Meaningful Gameplay Part 1: What Does it Really Mean?

Is there really such a thing as "meaningful gameplay"? Or is it just a buzzword developed to encourage over-investment in the trivial?
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“Meaningful gameplay” – a phrase often used by game designers and developers. But ironically, I’m not sure what they mean by it.

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After all, it is an oxymoron; gameplay is a word made up of two components synonymous with the light-hearted and the meaningless. Surely “game-play”, by definition, can have no real world impact and therefore no significant meaning?

So why does the phrase get used so often? What does it really mean? Can it even be defined or is it so subjective as to be an empty buzzword?

What follows is me trying to divine what the “meaningful gameplay” concept means, but I have far from reached a conclusion, as you’ll see…

The Power of Nonsense

My personal love affair with computer games started in childhood, but was undoubtedly reinforced by a decade of working in emergency healthcare. After a shift of dealing with real blood, misery and death, I would have had my fill of the meaningful and would be grateful for some meaningless escapism.

Enter games.

There was something immensely soothing about being able to lose myself in environments where decisions and their consequences really didn’t matter. Many a cardiac arrest or violent drunk was erased from my memory by a cathartic session of Battlefield violence or a cruise through tranquil starfields in EVE Online. As a consumer, the last thing I wanted was a meaningful experience.

I was often bemused – and occasionally irritated – by the games developers’ claims of “meaningful gameplay”. It seemed a little pretentious. I mean, it’s not like they’re building a healthcare system or saving the environment or anything. They’re just games. It makes about as much sense as claiming that film-making or novel-writing is meaningful… oh.

Well there goes the crux of my pious argument.

Welcome to the New Normal

So in a nut shell, that’s been my journey and I’ve arrived at the conclusion that it was me who was being pretentious. Now I’ve rejoined the general population and am writing about video games, my viewpoint has started to shift. I‘ve come to realise how invested many people are in video game culture. I can see that for millions, video games are the central part of their recreational and/or professional lives. I think I may now be one of them.

But I’m still in a state of flux to an extent. What was my hobby has – at least in part – become my job. I’m conflicted about many issues. I find myself looking for moral values and deeper meaning in games when I once just used them as emotional anaesthetic.

For me, one thing which has remained consistent is gaming as a means of interaction with my friends – as we’ve grown older, we’ve moved to different parts of the country which makes physically meeting up more of a challenge. As former (and still very occasional) roleplayers and tabletop gamers, the opportunity to continue sharing similar hobbies through the medium of video games is most welcome. So there is room – and more importantly a demand – for a meaningful gameplay experience.

But I have concerns…

Continued in Meaningful Gameplay Part 2


[Header image credit ‘Escapism’ by tarrzan.]

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Mat Westhorpe
Broken paramedic and coffee-drinking Englishman whose favourite dumb animal is an oxymoron. After over a decade of humping and dumping the fat and the dead, my lower spine did things normally reserved for Rubik's cubes, bringing my career as a medical clinician to an unexpectedly early end. Fortunately, my real passion is in writing and given that I'm now highly qualified in the art of sitting down, I have the time to pursue it. Having blogged about video games (well, mostly EVE Online) for years, I hope to channel my enjoyment of wordcraft and my hobby of gaming into one handy new career that doesn't involve other people's vomit.