Types of Play

by Evan Robinson

The usual goal of taxonomy is to develop a tree whose leaves are the individual objects or systems that are being classified. We are attempting to create definitions that permit us to similarly classify computer entertainment products, beginning with Chris Crawford’s first taxonomy of Toys, Puzzles, and Games. I discount earlier, and continuing, attempts by publishers, marketers, reviewers, and others to classify games according to their subject matter. Such a taxonomy is undeniably useful, but it does not address the internal systems of the game so much as their external packaging.

I do not wish to quibble about specific definitions of Toys, Puzzles, and Games, although there has been a great deal of discussion on the GEnie JCGD RT. I suggest that the classification of systems into Toys, Puzzles, and Games, while initially conceptually elegant, is not appropriate. It is trivial to imagine a system which can be all three to different users. Working within Gregg Stanley’s definitions, for example (from the August 1990 JCGD article, It’s a Puzzle), SimCity can either be a Toy (if played with no regard to any of the various scoring devices and unlimited capital through embezzlement), a Puzzle (if the user allows herself to be sucked into the scoring devices and attempts to achieve some specific goal), or a Game (if the user requests a second user to come along once a year and do things to his city that will prevent or delay the self-selected goal). In the same sense, a ball and open field can be a Toy (kicking a ball around, learning to dribble), a Puzzle (try to put the ball on a specific spot using only your feet, or keep it up in the air as long as possible), or a Game (football or soccer or rugby). While our language and society is filled with similar examples, it’s disconcerting in a taxonomic discussion to discover that your subject moves around the classification tree according to some criteria over which you, the taxonomist, have no control.

The definitions put forth divide computer entertainment systems into Toys, Puzzles, and Games according to how they are commonly used as opposed to what they are, then try to shoehorn what they are back into the definition. Since this results in a taxonomy that is unstable (by which I mean any given computer entertainment system might fall into several different groups), I believe we are trying to categorize the wrong thing. I suggest that the critical element in our taxonomy is the way users interact with entertainment products, not whether or not the product has sub-systems that ’anticipate’ the user’s moves. In addition, we are attempting to overlay new meaning on words that have common usage, which will invariably result in confusion both among ourselves and among our users.

In an attempt to create a more stable classification system, not for our products, but for how they are used, I put forth the following definitions of types of play:

  • Unstructured Play: Interaction with a system in which the primary goal of the user(s) is examination of the system’s behavior. Also called ’Exploration’.
  • Structured Play: Interaction with a system in which the primary goal of the user(s) is to place the system in a specific state or to specifically effect some subset of the system’s variables (like score).
  • Competitive Play: Interaction with a system in which each user (including system constructs which approximate human users) engages in Structured Play, but where all the goal(s) of all the user(s) are not mutually attainable. Also called ’Competition’.

This set of definitions provides us with a way of categorizing how a user interacts with a system. If we choose to categorize a system according to how a majority of users interacts with it, or how the author intended users to interact with it, we can extend these definitions to say that a system for Unstructured Play is a Toy, a system for Structured Play is a Puzzle, and a system for Competitive Play is a Game. But we should not let these labels blind us to the fact that different users will interact with our systems differently, and one user’s Toy is another user’s Puzzle and yet another user’s Game, but to our customers (both publishers and end users alike) they are all computer games no matter what we call them.