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Should period games be described with a Linnaean hierarchy?
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jducoeur
Okay, here's a very offbeat question looking for opinions. I'm committing the dangerous (but probably to-be-common) act of crossing the streams between SCA and Querki here.

One of my long-term projects is running the Medieval and Renaissance Games Homepage. I've run this page for many years now (since the late 90s, when I got seriously into period games), and I consider it an important public resource -- it's my agglomeration of all useful-looking links I know of on the topic. But frankly, it's gotten pretty long in the tooth -- it's still written in hand-maintained HTML, and is kind of a pain in the ass at this point. (With the result that it has been *years* since I last updated it.)

There is, of course, an obvious solution: this is a *great* candidate for a Querki Space. After all, Querki is all about "semi-structured" data, and this site is about as "semi-structured" as you can get -- a mix of miscellaneous webpages with what amounts to a database of links and reconstructions of many sorts. And with Querki's planned collaboration features, I'll be able to open this solo project up to other members of the period games community, so we can build the one true wiki on the subject. So I think it's clear that I'm going to move the Period Games Homepage to Querki, likely within the next month or two.

That said, it does force me to think about what the schema should look like, which introduces an interesting question: how should I describe the family tree of period games? Calling it a "family tree" is clearly correct -- you can see the hierarchy visibly in the existing Rules page -- and I'm finding myself whimsically thinking about following the Linnaean taxonomy, grouping things more or less like this:
  • Phylum: the broad kind of game -- eg, Active, Board, Card, Dice

  • Family (or maybe Genus): what we think of as a single game today, but usually were a collection of linked variants -- eg, Chess, Tables, Tafl

  • Species: a single precise variant in a Family -- eg, Shatranj, Courier Chess, Dice Chess, Chess of the Mad Queen

  • Morph: a specific reconstruction of a Species -- eg, the various Hnefatafl reconstructions
Admittedly, this is probably more clever than useful. But I am struck at the way the memetic evolution of games, and the resulting family tree, *feels* like a biological evolutionary tree. (And purely on the Querki side, now I'm beginning to ponder whether there is anything that should be reified into Querki's type system to support such trees, since there are a lot of use cases for them.)

Anyway, looking for any thoughts and opinions about what the schema should look like here. I have a rapidly growing collection of links that I need to record somewhere, so I may as well start this project of converting the Homepage to Querki sometime soon...
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For some games this makes sense--they have an ancestor or a parent. But others are mashups of disparate games. Perhaps a tag set, and also allow a parent-connection ("derived from" or "inspired by" or "variant of")?

In a way it feels more like Java classes; roulette-chess subclasses chess, but implements random-move and random-damage...

This answer is a hole-in-one.

Tag them with "board" or "dice", "strategy", "random" and so forth.

You can also tag them with "chess-family" or "tablero-family". (I think that makes a little bit more sense than a hierarchy - if Game A is derived from Game B, then that should be part of the entry/description. It's not a categorization per se.

Yes and no. Part of the motivation is that the Period Games Rules Page is a damned useful summary -- a quick glance at the full sweep of period games, which makes it fast and easy to find things -- and I'd like to be able to recreate something like it. That implies a desire for a natural hierarchy, and the reality is that this domain *is* so hierarchical that there's a fair incentive to make it one.

We'll see. You're probably correct that I should at least allow things to be multi-valued, instead of a strict hierarchy, and that bottom-up tagging is likely more flexible than top-down organization. But I think there *are* clear conceptual "levels", and that it's worth acknowledging that in the schema design...

You are the domain expert, not me.

Is it absolutely an unequivocally hierarchical? Would everyone create that hierarchy the same way? If so, you shouldn't have asked the question: it's a tree-style collection of hierarchies and that is what you should do.

If it isn't absolutely clear - then you might want to create a page which has YOUR version of the "taxonomic approach", but it's not something that is inherent in the data. It's a knowledgeable conclusion derived from your experiences and NOT derived from the data's intrinsic properties.

Only you can tell us which is which.

Quite true, and that's part of why I'm asking the question. I'm in a weird position, being one of the SCA's "authorities" on the subject, and there's a risk of making decisions in a bubble. One objective here is to evolve this site from a personal project to a collaborative one, so this is exactly the sort of give-and-take I need before I make any decisions -- I'm pondering how things ought to be structured, and what degrees of flexibility seem appropriate in the data.

It's tricky, and ambiguous. It is clearly *not* trivially hierarchical -- but it is vastly *more* hierarchical than would be the case for modern games, and it is at least *mostly* hierarchical. That introduces some interesting tensions into the design...

It seems to me, from outside, that the term "mostly-hierarchical" is the killer.

Fitting data that is "mostly" into a structure, is very hard. The advantage of tagging is that it is so unstructured and dynamic.

I'm over-focusing on that term (likely because I have taken a position, and feel like I should advocate for it). But I think you've just torpedoed the idea that there is a Linnean taxonomy good enough to hold everything.

But that creating a dynamic, editable, personal opinion web page that shows the data through a taxonomic lens is also very useful as an additional resource. A resource that should be featured - but may not be controlling.

Could be -- I'm chewing on this. One thing that's becoming clear is that I care more about the hierarchy as an *output* representation than as I do as a *data* representation. So it's possible that the schema should be loosely-structured, but the data itself should follow conventions that are "mostly hierarchical".

I don't think it's precisely a "taxonomic lens" -- I do think there's a lot of really obvious and broadly-agreed taxonomy in the data itself. The problem is simply that it's a slightly messy taxonomy, so I probably need to leave the schema itself loose enough to cope with that.

And yes, you may well be more or less correct about the tag thing, although tags/links per se aren't really the distinction -- regardless of whether it's strict or loose, we're going to be holding it together with tags/links. That's how Querki thinks: tags/links are essentially the equivalent of foreign keys in a conventional DB, and you use them all the time. The question is mainly whether any of those pointers are single-valued, or whether they are all necessarily sets of pointers. (Equivalent to the conventional-DB question of whether to have direct links between objects or a join table: in Querki, the distinction is whether the Property is "Exactly One" or "Set".)

Indeed, I'm pondering whether to decouple the schema from the taxonomy entirely, with just a single node type for all levels that means "a game or collection of games", and have the taxonomy entirely implicit in the data itself. We'll see -- something of that sort may yet turn out to be correct.

(And I'll be mildly amused if I do wind up there, since it's almost exactly how the Poker Space wound up working. We may be evolving a best practice here...)

This is one of those tricky places where, when summarizing, I want to put a game into a single hierarchically-organized bin (say Tafl, or chess, or Piquet), but when I'm drilling down or searching I want a game to appear in multiple places (e.g. dice chess appearing under dice games as well as under chess variants).

Yeah, not a bad point, and that supports the theory that the hierarchy should be implicit in the data, rather than strictly defined in the schema. (Which in turn has some implications for how I render the Summary page, but I have some ideas of how that might work, which will probably lead to new languages features...)

If we were talking about modern games, I would totally agree. Indeed, the whole notion of a simple hierarchy would be inappropriate, since cross-breeding is *so* common.

But in period? Really, I'm coming up with very few instances -- so few that I suspect that there's a real memetic shift involved. The notion that games were something that you routinely invent seems to be modern. (Which may have something to do with the creation of games as a business.) In period, games evolved *remarkably* slowly -- it was common for a game to be played for centuries, with only relatively mild tweaks, so the results more resemble biological evolution.

I'm open to being convinced otherwise -- and this being Querki, I may well leave this categorization multi-valued, just in case -- but period games appear to be much more strictly evolutionary. Even basic concepts like "board plus card games", routine nowadays, seem to have been vanishingly rare...

Interesting.

Does it make sense to have two different classification schemes, one for period games and one for modern? Where would the line be between them?

Don't know. I'm deliberately sticking to one specific problem here, rather than trying to describe All Games Ever, so I'm intentionally not worrying about anything after about 1700.

My general sense is that modern games are conceptually a superset of period ones, and that's not really surprising: AFAIK, there has been more ferment in the field of game design in the past century (indeed, in the past few decades) than ever previously. We're in an age where *innovation* is a prized quality in game design, and I'm not sure that's ever been true before. I doubt there is a sharp line, but I do get the sense that there has been an exponentially-growing shift in how we *think* about games...

I like the idea, but I'm not sure how it would work for some of the games. Does Tables fall under Board or Dice? What sort of Families would you have for card games? (Trick taking, trick avoiding, ??)

I instinctively call Tables a Board Game -- when I think of "dice games", it tends to be ones where the dice are the main action, and that's a relatively modest grouping. But of course, that's influenced by the fact that I have fifteen years of habit categorizing things that way on the Period Games Homepage; I'm open to counter-arguments.

And yes, I tend to think of "trick taking" as a fine example of a family of card games, although the truth is that by the time cards became common, the family/species distinction appears to have been softening. That is, by the 16th century we're seeing a lot more games appearing that are distinct unto themselves, and fewer variations within a clearly-defined family. The Phyla still appear to be mostly distinct, but there's more variation going on inside each one...

So, would you place Mah Jongg as a Family of games (with Species based on locale where played), or a Species of games (with Morphs based on the locale)?

I don't know the game well, but from what I know it seems like Tile Games are a Phylum, Mah Jongg is probably a Family, and the location-centric tweaks are Species...

It might be a bit of a trick question. Mah Jongg uses tiles, yes, but it plays very much like the card game Gin Rummy. There is a Western tile game now that is very similar, although much simpler, called Rummikub.

Does the hierarchy need to be enforced from the outside, or can it grow organically?

A game could have a list of attributes that include direct predecessor games, direct descendent games, indirect predecessor and descendent games, and generation (or non-generational) peers, as well as earliest known creation date, and one or more date ranges for the height of its popularity.

That leaves the game the first class concept, and the relationships of a lesser class, at least structurally. You can than run a spider across the network to build it up as a graph (in the mathematical sense), and have it figure out how the hierarchy should look. (which, admittedly, moves some of the problem to how to write a algorithm to display the resulting graph, but that is, presumably, a problem with existing solutions.)

Actually, it doesn't even really require spidering -- links are a first-class concept in Querki. (And back-links are intentionally easy to track, so that you aren't tempted to duplicate data.)

So yeah, we seem to be moving towards a consensus that making the hierarchy an emergent property of the data, rather than formalizing it in the structure, is likely wiser...

(Deleted comment)
Heh.

But yes, that's a valid point, although it's kind of water under the bridge -- I've *been* running the site for 15 years, and the existing one *does* imply a good deal of hierarchy. I expect that, in the long run, the new one should weaken that Authority problem partly, since my aim is for it to be a more collaborative effort. (Which is much easier in Querki.)

I had a longer post, but...

Admittedly, this is probably more clever than useful.

...this neatly sums up my thoughts. :)

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