International Games Week October 29 – November 4

Cataloguing games – some thoughts and some resources

Posted on October 5, 2015

Philip Minchin, the 2013-4 IGD blog editor, is popping back in with a guest post on... well, the title already spoiled it. The article explores why cataloguing games can actually do a great deal to unlock their capacity to cultivate learning, and concludes with some resources and references that will help you make a start.

In my Talking Points series from previous years, I've talked a lot about why I believe games and play should matter to libraries. I hope that I've already made the point in those series that games are important and underestimated forms of culture (and play is an essential element of ALL culture), and that it is no coincidence that their escalating prominence and ballooning share of our collective time, attention, and resources comes at a historical moment when creativity, imagination, systems literacy and social skills have never been more crucial.

But to date I've only alluded to the reasons why I believe libraries matter to games and play, over and above the ways we matter to every part of culture.

This could become another Talking Points series, but for now I want to focus on one of the core elements of libraries' sharing work: cataloguing.

The role of cataloguing in establishing and popularising analytical vocabulary

If games and play are a fraction as important as I believe they are, they deserve intelligent, considered, literate discussion comparable to what we afford literature, cinema, and other arts. (And of course, playful artforms can incorporate other media, along with narrative, composition, and all the other technical dimensions that come with them - there is no medium so open as play!)

However, as a medium that consists fundamentally of elements not central to other media - of systems at the published level, and of decisions and actions taken by players within the context of those systems at the experiential level - and which is not required to incorporate any other media, games need their own critical vocabulary.

Some of this vocabulary already exists in other fields - psychology, education, mathematics, logic, philosophy, economics, systems analysis, and so on. But it is largely isolated to those disciplines, which is a pity given its direct relevance to everyone who makes decisions within systems where others are also making decisions, and who might benefit from tools that render them better able to describe and analyse their experience. Which is to say, the entire sapient population.

And of course, while those academic disciplines have much to offer discussion of games and play, play and games are their own things with their own unique qualities - there will necessarily be some terminology that arises from studying them in their own right (which may well then inform those other disciplines).

To be fair, considerable work has been and is being undertaken in advancing critical discussion of games and play. Game dev site Gamasutra, criticism site Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and new BoingBoing subsite Offworld are great places to start for meaty discussion of games and play in a more holistic cultural context, and games academia is doing its bit to develop the terminology that lets us better describe experiences that have hitherto been nameable only in the broadest of strokes. I would not wish to downplay the value of any of these.

But just as the ruleset of a game is near-impossible to grok without actual play, we learn and understand taxonomies and critical distinctions best by reference to actual experience - by exploring the patterns within a collection of real objects where the similarities and differences are made manifest. Artistic movements and genres move from being academic jargon to mainstream parlance in no small part by being made visible in collections - and in catalogues. The simple fact of highlighting opportunities for learning prime people to do so, and equip them with the tools for analysis and even metacognition about what they are learning - not to mention simply marking such learning as valuable enough to note.

And it is this which libraries could offer, by not only including games and other playful media in their collections, but by cataloguing them properly, with reference not only to narrative or thematic elements and publication metadata, but to the actual details of how they are played, or played with.

This includes describing the physical media (something we need to do anyway for collection maintenance) and the rules and procedures of play, at the very least in the sense of including gameplay genres. A first-person shooter is radically different to a tower defense game, but under current cataloguing conventions at most libraries, you would be hard-pressed to tell Plants vs. Zombies from Left 4 Dead.

Other key aspects of gameplay include questions of chance vs. strategy, how much customisation of play elements is possible and expected, how much information is open and how much hidden (and from whom), and so on.

Another key element to describe is the required audience for play, including:

  • Who will be able to play? - this is often shorthanded by age, but being more specific about which specific capacities and developmental milestones are necessary would both popularise awareness of these aspects of intelligence and maturity, and allow more accurate assessment of suitability of games. For some games, specific life experiences may even be necessary - or, more likely, a player's experience of the same game may vary depending on their specific life experiences.
  • How many can play? The larger the required group, the harder the logistics of assembling a group to play. What effect do changing numbers of players have on the play experience?
  • How long does a typical game last? (This will feed into the first question of who can play - new parents and the overemployed rarely have time!) What are the factors that affect the duration of play - number of players, experience level of players, inclusion of optional gameplay elements, or other?
  • What is the social contract of the game - how does it shape the relationship of players to one another? Is it competitive, team-based, or co-operative? Does it promote openness and collaboration or secretive shenanigans? Which way does its tone tend? (Though of course the individual instance of play can vary wildly from the default!)

These are just a few basic qualities of games that clearly have an impact on their suitability for any given person, but would largely be ignored by traditional cataloguing (which, to be fair, was developed for media that are far more uniform in their physical composition and in the qualities of the required audience - or, at least, better suited to self-selection by their audience). If we are going to take cataloguing games seriously, as I hope it is apparent we must, we need to expand our understanding of the many ways a creative work is defined.

Games studies and popular culture have both contributed a great deal in this area, but cataloguers interested in getting up to speed on some basic attributes of games could do a lot worse than starting with Elias, Garfield & Gutschera's Characteristics of Games (MIT Press, 2012).

However, I believe some of the most interesting work lies around making explicit the skills, attributes, and/or insights required, developed, and/or rewarded by the game. This is something that could also be considered for other media, especially books - but given that playful media inherently depend on their audiences' abilities and efforts in ways no other medium does, it makes particular sense to consider cataloguing these dimensions of such works.

That this might result in games and play leading the way in making media generally more useful for educators and learning... well, that sounds about right to me, actually.

Examples and other resources

Much of this discussion was covered in a paper I wrote in 2011 for Australian library tech conference VALA, which also includes tables of fields of particular relevance to various specific forms of game - you can download it here. Some of this was derived from (and informed) work I did on cataloguing videogames and tabletop RPGs while working at Port Phillip Library Service, but since I left some years ago I am not sure how much of this was kept up (especially since I believe they have moved to outsourcing more of their cataloguing).

In writing that paper, somehow I missed this 2008 presentation by Bradley Shipps of Outagamie Waupaca Library System on cataloguing board games in MARC, which goes into more technical detail - particularly about the physical description of the work. One thing I thought particularly commendable was their use of the Related Resources field (856) to store a URL of the publisher's free PDF download of the rules, but the whole presentation is a must-read if you're interested in the topic.

(If you are, there's a blog post whose comments would be interested to hear from you at the LITA blog - go say hi!)

I already mentioned the tremendous Characteristics of Games in the body of the text - that's because it's that good.

A great deal of metadata, as well as lively and informative discussion, is of course available at Board Game Geek. Wikipedia gives an outline of some of the key terms for the less-familiar.

TV Tropes has an excellent page on videogame genres, and Wikipedia's is also useful in that it provides multiple axes for classifying games.

This University of Tennessee (Knoxville) page offers useful information on cataloguing web games specifically - aside from the general notes above about the broader topics we could be cataloguing, I have nothing to add.

Play Play Learn are among the first in the world (that I've come across, at least) to include the notion of cataloguing games (especially those that are not explicitly "educational") for skills, let alone mechanisms of play. They blur these together slightly in their categorisation of games - understandably enough, as there is considerable overlap in the implications of the two when undertaking "player's advisory" work, especially for the instructional kinds of purposes they aim to support - but their work is inspiring and another must-see. (As is the earlier work of some of the same team in the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership.)

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