A simple taxonomy for recreational games

by Gil Hova

Over the past year or so, I’ve been playing around with a simple categorization scheme for recreational games. It’s helped me a lot in analyzing games, what makes them tick, and what makes them different from each other.

Disclaimer: This isn’t a comprehensive or authoritative approach to defining all games. There are all sorts of edge cases that won’t fit this system. In fact, I’m only going to focus on games that are commercially available for recreational purposes: mainly tabletop games and video games. These are the games I’m most interested in playing and designing.

So this system may not handle things like physical sports, childhood games, ARGs, and transformative games. Those are all valid examples of games, and I might revisit this topic in the future to see if I can come up with a more bulletproof version of this taxonomy.

But even with that disclaimer, I think this system is quite solid in how it works.

One more thing: this post will not go into defining what a “game” actually is. Plenty of people have tackled this necessary question. For an excellent breakdown of those approaches, check out Rules of Play, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. It’s a question that every game designer should ask themselves, but it’s out of scope for this particular post.

I see these recreational games breaking down into three categories:

Contests

contest is a type of game in which the outcome is quantitively defined and objectively measurable, typically with a score. It is possible to win or lose a contest, although the victory or defeat may be assigned to a single player (as in a competitive game), shared by all players (as in a cooperative game), or split into teams. Other contests don’t have a specific win condition, but simply ask players to score as many points as possible, and a player’s performance will be judged on how her score compares to everyone else’s.

Almost all boardgames, card games, miniatures games, and wargames are contests. Many video games are also contests; like any “Deathmatch” kind of video game (Titanfall, Counterstrike), most casual games (Bejeweled, Diner Dash), and most classic arcade games (Pong, Pac-Man, Asteroids).

Puzzles

puzzle is a type of game that has no specific win condition, but only a small amount of correct solutions (typically one); a “typical” player will be able to finish it at some point, given enough time. This solution could be a mental puzzle, or it could be a series of dexterity challenges.

Whether a traditional jigsaw puzzle is actually a game, I’ll leave open for another time. But I would consider most video games’ single player modes, like Half-Life, The Last of Us, and Portal, to be puzzles. These games don’t punish players heavily for dying in-game, so there isn’t really a concept of “losing”. You keep trying until you get through it. When you do, there’s no real score to measure your achievement. If there is a score, it’s considered secondary to actually completing the game or its individual levels.

Worlds

A world is a type of game that aims to simulate or model another environment. Players play the game by either constructing the world, or immersing themselves in the world by playing characters living there. Most world games are sandboxes, so they have no end, although they sometimes have contests and puzzles encapsulated as minigames.

Most roleplaying games, from D&D to Fiasco, are worlds. The Shab Al-Hiri Roach pretends to be a contest, in that one player will “win”, but even the rulebook admits that winning the game “is like winning a mustard gas battle”. The point of the game is to tell a story, not to win; the victory condition only exists to help nudge the players towards telling that story, by encouraging them to match their characters’ abilities to the plot. Same with a game like Once Upon a Time, which most of its players agree fails if you try to play it like a contest.

Video games like SimCity and The Sims are worlds, as are sports GM sims, like Out of the Park or Championship Manager (while winning a single season may be an objectively-measurable outcome, the appeal of the game is to maintain a team through generations of athletes). And of course, MMORPGs are worlds, although they are chock full of contests and puzzles as minigames.

Key differences

These three types of games are very different from each other. Each can do things that the others can’t.

For example, a world game is extremely immersive, but also tends to take  long time. Its open-ended nature means that there’s no defined time when the game will always end. So whether it’s someone grinding away at World of Warcraft, a group of people playing Pathfinder at a convention all night, or a person delicately arranging a new terrain in Minecraft, time will pass very quickly.

Worlds also tend to produce a lot of work. Detailed, custom D&D campaigns, working calculators in Little Big Planet, scale replicas in Rollercoaster Tycoon… these are all labors of love that world games seem to inspire.

Finally, world games can be incredibly meaningful on a social level. You can take a social situation and turn it into an immersive game, whether it’s a Nordic LARP or a brutally realistic RPG like Grey Ranks. People looking for artistic meaning in games can find a lot here.

Puzzle games are more addictive than immersive. They keep people wanting to go just one more level, just one more try. So while you can play a stage of a puzzle game in a few minutes, lots of people enjoy playing them for long stretches as well.

A disadvantage to puzzle games is that once you finish them, they’re solved. The puzzle will not change, so going back will not give you any new challenges in and of itself. Designers sometimes like to slap a contest on top of the puzzle (finish this level using fewer than X steps, in under Y minutes), but the thrust of the game is complete.

Like world games, puzzle games can also have artistic meaning. It’s pretty common to see a narrative weaved into a puzzle game, giving it an almost cinematic feeling. This works better than it should; I’ve seen friends moved to tears at the end of some of these games!

Contests are the most social of the three. They usually require multiple players, but much less setup time than most worlds. They don’t take a long time by themselves, depending on the game; most contests are over in a couple of hours, and even the longer ones, like Twilight Imperium or Advanced Civilization, have a much shorter running time than any good RPG campaign. So these are the easiest and most convenient for most people to get into.

But contests have a peculiar disadvantage: they have a very hard time carrying artistic meaning. It’s difficult to have them evoke narrative as a puzzle would. There are lots of games that are crafted to create a narrative, like Arkham Horror, Talisman, Android, or Tales of the Arabian Nights. Some people prefer this style of game. Others (disclaimer: like me) dislike how little control these games offer over a player’s fate. You have to surrender a lot of your agency to let the game tell its story. So a contest designed to evoke a narrative will usually polarize gamers.

And there are very, very few contests that successfully move people emotionally. A contest doesn’t happen in the real world. It happens in its own space, where the players’ only concern about their next action is how close they will get to victory. Everything they do hinges off that single criteria. You can’t make players feel emotions from the plot of the game if it conflicts with their pursuit of victory; and if you do, you marginalize the pursuit of victory, and the game is no longer a proper contest.

This is why “art games” like Train that try to shock the players into a message aren’t really contests; victory is not the point of those games. If it was the point, then the message fails. You can’t have both; the player must either be in the spirit of the contest or the real world. Never both!

There are games that come close. Freedom: The Underground Railroad seems shocking at first, and beginning players feel awful about sacrificing slaves for the greater goal of abolitionism. But I’ve noticed in practice that the effect wears off. An hour into the game, there are no more slaves or slave catchers. There are cubes and tokens, and things players can do to get closer to winning. The game is very well-designed, carefully developed, and is immensely rewarding; but at the end of the game, it’s clear that its rules and pieces are just a metaphor. Players will eventually see the pieces as game pieces, and not real people, because that’s how a player has to model a contest in his or her head.

It’s a strange transition, to be sure, but one that I can’t help but think is inevitable in any contest. Contests are mechanical by nature, and they are defined solely by the players’ efforts to win. Anything that clouds that effort is a distraction.

In the future, I’ll be referring to these three types of recreational games, and I’ll probably have more thoughts on why contests have such a hard time carrying an artistic message. The distinction has already helped me in the games I play, test, and design; perhaps it will help you too.