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Game Taxonomies: A High Level Framework for Game Analysis and Design
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Game Taxonomies: A High Level Framework for Game Analysis and Design

October 3, 2003 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

In 1999, Doug Church proposed the use of formal abstract design tools for game design [3]. Part of Church's suggestion was to develop a common design vocabulary. It's ironic that while the game design community has started to develop these more rigorous design principles for games, there is much confusion even about the most basic of questions, such as what a game is, compared to a story or a simulation. This confusion only increases when we start to consider new and emerging forms like mobile games, location-based games and pervasive games. It's obvious that we need some basic distinctions and definitions at the highest level, so that more detailed methods can be sorted into their appropriate areas of application.

Developing a basic language for describing different types of games requires different dimensions of distinctions. That is, we need orthogonal taxonomies: not everything falls into a simple hierarchical system of categories and subcategories. Orthogonal taxonomies allow design concerns to be separated. So we can, for example, consider whether a game is a real-time strategy game or a warfare simulation, irrespectively of whether it is created for PCs, mobile devices, or technologically supported physical environments. The gameplay patterns for an RTS may apply irrespectively of the implementation strategy. Or at least, we can specify for a particular pattern what range of games it applies to within a system of orthogonal categories. In some cases, we can even shed light on issues that still plague academic game researchers, such as the relationship between gameplay and narrative. How nice it would be to put this debate behind us once and for all!

In the taxonomy system proposed here, some fundamental distinctions are drawn between game forms and functions based upon narrative, repetitive game play and simulation; computer games can be seen to manifest these three functional and formal aspects to differing degrees, depending upon the particular game or game genre. Beyond the boundaries of games played only via computers and consoles we identify further classification dimensions, from virtual to physical gaming, and from fictional to non-fictional gaming.

This taxonomy has been developed within the Zero Game Studio of the Interactive Institute in Sweden [9]. We developed the taxonomy after many long design discussions, and have found the resulting framework to be very useful, saving time and getting us past some very basic questions and confusions. It is, of course, impossible to precisely classify many specific games, since their different aspects may belong to multiple or ambiguous classifications. Nevertheless, this scheme provides a heuristic and practical tool for clarifying many design issues, saving time in proposal writing and design meetings, and providing higher level categories for identifying where more detailed design methods may be applied.

Games and Game Play

Computer games encompass a vast range of interactive media productions. In the broadest possible sense we call all of these things "games". However, this is not necessarily useful in understanding distinctions among the different creations that we're considering. It's much more useful to adopt a narrower definition of "game". So let us narrow the definition a little and state: a game is a goal-directed and competitive activity conducted within a framework of agreed rules. This can be referred to as the ludic or ludological definition of game, the kind of definition at the base of traditional game theory in disciplines like economics.

Given this definition of a game, it is often said that learning to play a game involves learning the rules of the game. Notice however that our definition does not require this. It does require that activity obeys the rules, and that we implicitly or explicitly agree to those rules.

The rules establish what as a player you can or cannot do, and what the behavioral consequences of actions may be within the world of the game. But, successful play does not necessarily require learning all of the game rules -- only those necessary to support a particular playing style. Learning to play a game, making progress within a game, and, with persistence and basic ability, eventually completing or winning a game are a matter of learning how to interact within the game system and its rules in a way that supports progress. This is a matter, not necessarily of learning the game rules (although at least some of these may become consciously known) but of learning a gameplay gestalt, understood as a pattern of interaction with the game system. Playing the game is then a matter of performing the gestalt. It is what the player does, within the system and as allowed by the rules of the game.

A gameplay gestalt can have many forms for a particular game, capturing different playing styles, tactics and approaches to progressing through the game and (perhaps) eventually winning. In general, it is a particular way of thinking about the game state from the perspective of a player, together with a pattern of repetitive perceptual, cognitive, and motor operations.

A particular gameplay gestalt could be unique to a person, a game, or even a playing occasion. More generally though, recurrent gameplay gestalts can be identified across games, game genres, and players. Some examples of gameplay gestalts include:

Action games: shoot while being hit, strafe to hiding spot, take health, repeat

RPGs: send fast character to lure enemy from group, all characters kill enemy, take health, repeat

Strategy Games: order peasants, send to work, order soldiers, send to perimeters, repeat while slowly expanding the perimeters (up to the point of catastrophic win/lose); OR: move x archers to tower y every n minutes to head off the enemy camel musketeers from the east who arrive every n+1 minutes

In General: overcome barrier, save if successful, reload and retry if unsuccessful

Such patterns may or may not be explicitly designed for by the creators of a game. They are not game design patterns in the same sense that the paper/scissors/rock system is, ie. they are not designed into the system of a game. If designers do take them into account, it is in supporting the development and emergence of these patterns in play, never, in a good design, by forcing them on the player.


Stories and narratives can be defined as broadly as game: everything is a narrative/story. Again, this is not very useful. We can define a narrative as an experience that is structured in time. Different structures then represent different forms of narrative, and a narrative is an experience manifesting a specific narrative structure. A very common narrative structure used in computer games, borrowed from film scriptwriting, is the three-act restorative structure. The three act restorative structure has a beginning (the first act) in which a conflict is established, followed by the playing out of the implications of the conflict (the second act), and completed by the final resolution of the conflict (the third act). This narrative structure also specifically includes a central protagonist, a conflict involving a dilemma of normative morality, a second act propelled by the false resolution of this dilemma, and a third act in which the dilemma is resolved by an act that reaffirms normative morality. Each act within the three-act structure culminates in a point of crisis, the resolution of which propels the plot into the following act, or to the final resolution.

In computer action games that use the three-act restorative structure, the central conflict form usually manifests recursively (ie. the structure is repeated at different levels of temporal scale). In action games, for example, the overall restorative three-act model may be applied to the game experience as a whole, with the dramatic arch being completed when the user finishes the game. At this level the story is usually not interactive, since act one, key scenes within the story of act two, and the playing out of the consequences of the final resolution in act three are typically achieved by cut scenes, sequences of non-interactive video material.

The next level down within the recursive structure is that of the game level. The game level is designed for the pursuit of a goal, that of the player reaching the end of the level, that serves the purpose of progressing the player through the second act of the higher level three-act structure of the game narrative. Conflict is achieved by resistance to the player achieving that goal, in the form of opposing enemies, puzzles, barriers, and the like. There is rarely if ever a one-to-one correspondence between game levels and acts; more typically, the first act and the end of the third act are presented via cut scenes, with playable game levels summing to form a highly extended second act followed by the final resolution of the third act as the end of game play (e.g., by overcoming the final and toughest enemy, usually at the heart of the central conflict in the story). The sense of level-specific conflict can be enhanced by increasing difficulty through a level, or by an internal dramatic structure that emphasizes the point of completing the level, such as the defeat of a level boss, the big barrier creature at the end of the level. The false resolution that drives act two of the three-act restorative model at the highest level may be seen as a repetitive phenomenon at the end of each non-terminal game level; when the game level is resolved (completed), the player only finds themselves at the beginning of the next game level full of conflicts.

At the next level of the recursive decomposition of action game structure, we see a series of smaller-scale conflicts and challenges within a game level, which may include monsters to be defeated or avoided, puzzles to be solved, or treasures, clues or keys that must be found in order to progress in the current or future game levels, etc. Usually it is only this lowest level of the action game plot that is highly interactive. The linear and non-interactive cut scenes framing game play are revealed in a predefined order, and within a level all players usually start in the same place and must have completed the same specific set of tasks in order to complete the level. The low level and interactive parts of the game are played by performance of a gameplay gestalt. So game play usually has little if any bearing on the story being told; the story is for the most part a structure imposed on top of, and different from, game play. The perspective upon games that emphasizes the narrative or story aspects of the game can be referred to as the narratological perspective.

Narrative Versus Gameplay

Given these definitions, the question of the relationship between gameplay and narrative can now be phrased more clearly. In particular, the apprehension of an experience as a narrative requires the cognitive construction of a narrative gestalt, a cognitive structure or pattern allowing the perception and understanding of an unfolding sequence of phenomena as a unified narrative. The three-act restorative structure is a very common, in fact the dominant, example of a narrative gestalt in games and films. It is a pattern that people understand and expect, and will often be disappointed if it is not satisfied (e.g., if the story ends before the central conflict is resolved, or if the hero dies permanently during the story). In playing a computer game, one must learn and then perform a gameplay gestalt in order to progress through the events of the game. To experience the game as a narrative also requires the creation of a narrative gestalt unifying the game experiences into a coherent narrative structure. The tension between gameplay and narrative can now be viewed as a competition between these respective gestalt formation and performance processes for perceptual, cognitive, and motor effort. Within the range of effort required for immersion and engagement, if gameplay consumes most of the player's available cognitive resources, there will be little scope left for perceiving complex narrative patterns (e.g., we forget the motivation behind the character's battles, and what was the uber-villain's name again?). More than this, the narrative adds little to player immersion and engagement (who cares, it's fun anyway). Conversely, focusing on the development of the sense of narrative (e.g., in the case of multipath movies) reduces the player's need and capacity for a highly engaging gameplay gestalt.

Good game design achieves better integration of the gameplay and narrative structures of the game. This can be done by methods like continuously but unobtrusively reminding the player of the narrative context (rather than having a few perfunctory cut scenes), and using cut scenes and cinematic sequences as rewards at appropriate moments within the rhythmic patterns of game play (so they naturally fall within pauses and rests, and are not perceived as interruptions).

Notice, however, that at the lowest level of the dramatic structure of a game, the conflict within the detail of the gameplay experience is never actually one of the player-character's survival, but one involving tradeoffs within cognitive, emotive, and performative effort. Is it worth trying to jump over a ravine at the risk of falling and having to reload a past game state for the sake of a health pack that may help me to get past the tough enemy ahead without then having to reload and retry when the enemy defeats me? The conflict is an ergonomic one within in terms of performing gameplay gestalts. And this has nothing to do with the higher-level narrative context. So the tension between gameplay and narrative is even more fundamental than being a simple competition for cognitive and performative resources: the player's investment in the low level conflict as an active participant is disconnected from any deep narrative significance understood in terms of the shape of the higher level narrative gestalt. Understanding this explains the perceived tension between narrative and game play and suggests strategies for overcoming this tension by developing game play mechanics that are fundamentally dramatic, in that their consequences do affect the higher level narrative patterns of the game.


Much has been made over the last couple of years of the view of games as simulations. But what exactly is a simulation, such that it's different from a narrative or a game? A simulation can be defined as: a representation of the function, operation or features of one process or system through the use of another.

Hence a simulation may involve no specific repetitive and goal-oriented activities (there may be no obvious end state, other than the player getting bored), and no specific predefined patterns in time. Time patterns emerge over the course of running a simulation, and can be completely different for different runs. Repetitive action may be used to operate a simulation, but may not be directed to any specific overall goal.

It's interesting to regard single-player strategy games from the simulation perspective. During competitive play, there is an obvious goal. But many games will allow us to continue playing after all of the enemies are defeated. Until resources run out, these games may then chug along indefinitely simulating a simple economic system. There is no more gameplay by our strict ludic definition, and the narrative after winning has no interesting temporal (dramatic) structure. Simulations like flight simulators are often interesting from the perspective of skill development; they are not interesting as games or stories, but for understanding how a particular system functions in different circumstances.

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