Repost: most typologies are “deep but not connected”

Since we are introducing a new typology, below we repost our brief analysis of others’ typologies from our first report.

CLAIM: Typologies are deep but not connected

What about overviews of the field by experts? Overviews gain their power by drawing boundaries, often using typologies. To achieve clarity and depth, typologies have to leave things out (usually for good reasons). Field leaders and academics create typologies to fill specific gaps in conceptualizing the field, declaring what counts, and elevating the most important categories. The value is often greatest for a specific target audience — such as a particular sector or discipline.

Yet there is a downside to growth. As overviews proliferate by sub-sector, the ordinary consumers of these resources find it hard to see the big picture. Assumptions are often hidden in the sector or discipline of origin. How do various typologies relate? First we show how each must exclude just to accomplish its overview.

Consider a few different ways games have traditionally been organized:

(A) By business sector / community of practice. Many typologies inherit economic or sectoral categories. For example, the excellent European Commission Report (2013) provides an extensive foundation for understanding different categories of games. They separate their investigation into domain specialties that are based on economic categories: education, health and civic sector. Similarly, Sawyer and Smith’s (2008) valuable serious games taxonomy represented the interconnection of over 49 different community sub-groups. Ironically this taxonomy was intended to broaden the boundaries across which people would view serious games.

Pragmatically, such typologies involve substantial redundancy, presenting the same taxonomic branches for each subcategory (e.g., health games). Cross-sector games become hard to track, especially their interaction effects (e.g., games that shift behavior by combining health with social activism). Industry categories work well for those with deep backgrounds in theory, but for ordinary consumers of research, the categories can easily conflate sectors with their goals (e.g., K-12 education with learning, or the healthcare system with health). Finally, in a dynamic field it is easy for the sectoral approach to overlook new and economically small sectors (e.g., see the rise of “Different Games” for personal expression), and exclude them accidentally.

(B) By features of the technology or gameplay. Examples of this typology approach include Lindley’s (2003) typology and Breuer and Bente’s (2010) typology. While impressive for their ability to compare a near endless set of gameplay features (e.g., multiplayer abilities), such reviews often fail to consider a player’s experience beyond the formal design. The same game can have diverging effects depending on how it is introduced or the context in which it is applied. While experimentalists might be tempted to constrain play, and control for undesirable variance, the game may be harmed. Often the effects depend on understanding the game’s broader “ecology” — also called the “big G” game (see Salen and Zimmerman (2004), and Gee and Hayes (2010).

(C) By crowd-sourced categorization. Are more inclusive typologies possible using technologies of crowd aggregation? Yes, but we warn of confusing the goal with the method. For example, open-access wikis at first glance seem to be a place where anyone (in principle!) could add their game. Yet in practice no wiki to date has reached a definitive mass of participants, at least according to our interviews. Such wikis remain valuable, yet we argue they are not sufficient alone and must be complemented by leadership at conferences and from central nodes on organizational networks.

(For citations, see the report PDF.)

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  1. […] to a disciplinary or academic audience. As we said in our first report, most typologies are deep but not connected. So our method begins with practitioner communities that have distinct tools for […]