Requiem for Linnaeus: On The Taxonomy of “Game”


Hej. Vad är det

Editor’s Note: Carl Linnaeus was an 18th Century scientist who is considered the father of modern taxonomy, the classification of organisms.

One of the issues in the modern critical community for video games that mystifies me the most is a resistance to looking into further evaluating the definition for just what a “video game” is. Some voice concerns over worries that improving our vocabulary will work solely towards exclusionary ends; they fear the power to call something “not a game” belittles creators and robs them of their merit like pulling at the ends of a slipknot. Some propose that a more refined set of terms to classify and categorize will stifle creative spirits and the coverage they would accrue. They are certainly real fears, but they’re clung to with almost superstitious fervor in their desire to not confront the question.

Though there are a number of proposed starting points for re-evaluated systems of classification, objections to specific terms often spin the discussion into endless quibbling over details. Rather than go into any kind of digression about actually trying to establish where those boundary lines should lie, here you will find only an argument for the general re-evaluation of terms.

"Brace for impact..."

We have no problem with classification of subdivisions of things we already consider “video games” based on their mechanical structures. We often classify games into “genres” the same way we do with movies and books, slotting them into superficial-but-helpful categorizations based on similarities and setting. We have subsets for describing modes of movement, modes of competition and/or objective, constructs pertaining to the passing of time, and even language for the default camera perspective. Already these genres come with baggage about expected features and generalized assumptions about their gameplay, but hybridized and divergent styles are generally welcomed as innovation at best, and novel diversion at worst. The space between and outside these classifications is still intact. There are certainly trade-offs how far inside or outside one operates from this already accepted means of subdivision, but overall most works that can successfully engage the player(s) will find a receptive audience.

That engagement is what has traditionally defined a “game” whether digital or physical. This usually involved conditions of demarcated success or failure against either an existing system or an active opponent, often in some quantifiable fashion. Plenty of simple games are capable of eschewing digital interfaces, and sometimes don’t even involve audio or visual stimuli, which would make the key uniting principles of games their systems for interaction. What these rulesets and conditions do is create a space for the participants to test their abilities, and in a way create their own experiences and narrative through the events they directly caused to happen. The power of the players to triumph or fail based on their talents, and often go on to measure their prowess and others, make for the heft of the experience. Tales are often told in personal bests, leaderboard rankings, end-of-game scores, win-loss statistics and other numeric records of performance, with perceptions of challenge or complexity serving to heighten those participant-generated dramas.

Here are some things that are definitely games! Probably.

Works that find their “game-ness” at question generally rub against this admittedly essentialist history. Sometimes the means of achieving “success” is simple to the point of being a set perfunctory or even unavoidable triggers. Sometimes there is no lose state or measure of explicitly quantified performance. Sometimes the elements of presentation are leaned on so heavily and aggressively that the intended result is to stop participants from continuing. Sometimes the entertainment value is primarily situated in passive narrative exposition, couched in somewhat superficial interaction. The ever-widening umbrella of what constitutes a “game” has reached some of its outer limits and is growing to consume related but willfully distinct realms of creativity, like interactive fiction. Not that fluidity and hybridization between mediums should be frowned upon in any way either, but that would seem a sign that something might be amiss.

There are numerous objections on the grounds that attempting to gerrymander the boundaries of “game-ness” are a kind of political attempt to devalue anything that would sit outside the new guideline. This is a wholly valid concern, because admittedly there are proponents of this school of thought who harbor that hidden objective. But that doesn’t by any means necessitate an agenda based on sociological prejudice, nor is it necessarily predicated on dislike of presentation details like narrative content or visual presentation. While those red flags of personal prejudice should be vigilantly monitored at all costs, it would be foolish to forfeit the potential interpretive benefits a more refined taxonomy might yield because of the mere possibility of critical re-assessment.

Seriously what was that baby rolling around in. Bad baby.

The objective of calling a variety of things by the same term is to unite, but couldn’t it be possible that the span of individual works has widened to where no universally applicable center can hold all its diverse and disparate creations? Shouldn’t the drive to seek similarities and unifying compositional elements also necessitate a counterbalancing search for attributions of difference to identify and celebrate what make individual “games” unique? This is the purpose of proposing a new terminology: to discuss these works and perhaps come to a better understanding of them, on terms better fit to their construction. Still, even suggesting such a system for strictly clinical and academic purposes, while keeping “games” as the broader and more inclusive cultural signifier, is frowned upon heavily in the name of protecting would-be outliers.

The adjustments of perception that came to allow for these works’ acceptance as “games” in an ever-growing “big-tent” idealism serve as the other side of the same coin here, and as such were similarly politicized in nature. There is apparently something particularly inviting and attractive about the “game” label which encourages creators of interactive digital work to seek it, even when its use is potentially questionable. Familiarity through superficial similarities, common creators, tangential associations via social ties, and even distribution methods are all part of that miasma of perception around where something is or should be on a kind of hypothetical “game-ness” gradient. What’s confusing is that the contents of this now-desirable label were long considered as ephemeral, trivial and easily dismissed, and for most of society this is still true… so what’s changed?

Wasn't Metroid Prime, won't be The Witness, isn't [your game here]; sorry.

As “games” begin to make major overtures at maturity and refinement and profundity, one may be inclined to grow suspicious. As the borders of their sphere of influence grows, a pessimism comes into view that’s worth exploring for its root cause. Are these “non-games” or “un-games” or “quasi-games” a side door to more established/respected/glamorous/lucrative artistic endeavors, wading through “traditional games media” as some kind of backwater shortcut or framing device? Are “games” so direly in need of being matured and validated as pastimes through the lenses of “respected” media that those works with greatest critical clout are often weighted massively against the strengths “games” long held as a medium in their own right?

“Is [X] a ‘game’?” tends to be found in the same murky waters as “Is this game ‘art’?” because both ultimately aim to ask the same thing: “Does this matter, and if so, why?” The question is fundamentally philosophical, and so no single correct answer exists. But then why such a massive push by both creative and critical elements to create a unified, formless front? And if it necessitates obfuscating core issues of mechanics and stifling dialogues that could potentially help clarify our understanding of the current state of “games” then is it truly in the best interest of its practitioners? Low-interactivity works have been given pet names ranging from “beautiful tunnels” to “asset tours”, and that unwillingness to fully trust the dynamic give-and-take communion between players and creators will always shadow such creations with doubts.

Game Boy: Let's Play! YouTube Footage Edition

Most of the rhetoric I’ve seen against this kind of “divisive” or “dismissive” re-evaluation eventually trends into social parallels: LGBT/QUILTBAG rights, “civil unions” versus marriage, second-class citizenship, “separate but equal” doctrine and other issues of grave human injustice past and present. But for all our ethnocultural divisions, we have 99.9 percent of our DNA that genetically and biologically (mechanically) unites us. I don’t feel that they are apt parallels to draw, not out of trivialization of social issues, but because it sells short the diversity of games and the means they use to reach us. Think instead of the splendor of Tree of Life: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. We are still free to debate and question at the edges of where “life” begins and what it is, changing the system as we see fit and our understanding grows, but we can work on that comprehension within a system of classification that is sufficiently strong to both compare and contrast, illuminating all the while.

It would be foolish to think that any first attempt at a “Tree of Games” would be so harmonious right off the bat, but it would be a step in the right direction. Making sure to never associate analysis of form with judgment of content would be a pivotal part of the process, and there’s a great deal of legitimate fear that this would be where such an endeavor would fall into bickering and ostracism. That said, people with any sort of vested interest in works that would be put “at risk” of not being taken seriously are intelligent enough to navigate those waters; there should be no trouble putting faith in the kind of people who already practice serious dialogue, and who would be the primary practitioners of this kind of new classification. It also doesn’t seem prudent to worry about adverse effects in the worlds of coverage and publicity; nearly all places that deal with “games” also cover related stories so long they are pertinent to games at large; if marginally tangential relations from movie licenses to spoof videos all find their way into news feeds, anything interactive and creative would almost assuredly still find a home.

In any case, it’d be better than stand stock still, faced with splendorous creations but at a loss for words.

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  • Sniper_Catfish

    The eight aesthetics (per Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics by LeBlanc) might be a good place to start. Even though I hate limiting games to “fun,” his 8 Kinds of Fun are a great breakdown of the things we expect from games.

    • Adam

      LeBlanc is great, and definitely informed a lot of this article’s basic premise and early drafts. There are plenty of solid and compatible building blocks already around from people like LeBlanc, Juul, Bateman/Boon and Koster that I would personally advocate. But, I made the article kind of nebulous on purpose because it’s more about encouraging people to actually try and take stock in the first place than advancing any particular school of thought. I’m totally aware just about everything I’m saying is old hat, but since people seem to still be wrestling with all this it might be the time has come to revisit it, in earnest.

      The “8 Kinds of Fun” are even better when you take them simply as means to engage a player into the system you’ve created. But that’s the danger of using the word “fun” then, isn’t it? A lot of the dead ends this kind of dialogue runs up against these days are mostly just semantic busywork and navigating around bias, but boy howdy is there a lot of accrued baggage to wade through. The longer we ignore it, the worse it’s going to get in our way… we’re going to have to tackle it at some point, right?

  • Philosaur

    Please, PLEASE, throw away your thesaurus. If you insist on using big words, use them judiciously. All of your high-fallootin’ Latinate constructions are so much hand-waving to mask the fact that you don’t really have much in the way of a thesis. And what you do have is a confused mess.

    You ask why people don’t want to work out a way to classify what is or is not a game. Then you admit that there *is* already a system of classification that we use (FPS, MMO, etc). Then you call for a more refined taxonomy. Then you circle back to biological taxonomy, and say that an imperfect classification is better than none at all. I’m confused. Do we, or do we not, have a system of classification that serves our purposes? You give plenty of ways that a system of classification could be misused, but you never actually get around to saying why a more refined system would help.

    In any event, the problem of classifying what is and is not a game goes back to Wittgenstein, who famously concluded that there is no way to draw a bright line between the two. Games have what he called a “family resemblence”–a set of traits in common, none of which, alone, is necessary or sufficient to call something a game. So the binary “is it or is it not” classification is, in my mind, and the minds of many others, doomed to failure.

    • Adam

      Fair on the word choice; I was half-worried it was a bit too dense. But that came from trying to avoid advancing any particular set of revisions. There are a lot of sensitivities I’m trying to respectfully thread my way around, so maybe I got a little verbose in the process. At least I avoided name-dropping, wink nudge.

      A system presently exists, and has existed for quite some time, but as more and more “experimental” forms come about, that system hasn’t responded. You get things that not only don’t sit cleanly in any one classification, but works that don’t particularly have much relating them to any pre-existing “accepted” sub-genres. The argument is intended to persuade people who don’t want to retool the system we have now, either horizontally or vertically. Nobody said any proposed system had to be binary, either, and I agree that anything with a chance at success couldn’t be since the existing system already isn’t.

      As far as what a more refined system would accomplish? Just a routine update to the critical toolkit; a better ability to map the traits that traditionally unite (or divide) the structure of games where what we have now is starting to show some shortcomings. The “family resemblance” clearly doesn’t have to be concrete to start having noticeably sharp divergence points, since that’s how existing subdivisions work, so why not map out this “new” territory like we did with the rest?

      • Philosaur

        Wow! The difference between this reply and the original text (in terms of word choice) is striking–and pleasant!

        The reason I dropped the big dubya’s name was because his arguments are salient here–at least insofar as you were calling for a better definition of the word “game”. On the other hand, your call for a retooling of the existing classification assumes we’ve at least identified some of the traits that make up the family resemblance.

        The classification system is organic. It grows with each article, review, or blog post written by players and industry professionals. While it may not respond fast enough to put every new “game” in an appropriately shaped bin (you know, one that respects the nuances that make a game a beautiful and unique snowflake among its bedraggled, cigar-chomping FPS peers), it *does* respond–if only to say “WTF, I don’t even…” My point is that this ad hoc system works. It creates new categories as needed, and it’s reasonably successful at putting new games into existing categories. In my opinion, to do much more than this would require some new office or agency dedicated to such a purpose.
        Of course, part of the problem is that I’m not approaching this from a place where I’m worrying about anyone’s “sensibilities”, nor have I run afoul of anyone who doesn’t “want to retool the system we have now”. Do people like that really exist? Does someone have a vested interest in the status quo of game classification? Don’t answer that–I’m sure they do. But then–why do you care? Even those people can’t stop the organic system we have from mutating in response to the ever-changing ecosystem of game development.

        Finally, your ideas of the benefits that would come with a more refined system all sound rather academic. The existing system that I’m thinking of is anything BUT academic. It’s operational. It’s commercial. Its only purpose is to help game marketers target fans, and help fans find the games they want. If you find that you need a system that fits certain academic needs, then why not create it yourself?

        • David Vileta

          “…your ideas of the benefits that would come with a more refined system all sound rather academic. The existing system that I’m thinking of is anything BUT academic. It’s operational. It’s commercial. Its only purpose is to help game marketers target fans, and help fans find the games they want. If you find that you need a system that fits certain academic needs, then why not create it yourself?”

          Maybe it’s time we started working on that. But the press is very important in our industry and it would be nice to see them regularly give some respectable efforts in classifying these experimental projects we’re seeing everywhere now. For me, “zen”, “Art game”, “it’s not a game; it’s an experience” are rapidly becoming more meaningless.