Games and Genres, Part Two

We've all been here at one point or another.

[Part One]

If game genres should represent why we should care about playing a game, how exactly do you describe them?  The best starting point is to draw parallels between the ways games appeal to people and how conventional activities appeal to us in meat-space.  There was a time in all of our lives where we could care less about games, and there was something that clicked between what we enjoyed in meat-space and something that a video game had to offer.  They are about verbs, and so it only makes sense to look at other things that we already like to do, and then build on them.

Play Sports: Many people like to challenge their ability to perform skill based physical tasks.  And while it is easy to immediately associate sports with muscles and physical endurance, it is equally about dexterity and hand-eye coordination.  Of course, skill based challenges to your hand-eye coordination and dexterity can translate to many other activities, including action based video games.  And if sports games are any indication, the hand-eye coordination part of that equation is a significant reason why people enjoy sports in the first place.

Solve Puzzles: The flip-side to challenging your dexterity and hand-eye coordination is to challenge your cognitive abilities.  People will embrace artificial constraints to try and demonstrate cognitive potential.  There is no point to solving a cross word puzzle, or winning a game of chess.  The rewards are all in your mind.  Working around those constraints allow people to prove to themselves and others just how sharp they are.  Or they provide a way for someone to witness their own progress at getting better and better at tasks that challenge their mind.  If there was ever an activity that video games were well suited for, it’s puzzles.

Express Ourselves: Through creative expression (painting, music, performance, writing, joke telling, etc) we can create something and call it our own for nothing but time and effort.  It can be relatively cheap and satisfying no matter who you are.  This work can be easily shared with those around you and can definitely be a very compelling activity to do with your time.  Games can provide ways to promote this sort of experience in a contained, digital context.  In tandem with the internet, games can be a tremendous creative outlet that can be shared with virtually anyone.

Screw Around: Of course then there are people who just enjoy activities that don’t challenge your mind, dexterity, or creativity, and just want to have fun.  Some people just enjoy things for what they are and are content to simply explore the different ways you can interact with something.  Some enjoy mischief, others are curious tinkerers, but all of us at some time or another just enjoys playing with something that’s right in front of us.  Games that provide the audience with novel systems can appeal to us in this sense.  At times, we even enjoy playing games not for their intended purpose, but for the secondary activities you can take part in. For instance: insulting people.

Explore: Discovery something new can be very exciting, and has motivated people to do incredible (and incredibly dangerous) things.  For that, exploration may be one of the most powerful and appealing of these activities, and is also one of the best ways a game can appeal to an audience as well.  Books and movies can take you places, but you are stuck looking at them from the back seat of a car that’s just passing through that world.  Only when the player is in control can they begin to feel the senses of fear and reward that go hand and hand with exploration.  The possibilities are virtually limitless with well realized digital worlds.

These activities probably sound incredibly basic when describing how they can be connected to games.  But for the console games industry, I think more time needs to be spent on understanding the fundamentals instead of simply counting on there being people playing games simply because they already know that they like them.  It’s because the console gaming industry and community has been so narrowly focused on established genres that we’re so surprised when a game like Farmville does so well and our response is “well people who like Farmville are just idiots who don’t know what real gaming is.”  We’ve just forgotten what it was that had drawn us into games, and it is probably the same sort of thing that Farmville gamers experienced too.  At their roots, I think most video games can be traced back to something that’s intrinsically appealing to human nature; I hope gamers and developers alike will take more time to consider what that might be.


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