The Problem of Genre in Video Games

Despite the wide variety of forms that games come in, the number of genres and the distinctions between them are confusingly small.

Every so often a game will come out that prompts game journalists to take a second glance at their terminology. When Mass Effect 2 trimmed most of the original’s already spartan RPG elements, many wondered, “What is an RPG?” When StarCraft 2 was developed with more competitive consideration than story, the question “What is a sport?” inevitably arose. Questions like these can be useful, but there’s a larger one that hasn’t received enough attention, and that is “What is a video game?”

There was a time when the term “video game” was inclusive enough for just about any piece of interactive, virtual entertainment. But as games have rapidly become far more complicated, “video game” has long been outgrown as a meaningful term. Mario Party, Leisure Suit Larry, Shadow of the Colossus, Guitar Hero, Limbo, and Resident Evil are all considered “video games,” even though anyone with a passing knowledge of these examples can tell you that they’re nothing alike. The only common denominator among them is that they’re all experienced with a controller in hand, and with the advent of motion controls and touchscreens, games aren’t even qualified by the controller anymore.

Walking through any book or music store, differentiating between genres is fairly straightforward. Fiction, biography, and textbooks are all neatly arranged by lead author; purists may complain that Title A has no place in Section B, but overall, it’s easy to get your bearings when sorting other media. Contrast this to the video game landscape: games are separated only by console, where many titles overlap and important differences are ignored.

Even those without a literary background can at least acknowledge the differences between poetry, drama, novel, or any other form. Even without knowing what the differences between a sonnet and a limerick or the traditions behind either one, at least one can tell that there is a difference between these types of poetry. There are important generic differences between video games that are seldom addressed. And just like in other media, generic differences are more than semantic. For example, to say that a poem and a novel are different is obvious, even the differences between a western and a fantasy are immediately recognizable.

Similarly, it makes no sense to judge a horror film based on its comedic merits, but for games as different as a novel and a poem, there is no separation. Both Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Shadow of the Colossus are video games and both are filed under the action/adventure label (as if there are as many games that lack either). There are important differences between the examples above in not just gameplay but in story and style as well; the former being more like a novel and the latter being more poetic.

Lumping all games under the same umbrella is tantamount to putting The Sound and the Fury and a Wal-Mart receipt in the same category because they’re both composed of words written on paper. The Sopranos is not the same as Jersey Shore, so why should Mario Party be lumped in with Duke Nukem?

Even genres within video games have outgrown their use. What few genres left in gaming more often than not refer to a mechanic rather than a tone or narrative style. Shooters are differentiated by their perspectives, and so many traditional RPG elements have found a home outside their native genre that most games anymore at least borrow from role-players. A better way of organizing genres could facilitate the divides that games face. With better terminology, those on either side of the “games are art” or the “games should be fun” debates could really clarify both positions.

For most conversations about games, everyone ends up talking about different things all with the same name. It’s hard to make the case that video games are an aesthetic experience when the people that you’re trying to convince have only experienced video games like Wii Sports. Games need to better differentiate themselves from one another. Establishing an important genre change is not without precedent. Comic books -- which have more in common with games than is usually realized -- consist of graphic novels, manga and humor strips, all with their own connotations, style, and history. Games could use a similar paring down into clearer categories.

The obvious problem here is that game developers and audiences are not always receptive to change and forcing new terms on either is likely to prove fruitless. Any attempts to distinguish games from interactive fiction or virtual narratives have come across as pretentious or somehow degrading to gaming tradition. As soon as a developer announces a “digital interactive novella,” it comes across as though games are something to be ashamed of.

There are no meaningful genres in games anymore. It’s a good thing that developers are pushing back borders and finding interesting ways to combine old mechanics, but as a consequence, there’s no ways of separating works with huge and obvious disparities. There ought to be a way to categorize games in a meaningful, succinct way that doesn’t implicitly suggest a high art/low art dichotomy. And while I’m at it, I’d also like a pony and a bottomless box of chocolate.


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