Genre Part 2: Inclusion, Exclusion, and Mislabeled Containers

Welcome back! To recap on last week’s discussion on Genre, we used Jeff Cork’s article as a jumping off point for engaging genre issues in video games and transitioned into Daniel Chandler’s An Introduction into Genre Theory to supplement some of our explorations. Hopefully many of you picked up some new insights on genre and used it for some food for thought to launch your own explorations. Today, we are going to single out four genres that have been driving me nuts for a while and I’m going to use a criminal amount of quotation marks to point them out.

Where the party at?

As much as I loved those cute commercials of the police crashing Mario’s party, I just have a hard time buying into this genre. What actually makes a party game a party game? I understand they often involve fun games within the game, multiplayer options, and a bit of friendly competition. Great, but couldn’t just about any game be a party game? What game developer or publisher can decide what constitutes a party? Further, who can decide what’s a party game for anyone else? Even years before the “party” genre came onto the scene, I can remember throwing gaming parties with my friends. The genre really didn’t matter because it was about the people, not the game. We made our own Madden and Street Fighter tournaments, co-op played Starcraft and Rainbow Six, and even partied out to board games such as Monopoly and quiz games. You see, we didn’t need an official “party” genre to use a game for a party. Pick any game title, set some interesting rules (although not necessary), sprinkle in some popcorn and there you have it…a party game. For me, it’s about the people and the occasion rather than a game that claims to be made for parties. For me, this genre just doesn’t work.

Child’s play, the “Kid’s Game”…

When we talk about “kids” games we’re not talking ESRB ratings here or game publisher labels. The “kids” game is pseudo genre of sorts that stuck as a mainstream classification system. This can be a really confusing genre because on the one hand, certain titles and brands really do tend to attract children. I totally get this because, admittedly, I don’t see myself diving into the latest SpongeBob or Sesame Street game; however, my nieces or nephews know all the characters, worlds, and can’t get enough of these titles. On the other hand, I just demonstrated a problem with my personal perception of what makes for a “kids” game. What if adults also like to play some of these titles? For example, I know some people who hold a little anxiety about playing a game with a cartoon character from their childhood or maybe even a title that seems geared towards a younger age.  I can even recall a moment at the video store where a grown man felt he had to clarify that his rental choice of a Lego video game was for his child. What is this sort of guilt and where does it come from? Should it be wrong to play a “kids” game if you are getting some value out of it? A “kids” game can actually even be very helpful to some adults in a practical sense. Think about a Sesame Street ABC game that might be good for someone just learning the English language. Besides the point, why can’t an adult play a really good game with Lego characters? Wherever you stand on the issue, the coined “kids” genre poses some questions that need to be resolved.

“Family” matters…

Along with the “kids” game, comes the “family” game-often packaged as partners in crime. What makes the “family” game notorious is that it is complete rubbish and sends a message I just am not comfortable accepting. Why ever would I say such a thing about a wholesome genre of gaming? Here’s the problems…how do you holistically define what makes a family and what is appropriate for any given family? When you see the advertising for a “family” game, there is always a happy man and woman with a with at least two children. The families are almost always the same race (usually white), heterosexual, and upper middle class (cues from clothing, jewelry, and home). Also, you adults must apparently have children to be a family according to the rhetoric of this genre. See what I mean by rubbish? So, the marketing sucks but it’s the game that makes the genre, right? Problematically, the marketing problem lead into the genre problem. The game doesn’t have to be appropriate for children to be a “family” game because as already stated, a family may not have children. In fact, whatever old-fashioned criteria used define language, activities, or other encapsulated elements of “appropriateness” for a family just doesn’t work. The “family” genre is just a stereotypical symbol of some 1950s cookie-cutter version of what the ideal family should be and its past time to send it screaming into the trash can. Indeed, some will lawyer the matter by bootstrapping the “E for everyone” ESRI rating technicality to constituted family appropriateness, but who can actually dare to speak for everyone? I certainly don’t approve of all E rated games, and I am someone dammit…so E is not for everyone, is it?

To educate or not to educate, that is the conundrum…

This might overlap with my “kids” and “family” gripe, but I’m really not a fan of the “Educational” game as the genre is often called. Consider this my personal bias, but I think nearly all games can be educational in some significant way. I do understand that we are often quick to look at some games, especially those we don’t understand or like and write them off as a waste of time and money with no educational value whatsoever. A lot of times it really depends on how the game is explored and interpreted. Gaming theorists spend a good part of their career at making such interpretations, and hopefully with an open mind. If you are to say one game is educational in some way while another completely isn’t, then you are a braver soul than I and one that will likely be blindsided by the issue at some point. As I have argued in the past, a game doesn’t have to be narrowly developed for some school taught subject to be educational; In fact, we can learn a great deal through someone skilled in deciphering games that never intended to be educational. Maybe this is but just another of the many reasons to strike the “educational” stamp for what makes an “educational” and “non-educational” game.

The chop shop…

 Although I mentioned that I am all for establishing defined genre systems for games, I wonder if these four mentioned areas simply don’t work. Unlike other genres with more concreteness, “Party,” “Kids,” “Family,” and “Education” games really depend on the individual and the circumstance more so than the game elements. I do think there is an identity crises of sorts with video game genres as Cork alluded, but I also wonder how much effort has been put forth to academically approach the issue. Then again, some people may like the ambiguity.  This is just one humble opinion. We’d love to hear what you think and I hope this gets some ideas churning. All the best!

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