Games and Genres, Part One

Pile o' games

There are probably as many genres as there are games.

[Note: This post, as well as its follow-up really push the idea of this blog being a public notebook. It meanders a bit, but I’ve tried to keep it under control. Proceed at your own risk.]

[Part Two]

When applied to movies, a genre represents the style and structure of content that will be presented.  Whether the movie will make you laugh, cry, think, or help you to escape reality, the genre provides a strong hint as to which it will be.  In games, the genre represents the nature of how you will interact with it.  Will you be looking down the sights of a rifle, solving puzzles through trial and error, or grinding through battles to gain levels?  Genres in games tell the audience what they will be doing.  They don’t provide a great deal of insight into a game’s content, the way they do for movies though.  There are stereotypical examples of how each genre of video game unfolds: space marines have to defeat horrific creatures to prevent human extinction; a young swordsman must gather a rag-tag group of friends to stop a villain from taking over the world; or Joe Schmoe has to travel the kingdom to revive and/or rescue a young woman.  As you might expect, there are plenty of instances where a game’s content doesn’t fit the mold of its genre, or it’s otherwise hard to describe it (e.g. Minecraft.)

The nature of interactivity drives the gaming community’s understanding of genres.  This is one half of the equation.  In addition to describing what you do in a game, a comprehensive explanation has to include why you should care about what you’re being asked to do.  How will shooting dudes be meaningful to the player?  Why is endlessly toiling to min/max your party’s stats anything more than mindless tedium?  Is there any reason to unlock 100% of a game’s content?  These are all questions that are answered at length in reviews, but there’s no reason to ask these questions only after a game is finished and shipped to gamers.  They are the first questions that should be asked before a single line of code is written.

Games genres are concepts that are separated by what is explicitly and implicitly exposed to the player: how you play and why you should.  Interaction requires the cooperation of the audience in order to succeed.  Games are asking you to play a role on stage while the other actors work around what you decide to do there.  The audience has to be enticed into stepping through the fourth wall and staying up there.  It’s a medium that cannot be compared to those that utilize conventional narrative.  Skeptics will point to what appears to be a necessary lack of authorial control.  They assume the player must be in control and writing the story in order for game narration to take place.  Players who will not craft a story as powerful as the storyteller who has envisioned the world surrounding the player.

On the surface, I can agree with the skeptic’s point.  But successful use of authorial control has been less about written or spoken words, and more of the feelings those words evoke.  Video games are capable of evoking the same reactions by using actions in place of words.  The audience is not recording their actions in a game so they can sit back with their friends and watch it replay later.  They want to experience the act itself and the feedback it generates.  The action set is carefully designed and revealed to provide the player with a sense of progress and drama. There’s no need to convey that in an explicit narrative package.  The difference between a book and a game is the difference between the composition of words and actions, and the feelings that they evoke.  So long as the player does not feel constrained and that they are convinced that they can make meaningful decisions, a game does not have to pass a Turing test to succeed.

It is more appropriate to consider how a game will draw the player to the stage.  Using a genre as the primary descriptor for a game makes as much sense making movie genres revolve around how a movie has been shot and presented.  It is not nearly as important as the nature of the content.

Update: Part two has been posted.


More descriptive than "Massively multi-player online role playing game."


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