Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Taxonomy of Interactive Electronic Recreation

In the last two weeks, I've been thinking a lot about how one would go about categorizing video games. It started with Matthew Gallant's post on this subject and the cognitive boilers were further fueled by Corvus Elrod's post looking to define "game." Throughout both of these discussions, I wished numerous times we could all be in the same room with a whiteboard, so we could just draw a graph of what we actually mean.

This is a a personal bias (or perhaps temporary psychosis brought on by spending too much time writing XML parsers over the last couple of weeks), but I'd much rather have a taxonomy or a graph than a lexical definition. Aligning the terminology just right so that it's properly inclusive without being excessively broad is too much for me. We can say far more about felis catus than we can about mammals at large, or more about music than we can about all performance art. I worry a little that by trying to create a definition that includes all the weird edge cases, we're going to end up talking about things only in very general terms. I'd rather enumerate properties things do or do not possess and work from there.

So I figured up Inkscape and tried to do just that. Don't look for quality here folks, it won't be found. I'm an astonishingly poor graphic artist as it is. This is merely meant to substitute for that whiteboard I would have abused. It's a rough draft, so I'd be happy to hear what you all think of it. Coloured nodes refer to a few call-outs below that I've expanded upon.

"Recreation"- Here I mean to refer to all things not intended for work. I wanted to avoid just a string of terms ("art, entertainment, education, etc.") and Michael Abbott suggested "recreation." While in a lot of contexts is has a less serious connotation, I like the definition given here: "Refreshment of one's mind or body after work through activity that amuses or stimulates." Sparky Clarkson also suggested avocations, which I like.

Interaction Mediated Non-Visually- I don't have any lackluster clip art for this, for obvious reasons. I think this distinction is actually quite important, because I feel if we broaden our notion of video games to include these things, we're forced to exclude a lot of really fundamental things about games. As radio plays are sufficiently distinct from films, so too are these games distinct from video games. Additionally, I'm not convinced of their ability to be anything beyond simple novelties. I'd be delighted to encounter something that would make me reconsider, but for now, these games are not video games. Sorry Dark Room Sex Game and In The Pit.

Video Games- This is why it's difficult to nail down the exact nature of video games: they're not a single set of properties, they're a spectrum. If art, education and entertainment were a Venn diagram, video games exist in the intersections. Complicating things more, it's a very subjective spectrum. The definitions of what is art and what is entertainment differ from person to person.

My claim is that video games are visually mediated interactive software that is some combination of art, education and entertainment. Hopefully that illuminates why I opted for the diagram instead of trying to parse that out.

Again, this is just a rough draft. What do you think of this taxonomy?



Blogger Matthew Gallant said...

As a fellow software guy, I love the chart Nels. It illustrates the conditions and edge cases much more neatly than a sentence could.

Spencer Greenwood brought up another interesting edge case in the comments on my blog:

"Is a DVD menu of Proustian profundity a video game? By your definition, I'd argue that it is. The images on the screen might display Proust's words or his face; the interaction would involve the player's selection of answers to questions, or highlighting certain sections of texts for deeper analysis. The aesthetic response is self-explanatory: this is Proust."

I can't plausibly think of any definition of video games that would exclude the interactive Proust software without also excluding a number of non-game video games (such as my perennial example Electroplankton). What do you think?

January 20, 2009 at 11:40 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

The blessing and curse of my background: I love charts/graphs but I'm not nearly artistic enough to make them visually appealing.

As for the Proust DVD, part of the reason why I opted for a chart instead of a definition is I find definitions of this nature often end up needing more and more qualifiers to resolve edge cases like that.

The thing is, digitizing existing media doesn't immediately make it artful, entertaining or educational in ways the source does not. E.g. putting Shakespeare on a Kindle may technically make it digital, interactive software that's artful, educational and entertaining. But it differs from the source only cosmetically. A book on tape/cd/mp3 isn't a whole new medium, it's just someone reading a book. Porting existing media isn't sufficient, something significantly new has to be going on.

Similarly, a DVD menu that allows one to navigate writings by Proust isn't meaningfully different from just reading Proust. It's presentation may make it educational if it's deeper than just text or audio of the text, but that's still insufficient. I'm contending that video games are at least two of art, education and entertainment (even if it's just a little bit).

Of course, what is and isn't art/education/entertainment is subjective, but I think for the vast majority of people, an "Exploring Proust!" DVD isn't going to hit two of the criterion. Electroplankton, on the other hand, is something most people would feel that is artful and entertaining, thus a video game.

That's how I'd respond to the Proust DVD bit. What's your take? Does that make sense?

January 21, 2009 at 12:11 PM  
Blogger Matthew Gallant said...

I agree. I made a similar argument re: Wikipedia fitting the definition of "video game". The aesthetic response is to the writing on the website, not the interactive software (browser/server) that delivers it.

January 21, 2009 at 11:14 PM  
Blogger Tiago said...

As part of my research work I've been delving into a few texts proposing taxonomies for interaction in the field of HCI and also in Interactive Art, and a Google search brought this post to my attention - which I read with gusto.

As for the DVD example, here's my two cents.

I think it fails qualify as videogame because it fails to first qualify as a game. To me the notion of game is tied to the notions of antagonist and score. This is what excludes virtual online community environments such as Second Life from the "game" classification, in my view.

So the DVD menu fails to qualify as a game since there is no inherent, quantifiable objective supported by a rule system and the interaction methods to achieve it, and the smae applies to the antagonist. A viewer might have his own objective (such as navigating the menus to achieve a specific section of text) but this does not add up to something implicitly stated in the artefact itself. Additionaly, the DVD menu might be badly organized and/or the remote control might be an example of bad design, but this was neither intentional nor integrated into the rule system which defines the game mechanics.

Regarding whether the aesthetic response is to the writing on the website, not the interactive software that delivers it, I would argue that the software and hardware that make up the interface have a great deal of influence upon how the message is perceived. Examples of this are the Guitar Hero controller and the Wiimote.

January 26, 2009 at 4:59 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Tiago Great observations and thanks for stopping by. I didn't explicitly touch on intent, but that's a important thing to look at it. Could something unintentionally be a video game? Perhaps a group of folks could layer some kind of game on top of it, but it wouldn't be self-presenting from the original.

If you've got (and will have at some point) links to your work, feel free to share them. Sounds like I'd be interested in giving them a read.

January 26, 2009 at 7:53 PM  
Blogger Tiago said...

I would then first ask if something could unintentionally be a game, and that's an interesting discussion. Obviously it also depends on the definition of game.

Then, a videogame is just a digital game mediated using video technology. For me videogames are just a subset of digital games, which are themselves a subset of games.

So if we could have some activity unintentionally becoming a game, we could also in theory have "unintentional videogames".

The closest things I can find are activities in the border of play and loosely-structured game, such as in an interesting study of how children invent their own games based on the technological capabilities of mobile phones (references at the end).

As for my writings, as of now they just revolve around a prototype interface for ubiquitous interaction and a demo application which may or may not qualify as a game.

The more theoretical stuff relating to interaction, pervasive gaming and interaction taxonomies will surface sometime this year, I hope.


Brynskov, M. & Ludvigsen, M.
Mock games: a new genre of pervasive play
DIS '06: Proceedings of the 6th conference on Designing Interactive systems
ACM, 2006, pp. 169-178

Jarkiewicz, P., Frankhammar, M. & Fernaeus, Y.
In the hands of children: exploring the use of mobile phone functionality in casual play settings
MobileHCI '08: Proceedings of the 10th international conference on Human computer interaction with mobile devices and services
ACM, 2008, pp. 375-378

January 27, 2009 at 9:02 AM  

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