that unfolds over time when a gamer plays a video game.

I hope you found this article helpful. Until next time, happy gaming!

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Jan has played video games since the early 1980s. He loves getting immersed in video games as a way to take his mind off stuff when the outside world gets too scary. A lifelong gamer, the big interest led to a job as a lecturer on game sound at the University of Copenhagen and several written articles on video games for magazines.

Read more on the About Page.