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!

Game profile: RoboRally – emergence from procedure

Posted on September 22, 2014

Today's game profile is about a game whose greatest influence on the gaming world has been - or so it could be argued - the time it wasn't published.

In 1991, when Richard Garfield met Peter Adkison (president of Wizards of the Coast) to pitch a game, it wasn't Magic: the Gathering he was there to pitch - it was RoboRally. At the time, Wizards of the Coast focused primarily on roleplaying games, and therefore wasn't all that comfortable (or familiar) with the manufacture, assembly, and sale of tabletop games - so they turned Garfield's pitch down. However, Adkison recognised Garfield's talent and asked him if he had anything a little more printing-friendly and portable. No problem, said Garfield, there was something he had been tinkering with - and he went away, polished up the design of M:tG over the weekend, came back, and birthed an entire medium, the trading card game... thereby boosting WotC into one of the premier publishers of fantasy games - or fantasy in any medium - in the world. In 1994, flush with funds from Magic's success, they published RoboRally to considerable acclaim.

So what was this game that a game design genius considered more saleable than one of the most lucrative game ideas of all time? (I say this without irony - I doubt anybody could have predicted the explosive success of Magic, and RoboRally genuinely is both deeply interesting and terrifically engaging. Even so, I'm being slightly unfair - RoboRally was of course fully developed, whereas Magic clearly wasn't fully fleshed out quite yet - possibly BECAUSE it was so ambitious!)

RoboRally is a game about supercomputers created to control precision robots in a widget factory who get bored during some downtime; to amuse themselves, these genius-level intellects race welding robots through an obstacle course/demolition derby.

You play by drawing a pool of cards that you then use to program 5 steps that you'll take to move around a grid. The steps are simple movement commands: move forward 1-3 squares, back up one, turn left or right 90 degrees, or about-turn. (So far, this sounds pretty familiar to anyone whose childhood included programming in Logo.) You use this movement to attempt to reach a series of checkpoints on the map in order.

There are three catches.

  • First, you are in a factory, with conveyor belts, rotating platforms, and welding lasers. Each time the players move, depending on where they land, they might get moved along, spun 90 degrees, or zapped.
  • Second, it's not enough to stay away from the fixed lasers. Each robot has a head-mounted welding laser that fires after each move. If you're in front of another robot, and there's nothing in the way, you're going to get zapped.
  • Third, your opponents are also trying to move around in the same space, and in particular to reach the same squares as you. There isn't that much room in the factory, and as the number of players goes up, so does the amount of pushing and shoving as robots bump into each other and knock each other off target.

Each time you get zapped, it fries one of your memory slots - which is reflected mechanically by the number of cards you get to draw into your pool. You start out drawing 9 cards a turn, out of which you have to choose a sequence of 5, which gives you decent odds of being able to get where you want to go. However, as you take more damage and get to draw fewer and fewer cards, your options narrow... and once you are drawing fewer than 5 cards, the last card in each damaged slot in the sequence gets stuck there, forcing you to mindlessly repeat that action in that slot every turn. (There are ways to repair slots and reboot yourself - but all cost precious time and risk letting your opponents gain ground in the race.)

As with many other games I love (e.g. Hanabi), the core objective of the game is a relatively simple procedure (in this case, navigate from A to B to C to D) made complex by the presence and actions of other players. The factory itself also complicates things, but conveyor belts and rotators can be a resource if you plan ahead - they can save you movement or help face you in the right direction. (Lasers and pits are never helpful, however.) But when other players enter the mix, even a perfectly-planned route can suddenly take you wildly off course if you are accidentally (or intentionally) bumped one square left of where you were planning to go - if that takes you onto a conveyor belt that shifts you two squares left and leaves you facing south instead of east, the remainder of your perfectly-planned route will play out in the wrong direction and give you an entirely unexpected path to calculate next turn to get back to where you want to be.

Thus, you have to try to take into account where you think others will try to go - and what you think they will try to do about your movement. (There is tremendous satisfaction in spotting the evil gleam in someone's eye as they plot to knock you off your path, deliberately hold back your movement to ensure they miss, and then watching them whiz past in front of you and careen away, victims of their own cunning.)

The obvious extrinsic value of the game, the simplistic modelling of computer programming, is actually more deeply simulated here, in this business of attempting to think through contingencies and anticipate likely interactions with other elements of the system, and then plot out future actions accordingly. It showcases beautifully how even the simplest systems can, through nothing more than interaction with other equally simple systems, become deep, surprising, and interesting.

Add into this the business of reading beyond those other game objects to the players controlling them, and you have the basis for some genuinely compelling brainwork.

It helps that the robot tokens that you control each have their own cute - and silly - personalities [note that these images are of the figures from the 1994 edition of the game]. There is no mechanical difference between them, but I have still seen players get particularly attached to one or the other; they give younger players a point of identification to latch onto the game, and older players the basis for a touch of banter.

The procedural basis of the game also lends itself to reproduction in other forms of technology - one of the most ingenious game-related creations I have seen was an implementation of the game in LEGO Mindstorms at Gen Con 2011, which not only had a LEGO game board and LEGO Mindstorms-driven robots, but used Mindstorms robotics to scan and interpret the cards (which I believe were also made of LEGO) that players drew.

I'll leave you with some pictures (possibly as inspiration for your library's LEGO/robotics club). Enjoy!

LEGO RoboRally - board
A wide shot of the board - sadly in low resolution.

LEGO RoboRally - control system
A (slightly blurry) shot of the control system. Note the conveyor belt (on the left) feeding the "cards" into the reader.

LEGO RoboRally - robots 1
A closeup on half of the robots (note that some of the base characters have been replaced with slightly more famous robots/droids/Androids)...

LEGO RoboRally - robots 2
...and the other half.

LEGO RoboRally - sign & QR code
The sign for the game (also made of LEGO) - click on it to go to the creators' site. (Their Monster Chess is also pretty impressive!)


Monthly game profile for September: Exception-based rules, rules-play and nomic games

Posted on September 26, 2013

Hi everyone! This month we're looking at games where you play the game by messing with the rules: games with exception-based rules.

This superficially sounds like a contradiction - aren't games defined by their rules, and isn't messing with them cheating? But in fact this is precisely the charm of these sorts of games: you get to shift the ground under yourself and your opponent as well as maneuvering the pieces over that ground.

(The rise in computer coding - itself a business of establishing rules that produce desired outcomes - and other careers in procedure-based design is almost certainly a key influence here. Games with fixed rules still have their charm, but for people used to creating rules it was inevitable that this would become a key locus of play.)

Exception-based rulesets are those where there is a general framework that applies unless some rules element says otherwise, with the specific overruling the general. (For instance, under the normal rules of a game, as a disincentive against drawing too many cards too quickly you might lose if you are required to draw a card but have none left to draw. However, if you have previously played a card that changes this rule and causes you to win in this situation instead, you might actively seek to empty your deck as fast as possible - regardless of your ability to play any of the cards.)

Perhaps the simplest of these games is a little card game called Fluxx. At the start of the game there is only one rule: on your turn, you draw a card and you play a card. Yes, if you're paying attention, that's correct - there is in fact not even a way to win the game. That comes with play.

The cards you play are of 4 types - Keepers, which are unique named cards that sit in front of you until something causes them to be moved or discarded; Actions, which have an effect and are then discarded; Goals, which establish victory conditions (such as "have these two specific Keepers in front of you", "have this many cards in hand", "have this Keeper and not that one" and so on) and cause previous Goals to be discarded; and Rules, which change some aspect of the game - such as turn order, how many cards to draw or play, and more.

What this means in effect is that both the objective of the game and the rules by which you seek to achieve it are subject to constant manipulation by your opponents - and, of course, you. It sounds complex, but in fact after a single playthrough or two you will have the hang of it and will be gleefully stealing your opponents' Keepers, swapping your hand of zero cards for their hand of five, and changing the Goal just before your opponent matches its conditions and wins the game.

It also, when you reflect upon it, teaches some interesting lessons about opportunities and information, but I'll leave that discussion for another time (or maybe the comments).

This is the most basic form of rules-play, but there are many other examples. Calvinball is of course worth mentioning in this regard (among others; Calvinball is often worth mentioning). Then you have the games Nomic, and (for those wanting to test their deductive reasoning) Mao... but perhaps the best-known games of this type are the entire new genre they enabled, the collectible card game, or CCG.

The CCG genre was first originated by mathematician Richard Garfield with his 1993 game Magic: the Gathering, which celebrates its 20th birthday this year and currently has somewhere over 12,000 different cards (and is also Turing-complete, meaning that with the correct arrangement of cards and gamestate you can simulate the logic governing the functioning of a Turing machine, aka a computer). Our sponsor for this year, Yu-Gi-Oh!, is one of the more popular entrants into this field, running regular local and international tournaments - an upcoming guest post will discuss one library's experience of hosting Yu-Gi-Oh! play.

CCGs are especially predisposed to exception-based rules and rules-play, because the nature of the medium (cards, easily printed with rules text; sold in randomised boosters, conferring little ability to predict which cards a player might receive) means that the best place to explain how each card affects the game is on the card itself. Many times the card will simply perform standard operations within existing rules frameworks, negatively affecting your opponent or improving your own position, but when the rules are on the card it's possible for them to overwrite the standard rules, so that for instance you might have a card that prevents your opponent from taking certain actions, or doubles the effect of some of your own actions, or even means you can't lose until it's removed from play.  The ability to change the normal rules of play also prolongs the life of the game, because it allows you to add new rules elements in addition to printing variants within existing rules.

All this, combined with the possibility of prize money worth thousands and international competition, and the evolving backstory created to support (and be told on the cards of) the new sets, makes CCGs a potentially endlessly absorbing hobby. Their susceptibility to theft and damage makes them difficult for libraries to hold in our collections, but they can form the basis of terrific programs with a great deal of fun to be had in the library. They are also terrific for developing not only traditional numeracy (since most games require basic number-juggling) and literacy (since you have to read the cards), they also give players incentives to read more traditional forms of tie-in fiction. And lastly, they foster the ability to process basic procedural logic and the ability to read systems - a topic we'll discuss further in a couple of weeks.


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