This article is going to be a rip-off of this wonderful article by the indomitable game theorist Alex Kierkegaard, but applied in greater detail to the tabletop space. So go read that, learn from it, and report back when finished.
You finished? Great! Let's get started.
'Gameplay' is one of my least favorite words ever. Now typically when I don't like something about games lingo I just whine incessantly and curse like a drunk, but for this particular subject I'm going to try and approach it with as much clarity and respect as I can muster. Why the gravity? Because I firmly believe the word 'gameplay' damages people's abilities to have effective conversations about games and game design, and thus the industry as a whole. Let me take a few minutes of your precious time to explain myself.
The biggest problem with 'gameplay' is that the word is so exceedingly vague it seems to serve no linguistic function other than putting up a smokescreen in front of an opinion that the person using the word doesn't know how to adequately articulate. And you know what they say, behind sloppy talking is sloppy thinking. Did someone say that? Well I'm saying it now.
I often hear 'gameplay' described as the interaction between the player and the game, or the overall feel of a game while playing it, and I say a word THAT broad is basically useless. We don't have a word for the overall feel of a movie, or what it's like to read a book, or the way food is to eat, or for any other industry that begets journalistic criticism. Words like that aren't useful. We use words like cinematography, editing, narrative, characterization, imagery, taste, texture, substance, etc. Words that refer to specific elements of the artwork or creation we are expressing an opinion of. And what do we do when we when we want to make a broad, general statement about those things? Simple. We state whether or not WE LIKED IT.
Let's go back to my earlier statement about the word 'gameplay' providing a smokescreen for opinions people don't know how to adequately articulate. Let's elucidate why this is a problem by imagining this hypothetical conversation:
Tim: How could you not like Game X?
Allen: I don't like the gameplay.
What an obnoxious answer! What does that even mean? I see this happen all the time and it drives me flipping crazy. Here's how a proper conversation should go:
Tim: How could you not like Game X?
Allen: I think it has pacing issues, confusing turn order, obtuse combat, lacks interesting choices, is overly random, and rewards players for playing overly conservatively which doesn't match up well with its theme.
Now regardless of whether or not you agree with Allen, at least you know that he's actually given THOUGHT to his opinion. At least he made statements that help EXPLAIN why he doesn't like Game X. Even if all Allen said was "I don't know, I just don't like it" that would be more useful than "I don't like the gameplay" because then at least you'd know that he hasn't given the topic much thought, so it's probably not worth diving into a full conversation with him on it.
Furthermore, every single sentence that uses the word 'gameplay' would make perfect sense without it. In many cases the sentence would make MORE sense without it. Here are some examples:
"This game has really fast gameplay."
"This game has really fast pacing."
"This game has confusing gameplay."
"This game's turn order is confusing."
"Top 10 Gameplay Mechanisms"
"Top 10 Game Mechanisms" (Or even just Top 10 Mechanisms, we already know you're talking about board games, bro!)
"I like the theme, but I don't like the gameplay."
"I like the theme, but I don't like the game."
Some of the people I've spoken to at length about this have specifically brought up that last example as a flaw in my argument. What if you don't like a game's 'gameplay', but you enjoy the theme so much you still enjoy the game? Doesn't that mean the distinction is important and thus the word is necessary? I understand where you're coming from, but I'm just not buying it.
First off, is it REALLY possible to like a game's theme SO much that you should say you like a game even though you don't like playing it? I would argue that you should not. And if you DO like playing a game despite not liking its 'gameplay', guess what weirdo? You like the game's 'gameplay' after all, or at least parts of it enough to enjoy sitting through the experience more than once.
Thinking about this mode of thought in context to other art forms reveals what a strange way of thinking it is. If someone thinks a movie has great characters, but they didn't enjoy watching it; or if they liked the setting of a book, but they didn't enjoy reading it, does it really make sense for these people to say they liked the movie they watched or book they read? Keep in mind we WATCH movies and READ books, just like we PLAY games. The capitalized words of course being the way in which we interact with the artwork, therefore being the source of any coherent opinion about it.
To bring the analogy even closer, let's include movie and book terms that take on the function of the word 'gameplay' in games, i.e. its overall feeling.
"I like the movie's characters, but I don't like its watchability."
"I like the book's setting, but I don't like its readability."
How bizarre do those statements sound? That's what the word 'gameplay' sounds like to me. There is absolutely nothing wrong with liking a constituent element of a work of art that overall you just didn't care for, trust me you'll be fine. In fact, in many cases it's necessary! You see, pointing out the positives and negatives of any work of art is what makes criticism actually useful.
"The movie has great characters, but I still don't really like it."
"The book has a cool setting, but I just don't enjoy reading it."
"The game has a really creative theme, but I don't find it fun to play."
How natural do those statements sound compared to the former ones! Clear, useful perspectives that words like 'gameplay' seem to do nothing for but obfuscate their intent.
Imagine the confusion if board game critics had separate top 10 lists for their favorite games of the year and the 10 games they thought had the best gameplay:
"Top 10 Games"
"Top 10 Games With The Best Gameplay"
My goodness, it boggles the mind! Whereas:
"Top 10 Themes"
"Top 10 Art Styles Of The Year"
"Top 10 Twists On Established Mechanisms"
Wow, useful information that makes immediate sense. Who'd-a thunk it?
I feel like I've made my point, but in the spirit of beating a dead horse, let's continue. You cannot express anything useful with the word 'gameplay'. It's impossible. All it does is add fluff to a conversation and make things take longer than they need. Let's revisit Tim and Allen for round 2:
Tim: I didn't like this game.
Allen: Why not?
Tim: Its gameplay is all messed up.
Allen: What do you mean?
Tim: Well, let me explain further...
And so on and so forth. Save us some time, Tim, and just get to the point!
Tim: I didn't like this game.
Allen: Why not?
Tim: Well, the artwork is ugly, the turns take too long, the timing of the card draws makes planning ahead impossible...
See what a pointless little filler word it is? All it does is wast a lot of everyone's time and energy, but I think the real reason it bothers me as much as it does is that the word seems to be ubiquitously accepted, which I find to be just a disastrous failing of the English language.
When I read Kierkegaard's above article, I immediately began cutting the word out of my writing and speech, and I can state as absolute FACT that I began reaching useful conclusions faster, as if my brain found a programmatic shortcut. I was no longer wasting time thinking about what was good or bad about a game's 'gameplay', but what was good or bad about the GAME. It might seem like an insignificant distinction, but I feel it in my bones that eliminating the word from our collective vocabulary would save us all a lot of time and improve the average level of discussion around the hobby exponentially. If nothing else, it would force people to put more consideration into their thoughts and opinions about the games they are playing.
I'll leave it at that. Hopefully, my perspective got you thinking a little differently about games and the language we use to discuss them. I encourage you all to at least make an attempt to remove the word from your lexicon, and just see how it affects your modes of thinking and expression. Thanks for reading!