International Games Week October 29 – November 4

International Games Week

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.)

Games folks on libraries: Richard Garfield

Posted on November 18, 2014

Sorry to post again so soon after the last one - which you should read if you haven't, as it contains a reminder to fill out the survey for this year's event! (Plus other interesting tidbits.)

In fact, strictly speaking I should probably hold this next interview off until next year. But this is too good to sit on, so consider it a post-IGD present!

We are joined for a surprise final "Games folks on libraries" interview by Richard Garfield. (Yes, feel free to use the definite article!) Dr Garfield is among the handful of folks in recent decades - or in history, really - to have successfully kicked off an entirely new cultural form, the trading card game; certainly he is one of the very few whose status as foundational innovator is so clear. Even more impressive, his original creation, Magic: the Gathering, is still growing in both audience and new content after 21 years! Since then he has also published a number of other games (including RoboRally, profiled on this blog in September) and a book that shares some small measure of his encyclopaedic knowledge and understanding of games. (The book is linked in his bio below, and highly recommended to anyone interested in the form - and to all libraries, as it's both a definitive work on the topic of games and one of the best textbooks I've read on any subject, with not only abundant and well-organised reference material, but well-designed exercises to encourage readers to apply and integrate what they've learned.) As a student and aficionado of games, not to mention a Magic player since it first reached Oz in 1994, it's been an honour and a pleasure to have corresponded with Dr Garfield to bring you this interview - I hope my fellow gamers gain a similar buzz from reading it!

Richard Garfield designed the first trading card game, Magic: the Gathering, in 1993. At the time he was a math professor, but the success of Magic led to him leaving academics and going into game design full time. Since then he has published half a dozen other trading card game designs, as well as a number of board and card games. Since 2001 he has been consulting on game design with companies including Microsoft, Electronic Arts, and the Pokemon Company. His recent games include King of Tokyo and King of New York (board games) and Spectromancer (PC & iOS). He coauthored a book, Characteristics of Games, which was published by MIT press in 2012.

Richard, thanks so much for joining us! Please tell us about your history with/past experience of libraries.

Libraries were an important part of my youth - I believe in ways more significant than the simple access to books. The books were amazing, and important - but I think what really affected me was the sense that the world of ideas was eternal, and open to all. Not only that, a library was a concrete piece of evidence that the culture I was a part of  valued this intellectual world. I believe this is part of the reason I went into academics.

What is your sense of where libraries are now, both in relation to games and in general?

My mother is a librarian, so I am not totally out of touch, but at the same time really don't think I know what is going on in the world of libraries. A lot seems to have changed. And really - how could libraries not be different? The electronic world puts so much of what a library was at everyone's fingertips. Libraries seem to have many more community programs than when I was growing up, probably at least in part in an attempt to refocus in recognition of this changing informational landscape. I am also not sure of where games are in libraries - but they are certainly long overdue if they aren't there!

Where do you see this going, and where could it go?

Despite this wide access to knowledge - that could be perceived as undermining a library's purpose - libraries have an important role in making sure the world of ideas is available to all, and making sure that people know this is important to human culture.  I am sure all these things are being done already, but some natural direction for the future would include:

  • Making sure that this electronic world of knowledge is open to all. Just like no one in the 60s should have been deprived of an encyclopedia, no one today should be deprived of the internet.
  • Acting as an organizer for the world of ideas. The more content is available at your fingertips the harder it is to organize it, and unorganized content is just noise.
  • Expanding what is part of this world of ideas. Games would be an example of something that is important to our culture - more now than ever - which wasn't really a part of the library when I was growing up.

Thanks once again to Dr Garfield, and to all our respondents for the "Games folks" and "Book folks" series!

   
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