There’s a word that gets bandied about a bit when talking about playing a videogame for a second, third, fourth, or many more times. That word is “replayability”. If you’re not familiar with the word (chances are good if you’re reading this blog that you are, however) go look it up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Except that it’s not there.
That’s because it’s a non-word and deserves to be treated as such. I.e. not used. At all. “Replayability” merits nothing less than the best and most powerful contempt we can conjure against it. I did a cursory search of my previous blog posts both here and at SLRC and found no mention of the (non) word, to my great relief, and If I ever use it in a piece of writing I herby waive all rights Vis. physical retaliation.
And that’s because “replayability”, if I can be so bold as to use the following phrase in a semi-ironical manner, is what is fucking wrong with videogames.
As a non-word, “replayability” alludes to the hidden, semi-consensually arrived at meaning that has oozed from the lazy pages of the enthusiast press (if someone can point me at the originator of the (non) word I’m paying a fifty). What does the word even mean? To the lay-person unconversant with videogames, it literally means nothing! But perhaps they, for reasons beyond my ken, may wish an attempt at parsing the meaning of “replayability”:
“Is it something to do with how replay-able it is? But what does it means to be able to be replayed? What experience in the real world have I had in which the ability to replay something is a feature, measure or aspect I care about?”
The experience in which the complete and utter “noob” will have probably maybe-somehow-possibly-in-the-loosest-sense come close to enjoying/appreciating/valuing the ability to “replay” is rewinding a VHS tape. Or perhaps another close corollary might be the Post-Traumatic Stress sufferer who is forced to “replay” their traumatic event over and over in memory. How does PTSD rate in terms of “replayability”, I wonder?
In other words, the (non) word “replayability”’s lack of any actual meaningful content in effect means that it’s become an indicator of a kind of cultural capital. The existence and dominance of that videogame culture (think male, 18-30, white and middle class) is what is fucking wrong with videogames. It’s basically another special word that “we” have; words like ‘leet’ or ‘pwn’ that serve a special meaning and help keep outsiders on the out.
Okay, that’s fine, you can have your irrelevant culture if you want to, although please don’t expect me to want (or be willing) to endure it with you. But wait, this word gets a run in the fucking academy! Check it out – the Game Studies Journal has four fucking articles that use the (non) word. The latest from this very year. It’s not an anachronism, it’s here and it’s a problem.
Alright, let’s chill and take it on at face value. Replayability – you and me are going to become best buds. What do you actually mean for this ill-defined, nebulous group of consensual readers who know what you mean? What are the authors of you trying to communicate when they say that a game is “replay-able”?
Well, all games are replay-able by definition as a function of their nature as software (with the exception being that game the name of which I forget but which deletes itself if you lose) so usually instead the author means “The game is able to be played again and not have to make all the same choices”. But that won’t suffice as a proper definition either because even the most on-rails interactive-novel-slash-fiction type experience (think Photopia) can be played again with trivially different choices. I highly doubt that’s what most people mean when they use the (non) word “replayability” (SPOILER! Usually they have a very specific meaning in mind and are just using it as a shorthand way of avoiding actually describing what it is they’re talking about END SPOILER).
So how about replayability as: “The ability to play the game again, making different, non-trivial choices”. Close, but I’m still not satisfied.
For what defines the line between trivial and non-trivial? Does the presence of 100 templar flags to collect push it over into the “non-trivial”? What if I played this game once when I was twelve but that’s eleven years ago now and I totally don’t remember it? Does that mean the game possess more of the elusive quality we seem to be calling “replayability”?
Could the answer to that question perhaps be: It depends? Frankly no, I don’t think it could, otherwise the faux-definitive way it gets bandied about (the irony, as it doesn’t even have a definition in a dictionary!) would be exposed as lazy and – dare I say it – completely and utterly devoid of functional meaning?
Could this (non) word actually be employed because authors that use it want a lazy and shorthand way to refer to a series of unrelated yet seemingly connected factors that influence whether someone is willing to endure repeat exposure to a game-type experience? Could some of those factors be ones that do not survive their exposure to the harsh light of objective analysis; do those factors not survive as concrete and measurable qualities that exist in the games themselves?
To recognise this fact would be to finally acknowledge that games are not one-hundred-per-cent whole objects of potential scrutiny, existing in and of themselves, floating in space, and uncaring as to their human interacters. That might mean would could speak about them with much less authority and even less certainty.
So please can we stop fucking using the (non) word “replayability” now?
I said please.
P.S. – This response by Lyndon Warren is fantastic, and I am fully on board with it, except that it still requires consensus about meaning and there is no consensus (I doubt there ever will be) about what ‘replayability’ means. Without an authority to appeal to for adjudication, the meaning of these words will only ever be argued over. Continuously. Cf. every commenter in this thread.