Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Game taxonomy

I sometimes teach paleontology where I work, and that is a science rife with classification and categorization. As I've been thinking more about games, I've been trying to come up with a fundamental classification system that works for me. To start with, I need to define what a game is. I think I'll go with this for now - it's annoyingly vague, but I think it needs to be to encompass everything that we currently think of as a game.

A game is the following:
  • an optional activity
  • with one or more abstract goals defined by rules
  • undertaken for enjoyment 
  • involving one or more players.

I think this rules in almost everything, and rules out only stuff at the far fringes, like cooperative storytelling. Of course, it's almost too broad, since a lot of seemingly non-game things would still fit in there (like, say, politics, or marriage). But it's workable for now.

If we accept this as what a game is, then I think there are three main game types - the "Kingdom" level of games, if you'll allow me to strain my paleontology metaphor a little. Not that there are only three, but these three seem to cover most activities. These are:


- competitions that involve contests of skill or agility. I'd include in this traditional sports like soccer, baseball, jai alai, etc., but also stuff like darts, foosball, armwrestling, air hockey, etc. I think I'd also put some video games in here, like first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, and other similar ones where physical or mental performance is key. There are some common sports I'd have a tough time including as "game sports." These would be things like weightlifting, much of track and field, swimming, etc., since their goals aren't abstract.


- activities that involve producing or manipulating real or abstract objects or pieces of data to achieve a particular purpose. This would include mental puzzles like crosswords and sudoku. It would also include most computer games (e.g. Snood!), unless they're multiplayer, in which case they might instead be in one of the other main kingdoms here. Based on my definition, "Puzzles" would also include some non-gamey things like jigsaw puzzles. Puzzles require players to be clever, but not necessarily lucky, strong, or aggressive.


- activities that let players use pieces, parts, or objects to achieve an imagined goal or scenario defined by rules. These can follow close to reality (e.g. historically realistic wargames) or remain quite distant from it (e.g. Go, Crazy Eights, Poker), or somewhere in the middle (e.g. chess, Monopoly). So, this covers most of what I'm doing, whether it's card games or board games.

I think these three categories cover much of what people think of as games. Role-playing games are a little harder to fit in, but I think they go in as Abstractions.

I'll think more about this later - maybe get down to the phylum or class level, too.

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