Hello and welcome to the inaugural edition of The Game Stash. I’ve been at The Escapist for a full four weeks now, and it’s high time I kicked things off by dealing with a topic that has been bothering me for a long time – genres. Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s bothered by them; at E3 earlier this month, I found myself at a party with several other industry folks discussing the ways we let mechanical considerations overtake the underlying fiction of a game as the primary topic of discussion. We’ve come to focus too much on the methods of interaction or presentation and not nearly enough on the stories that our games are trying to tell.
The Escapist’s editorial approach encourages an experiential view of games, which suggests that game design is there to support the fiction of the game rather than the other way around. Ultimately, games are about more than the mechanical systems we’re interacting with, but too often we see shooters or racing games where the context for the game is obviously only there to provide the barest justification for the game design. Even worse, it forces us to put games like The Simpsons Hit and Run in the same category as Gran Turismo, or place exaggerated sci-fi shooters like Halo alongside more realistic modern titles like Operation Flashpoint, purely on the basis that they share some common interactions while largely ignoring their tremendous differences in context.
Our problem is that we use the term “genre” to define gameplay styles, but that’s not the way the term is used or understood in other forms of media. For years, whenever I’ve told non-gamers that I’m in to wargames, they immediately ask, “Oh, you mean like Call of Duty?” At this point, I would just walk away in disgust, despairing of ever bridging the gap in understanding. But the reaction isn’t that hard to understand. When gamers talk about wargames, they’re describing a common set of mechanics and styles of presentation. Non-gamers think that wargames are “games about war,” regardless of how they’re played.
It aggravates me, but you can’t blame non-gamers for the confusion, because other forms of media are defined almost exclusively by subject rather than the method of presentation. Hence you have romantic comedies, political thrillers, westerns, and so on, which are much more useful associations for choosing books, movies or plays appropriate to your tastes. There are exceptions to this, of course; there’s a “Biography” section in the bookstore, for example, and separate pages for “Musicals” and “Animation” on Netflix. But I’d argue that even there, the subject matter is more meaningful that the superficial form.
I like animation, but I’m drawn to an animated show because of Batman or Brendan Small or Brock Sampson, not because of the animation itself, which just happens to be the vehicle for the content. In other words, I’m watching animation because it happens to be about a subject I like, not liking a subject because it happens to be animated. This latter response is typical of children; if my four-year-old son walks in to the room while I’m watching The Simpsons, he’ll be interested simply because the outer form of the show is familiar to him. But I know that the animation is incidental to the meaning; what he really wants is a show like Curious George or Dora, The Explorer and he is too young to distinguish between the superficial form and the substance.
At the same time, content and mechanics aren’t inseparable. Alex made that point very clear in his recent discussion of world building in tabletop games and I completely agree with him. But I also think it can be carried to a confusing extreme where the rules and the fiction of the game become slaves to one another. This is why we have the silly idea that RPGs have to have elves and RTS games have to have turrets and FPS games have to have M16s. It’s true that those components are convenient common responses to the particular needs of each style of game, but once we let them dictate the content, we’re letting the tail wag the dog.
As soon as a game creator says “I’m going to make an MMOG,” for instance, more than half the design is locked down purely by the expectations that label carries in the market. We see this in BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic. Every time the game is shown, the game’s creators say “everything you’d expect from an MMO game” will be present. “Of course it will have crafting,” they say as if there was never any doubt. “Of course it will have guilds, of course it will have [insert genre convention].” And while I don’t necessarily think that this particular game shouldn’t have those particular features, I don’t think their inclusion should be justified simply because “it’s an MMOG.” Just look at the loot system in Champions Online. Super heroes don’t beat up villains to take their stuff but because looting is such a powerful part of the MMOG genre, the mechanic is shoehorned into a setting for which it is obviously inappropriate.
When gameplay stops contributing to the overall context of a game’s fiction (or, worse yet, actively suppresses it), it has ceased to serve a useful purpose. I’m not saying every game has to be Moby Dick, and I openly acknowledge that there are some games, particularly sports or puzzle games, where the mechanics essentially are the fiction. Still, look what an inventive context was able to do for the simple tower defense game Plants vs. Zombies. I think we wrongly assume that using genre based on the way you interact with a game makes sense because interactivity is the one element that most separates gaming from other forms of media.
Another part of the problem is that genre definitions based on the interaction and presentation of the game are vague enough to be confusing. At the most basic level, for example, almost every game is a simulation because almost every game simulates some kind of reality. From football to fishing to flying to finance, any game that represents a real world system is, by definition, a simulation. Likewise, most games are designed to put the player in a discrete role or responsibility, so most games have some element of roleplaying. You could even argue that all games are strategy games to the extent that they require players to collect and contextualize information to improve the quality of range of their interactions with the game world. The best games blur the lines between distinct genre divisions. Is GTA a driving game? Yes, but not just a driving game. Is Borderlands a shooter? Yes, but not just a shooter. Is Mass Effect an RPG? Yes, but not just an RPG.
So what purpose do genres serve, anyway? Some will say that the purpose of genres is to categorize the wide range of titles available, but that’s just begging the question. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the description may be true, but it’s hardly worth saying. The real point of genres, at least so far as I see it, is to give us a framework of associations that suggest what else we might like and a vocabulary that helps us discuss those associations with other gamers. The purely mechanical definition isn’t serving those purposes particularly well.
As the experience of playing has become secondary to the mechanics, we’ve become like children who can’t tell the difference between something that merely looks like what we want and the real thing itself. Sure, the traditional game genres are useful as a means to organizing and discussing gameplay elements, but they shouldn’t ever become the primary focus of our understanding or enjoyment of games or limit our expectations of the types of experiences games can deliver. It’s time to stop asking, “What kind of game is it?” and start asking, “What is it about?”
Steve Butts still can’t figure out what genre his life is supposed to be.