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Taxonomising play

Taxonomies of games and play are fundamentally flawed. In this post I go through some existing typologies and show how they are useful for analysing a game like Skies of Arcadia, and why they fail to describe game play completely.

Zoya Street, Blogger

August 8, 2012

6 Min Read

I thought I’d post this extract from my thesis as a useful introduction to some of the typologies and taxonomies of play that have been developed in game studies. My own view on this matter, as I conclude at the end of this passage, is that games are not objects to be taxonomised, but network effects that depend on a number of actors and nodes to come into being. Taxonomies should only be used to describe the qualities of network effects, rather than falling into the trap of believing that they inhere in some stable, designed structure.

If you like this post, you should check out my crowd-funding campaign to turn my thesis into a book at indiegogo.com/dreamcast

Visualisation of taxonomic categories of mammals: shared under a creative commons license by Anders Sandberg


Roger Caillois’s 1961 text Man, play and games suggests two main types of play; paidia, explorative `playing’ such as that which a small child does in a sandbox, and ludus, goal-oriented `gaming’ such as chess. In addition, he covers four further play forms: agon, or competitive play; alea, or risk-taking; mimicry, also known as role-playing; and ilinx, or vertigo.

Skies of Arcadia is theoretically a game of alea and mimicry – it belongs to the genre of role-playing games (RPGs), and the success of battle strategies is partly probabilistic. The problem with this categorisation is that it conceals the more complex and ambivalent relationship that players may have with the game. While the success of individual attacks is probabilistic, this is cushioned by the fact that there is no true `fail state’ for players – the worst outcome is that the on-screen characters are `killed’ by an enemy, but all this actually means is that players are returned to the beginning of the battle to attempt to win again. The game is designed such that they will de finitely win eventually. In reality, the risk is minimal, and the probabilistic nature of attack success simply functions to provide disappointment when an attack does less damage than expected, and thrill when it exceeds expectations.

The issue of mimicry is even more problematic – the moniker `role-playing game’ has more to do with the fact that the core game mechanics are inspired by Dungeons and Dragons and less to do with any actual role-playing engaged in by the players. Mimicry involves making decisions about your behaviour that match what you believe a given character would do. Children’s games of `Mums and Dads’ are games of mimicry, and tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons require that players narrate their imagined behaviour in the voice of their character, for example, `I swing my Damascus steel sword at the dragon, screaming ‘this ends now!”

In a Dungeons and Dragons game, players must roll dice to determine whether their action succeeds or fails, and how much damage an attack deals. In Skies of Arcadia and other digital RPGs, the computer calculates this using a set of `random numbers’, but players are not required to choose actions based on what they believe the character would choose to do at the time. They must simply choose the best strategy to win the battle. The same goes for behaviour in town maps; players do not choose what to say to non-player characters based on what they believe their character would say, but they simply select what will make Vyse appear as heroic as possible. If anything, agency for playing a role is located in the game software itself, not in the players.

Taxonomic categorisations mask this kind of distributed agency, relying on an understanding of games as objects played by human agents, while the reality is less stable. Caillois’ notion of mimicry suggests that players role-play within the boundaries set by Skies of Arcadia, but it is in fact known as a role-playing game because of a network eff ect – its relationship to a heritage of tabletop role-playing games. In spite of this ambivalence, I fi nd it useful to take from Caillois’s typology the broader categories of paidia and ludus. Certain game mechanics, such as collecting `discoveries’ in the sky map, encourage paidia play, while others, such as battles, engender ludic play.

This focus on play styles rather than game types is more successfully met by Richard Bartle’s taxonomy, first presented in 1990. Bartle presents four player types, which, like personality types identi ed by psychologists, are all present to diff ering degrees in all people: killers enjoy being better than everybody else and defeating all opponents; explorers like to know everything about the game world and fi nd rare artefacts; achievers like to own everything in the game world, or to complete checklists of tasks; and fi nally, socialisers like to interact with other people, and are motivated to play by the possibility of social interaction in a game.

Bartle’s taxonomy was intended for online multi-user domains (MUDs), the text-based precursor to the contemporary massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPGs), and he has objected to its application to other genres of video game. Nevertheless, many game designers and theorists find his taxonomy useful for describing the play styles encouraged by di fferent game mechanics, and I will be referring to Bartle’s player types in my description of Skies of Arcadia space design.

Nevertheless, many of the pleasures of RPG play are left out of the taxonomies presented so far. In Toward a Ludic Architecture Stefa an Walz describes the Ph.D dissertation of Jurgen Fritz, which has not been translated from the German, and o ffers it as a more thorough list of play activities; contesting, risk-taking, leaving it to chance, amusing, pursuing vertigo, meditating, collecting, role-playing, savouring, creating, and problem-solving. This provides a better description of the kinds of pleasures that players might take from Skies of Arcadia: it is amusing, because the storyline and spatial features are often comedic; it enables collecting, particularly in the sky map; savouring, by enjoying the way the storyline unfolds; and problem-solving, by succeeding in battle and responding to spatial puzzles in dungeons.

In addition, Walz o ffers a typology of perception, pointing out that sound aff ects the spatiotemporal experience of game-space through sonic space, while tactition (the sense of touch) and equilibrioception (the sense of balance) have hitherto unexplored e ects on players’ experiences of a game. The voices of fans featured in chapter one will show how the 3D game space a ected players’ senses of balance, leading to sickness for some.

It should be noted that Skies of Arcadia is compatible with `rumble packs’ that give tactile feedback to players through vibration – for example, in the opening sequence the approach of a large ship is annotated by forceful vibrations. My own rumble pack was not functioning for most of my research period, so I will not be able to comment on its e ffects – however, this is an opportunity to note the e ect that unpredictable hardware components have on player experience, and that therefore human-computer interaction extends beyond the design intentions of software engineers. Games are not static structures, but network e ffects that depend on numerous unstable human and non-human actors.

If you liked this post, you should check out my crowd-funding campaign to turn my thesis into a book at indiegogo.com/dreamcast 

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