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A Defense of Gameplay pt.4

One reason that I've kept this series light on the examples, data, and graphs is because your appreciation of gameplay reflects your cultural background and other world views. It's a deep rooted issue that is built up from many unvoiced desires and motivations. For these reasons, thinking that we're talking about mere opinion is an understatement. So, I want to talk about the American cultural history that may be driving our gaming industry. 
Possible Cultural Sources 
It's one thing to see the trends I listed in part 3, and it's another thing entirely to explain why they exist. The trend that the gaming industry is moving away (in proportion) from embracing and understanding gameplay is the result of three realities that work together. The first is that the gaming industry is growing. With such growth and popularity comes the emergence of the mainstream; or at least, the mainstream is easier to identify. The second is game design adapts to appeal and cater to the largest gamer group (the mainstream) due to pressure for profit in an increasingly crowding market . The final reason is that gameplay is the most unfamiliar and complex part of video games. Without the language for gamers to clearly talk about it, gameplay doesn't get discussed. Instead people talk about the parts they're more familiar with like graphics, sound, and story. The root of the first 2 reasons is the mainstream audience. Now the question is, what drives the mainstream? 
In a recent article titled I Can't Let This Blow Over, I critiqued a video interview of Jonathan Blow. One line in particular that stood out to me was when Blow supposed that the different design trends of Japanese games isn't rooted in culture; "I don't think that's an actual cultural difference." The potential ignorance of this statement greatly concerns me. How are trends determined by the individual desires, motivations, and decisions of millions of people within a culture not the result of their cultural ideologies? To become a trend, something consistent must be influencing all of their choices. The reason that Japanese games sell well in Japan and Western games don't sell well in Japan is because there are differences in the content (including the design) of both types of games. It's obvious that the Japanese developers typically create games that appeal to Japanese people. Japanese developers do this by designing the rules, interactions, and themes that resonate to the Japanese. 
About four years ago I wrote an article about the possible source of Japanese, then called "classical," game design. I noticed a common thread between Japanese history and cultural ideas like "the way of the samurai" and how the Japanese write their fiction and design their games. Within each is a respect for actions and a way of conveying ideas through the act itself. Internal character changes are often externalize through the particular interactions and rules of the actions the characters specialize in. And when the action is fighting, characters often grow, bloom, and die in battle.  
Likewise, American game design trends are motivated by deep running cultural ideologies. Though my study of cultures is curious and cursory, I believe the following theories offer compelling explanations of why modern games are designed without a focus on gameplay in the Western-American market. 
Exploring Worlds
When I pondered why so many gamers strongly defend and demand fictional universes and interactive game "worlds" I wondered if the appeal comes from a sense of escapism with roots in the founding of the United States. When the North American continent was yet to be colonized, there was a strong push to journey forth motivated by religious freedom. In the time of Emerson and Thoreau there existed the lure of the wild or the romanticized nature. The expanse, the untapped world begged to be explored, or so the people believed. Pushing westward there emerged the concept of Manifest Destiny; a belief that Americans were destined to expand and explore Westward. This lure of the exotic coupled with ideas of exploration strengthened the American love for Cowboys. As Cowboys managed and tamed the wilderness, eventually the love for this life was transferred into Astronauts during the Space Race; for space is the final frontier. Or so we thought.
As America rode the wave of technology into space, the lingering effects of American history and exploration were put into technology. Now, though the dream of flying cars died, the promise of virtual worlds is becoming more real by the day. Is there a more accessible escape into worlds unknown than into the virtual where every person can be an island on the internet? The pressure to escape from the real-world into a virtual and the allure of exploring unexplored places is what I think sits at the core of many gamer's strong support of fictional universes and virtual worlds. 
The appeal of for virtual worlds and universes is nothing to be ashamed of. We should embrace how culture manifests in the art that is video games. We should stand up for the design features we love. However, for reasons that I will detail in upcoming articles, open world games and large game worlds generally work against gameplay design. And while many games have large game worlds and rich fictions, the type that is most popular in America are fully detailed, 3D game worlds. Americans seem to really be drawn to realistic graphical styles.
Options and Freedom
When I pondered gamers who request and require lots of "options" and "freedom" in their games I wondered if the source is rooted in the American Dream. Dreams are often the hopes one has for oneself. And the American dream is all about building a better life for oneself financially and socially through hard work. This idea, I feel, has morphed over time as the success of generations were passed down to the next. For once a family is fairly successful in these areas, instead of hard work being the focus of this dream, parents encourage their children to be anything they want. Just pick a job class and go for it. Yes, work hard, but mostly go for it.
As we grow older and life gets harder, we experience something like the squeeze. We often find that we can't do anything and be anything we want, even after we've put in the hard work. Sometimes you have to be lucky. Or sometimes to get what you want, you have to make some tough sacrifices. Such are the realities of life. I can imagine that many long for a simpler life just wanting something was enough to almost have it without ever having to consider the consequences of your choice. I can see how this desire stems from the lingering American dream that the world is open, and that your life is completely governed by your choices. The fantasy is for a world that bends to our will and our whim without major consequences. Instead of molding our choices and expectations to the experience, I find that gamers who love options and freedom the most want the game worlds to mold itself to their desires. 
In many ways games cannot fulfill the fantasy described above. The rules and goals that make games work and the learning that's required to understand the complexities create the squeeze. And it's the squeeze that creates the consequences and limits player freedoms, guiding the player toward better understanding the system itself. Understanding the system then understanding yourself within the system is the typical gameplay experience. The fantasy is more about using a system to reinforce one's own ideas and desires. Do you see how they are opposites?
In the 5th part, I look at common complaints of gamers. 
« A Defense of Gameplay pt.5 | Main | A Defense of Gameplay pt.3 »

Reader Comments (10)

And we hit probably your biggest difference from many a hardcore, challenging the open world/ ton o options.

Interestingly despite being partly new trends, at least on consoles, the lack of these have often been written off as pandring to "casuals". Who don't want to put in work to understand them, or are too lazy, with implications of stupidity, to figure out wich way to go if the game is a hardcore open world.

One example I can think of was a claim I read that the Galaxy games are easier/more causal then SM64 because all you have to do is follow the path and you get the star.

April 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathanS

I wondered if the appeal comes from a sense of escapism with roots in the founding of the United States.

Not sure this makes sense as an argument to be honest. Why? Well because 'Western' games aren't just popular in the US, nor are Japanese games often lacking in universes/interactive game worlds of a similar style.

Keep in mind Grand Theft Auto was made in the UK, and the 'frontier' mentality doesn't really exist over here. Likely many other examples too.

On another note, keep in mind many older Japanese games had these kinds of worlds as well. The Legend of Zelda series has/had, and the first two games had massive interactive worlds filled with content. Not to mention Miyamoto said he was influenced by his childhood and exploring caves and what not when making the series.

It's not just 'Japan vs the US' here, many other countries make games too in both styles.

The whole 'American dream' seems a bit strange in that only in the US is it really much of a big deal, yet open world games sell in many different regions of the world. Over in Europe that mentality just doesn't exist to as strong a degree.

But it doesn't stop games supposedly influenced by it selling extremely well outside the US.

April 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCM30

@ CM30

You misunderstand how a trend works and how a theory seeks to explain it. Just saying that these similar style games sell well elsewhere is not a counter argument to my theory. You know I know such games sell well. You know that I know that many early Japanese games are designed with some similar features. So you have to dig a little deeper and look a little more closely to see how the theory manifests.

Notice that the theory doesn't say that other countries won't make games that appeal to such an idea or that they won't sell well either. We have to take more into account than just the genre label. Other countries may have their own cultural histories that are similar or they could have just reached similar tastes.

Keep mulling things over though.


I agree with the point that CM30 has made.

If all of the "American dream" bullshit was replaced with "escapism" then this part of the article would make a lot more sense, and it would prevent a lot of people from vomiting all over their keyboards. Freedom and/or the urge to escape reality is the reason why open-world (sandboxed) games are popular, and that is a global phenomenon, it is not something that is confined within the borders of the USA nor is it fuelled by one nation's fantastical dream.

You are probably trying to express something completely different in that part of the article so rewriting it would be a sensible thing to do, to avoid confusion if nothing else :)

June 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSi Robertson

@ Si Robertson

I'm pretty sure no one has vomited over their keyboards from reading anything that I've written. Your exaggeration doesn't help your case here.

Your failure to quote anything that I've said makes it very hard for me to figure out exactly what you disagree with.

If you can find the place where I say that liking free, open-world, or sandbox games is an exclusively American thing, then just quote me and we'll be done.

I don't know why you seem to have such a problem with a fairly simple theory. I also don't know why you can't see that this theory can be true without negating other ideas/theories that you feel are correct.

Before you suggest that I rewrite anything, I suggest that you read more carefully, think harder, and quote when you have something specific to say.


You know exactly which part of this article I was referring to, Exploring Worlds, and I clearly stated my alternative theory on that specific part of the article, escapism. I do not want to write a small novel on the escapism theory right now but a single word sums it up nicely within a small comment block. No worries though, overall this is a very interesting article and I appreciate the time and thought that went into writing it.

June 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSi Robertson

Si Roberston

As I thought, we're not really at odds here. Going with the escapism theory, you would need another theory to explain why people feel that their lives are "banal" or "depressing." And a good reason they feel like their life is such way is that their dreams and desires are of more romantic, exploratory, adventurous roots... roots that can possibly be traced back to enduring cultural ideas.

Escapism is a broad theory/term that can come from many sources. The questions we must ask are what kinds of pressures are being put on people and from where?

Glad you like the article.

I have recently developed a hypothesis about the development of western and Japanese game design that I feels plays a role in the movement of many western developers towards interactive worlds and away form games.

It starts with the earliest days of gaming, when games took place on a single screen. At the time each screen tend to fall into two broad camps, get to the exit of the screen, or do a set mission within the screen. Kill all the enemies, get a bunch of items, eat all the dots and so on. As scrolling become available a screen want from the center of gaming to a building block, and Japan and the West seemed to have take it's use in different ways.

In Japan they built out mostly horizontally, stringing each screen section together with a focus on getting to the end. And just as in older games when you fished with one screen you were moved to the next on, these games were mostly built on the premise that you just keep going towards the end. There were exceptions of course, Metroidvanias, JRPGS, and more exploration like adventure games, but action games largely focused on going forward.

In the west rather then stretching the levels out horizontally they pulled it out in all directions, and rather then seeing each, screen element as distinct they kept the overall free moving set up so it was expected you'd be going back to previous screens, and therefore were more likely to keep the mission elements of level progression, getting items, killing everything, and so forth. This leads two too things.

One is that with areas that stretch up, down, and left to right, that are made expecting you to move about each one freely feel more like real places then a horizontal course. So making the places more immersive and like real places become a sought after aspect for enough of the western market for the developers to crater to it. The other side effect was amongst some, such as older FPS fans was a performance for free roaming levels. Since many people tend to put preference, especially ones they haven't thought about much, as being fact, you get the belief that the open arena like level design of Doom is superior to a more path based level design.

Now cultural difference might explain why each side went the way thy did in level layouts, but I also can't help but wounder if the tech the sides were developing for might have also been some degree of influence. Need more info for that one.

Hmm, now that I think of it, the fact that Sonic did better in the West and people often hold it up as being better for having more complex levels with different routes then simple straight forward <Mario levels might also be tied into this.

August 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathanS


I'm not sure how the timeline of examples line up for your theory. If Mario has been scrolling up/down and left/right since Bros 3, I'm not sure where or how you're making a distinction between Japanese and Western games.

Then I think the theory jumps too much between levels that can scroll in all direction and then the push to make things like "real places." I think 3D games and moving through 3D space had that effect on western design trends more than anything else.

Some players having a preference for virtual worlds or free roaming levels doesn't explain why they feel this way or why the trend became so strong. Even if these players assumed that free roaming games were superior, that doesn't explain everything.

I don't know what you mean by Sonic "did better in the West." Where are you getting this data from?


Overall by western I'm referring to the Computer markets, as Japan's games tended to b e the big sellers on the Console, and arguably had a more direct influence on game design of those western devs who did work on it.

And it's not about if the game can scroll backwards, it's about how the game is set up to encourage you to move through the level. In Mario going backwards almost never the way to beat the level. It's a side feature, a way to let you grab some missed coins, or look to see what you missed if you took a pipe to a secret area. What I'm talking about is closer to Metroidviania, you need move all about the level beat it. The difference is that there were still unconnected levels and that you were more likely to be getting a key-card then a new ability to advance,

Let an example, in 1991 SMW had just come out on the SNES and Commander Keen had come out for IBM and compatible PCs. Here's an average Level fro Keen:

And here's one form SMW:

Sadly getting pic of level layouts for a lot of PC platformers and the like is hard as they tend to lesser known. About the best I could do is find video of some, but that's not the same thing as being able to see the whole level at a glance or the feel you get form playing one.

So far from what I've found is that they “find key card, or key paces” type approach to level design seems far more common on computer games then consoles, and even in games designed to get to a certain spot tend to sill have that same sort of level design that extends up and down as well as left to right forming squares more then rectangle level shapes.

Now I should note, when I said hypothesis, I'm not using it for just another world for theory, I keep the two very distinct, so I am doing what I can to scrounge up more evidence, would never think of calling this a theory without a lot more behind it.

As for Sonic I'm referring to the sales of the games in the US and Europe vs those in Japan where both he and the Mega Drive did fairly poorly. And I just ran into a report that does say the Genesis did sell better in the US then the SNES, even by 1995: (Page 12)

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathanS

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