Welcome back! In case you missed our last segment, check out Into the Gamification part 1 and Into the Gamification part 2. This time we are back at it with a two part segment on video game genres, a hot topic as of late!
What is Genre and what does it mean for games?
Game Informer readers likely saw Jeff Cork’s “Do Genres Mean Anything Anymore?” article a few issues back that attempted to tackle the complicated matter of video game genres. To briefly bring everyone up to speed, Cork notes that the gaming world is becoming increasingly unsure and in some cases, unwelcoming of genres as a way to categorize games. He draws upon games such as Rise of the Tomb Raider, Super Smash Bros., Uncharted, and the Zelda series as a way to illustrate that elements of more than one genre appear in the same game, making it difficult to assign many titles a specific genre. For instance, Cork poses the following questions: Is Super Smash Bros. a fighting game or a platform game? Is Zelda an adventure, RPG, or stealth game? What about Uncharted or Tomb Raider? There’s so many disputes and mixes of genre that Cork seems to throw up his arms and say that one could dispute just about any game could fit into any genre. Alternatively, he also mentions that gamers have even become so at odds with each other that some have just refused the whole concept genre altogether.
Is this only a video game thing? No…
Cork calls upon other mediums with peculiar genre issues such as film where The Martian won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture for Musical or Comedy. I don’t know about anyone else, but nothing sends me to the floor with a case of the giggles like watching a poor man being left for dead all alone where one tragedy after the other brings him closer to a horrific death from starvation or lack of oxygen. All sarcasm aside, most of us can see that choice was probably a genre boo boo. But wait, what about some of the slighter instances such as horror movies that have bits of comedy such as Scream or A Nightmare on Elm Street? Or how about comedy with some horror? Or, what the hell was American Ulta? Yeah, so missteps in genre can create a problem; however, eliminating genre is also a problem because the elements that define genre coincide with both our expectations and with the continuity of the film, music, game, and so on.
Point by point, Cork unveils this sort of problem with his titular question as to whether or not genres even matter anymore. And although Cork seems troubled by the possible dissolution of genres altogether, his saving grace is that the controversy puts gamers into intellectual discourse about games. This is where I most agree. I think this is an issue that should be talked about more. Sure, there are some who will plead that games for whatever reason. The fact of the matter is that games almost always have some time of story, world, music, or theme that needs to align with a genre. So…
Does genre really matter? Damn skippy it does!
I suspect genre is a word that has become too casually used these days. This makes sense in a way because it fulfills a need to categorize and genre gives us a fancy word for neatly clumping similar things together in a general way. Genre also works as the ideal enemy for those who think of themselves too artistic and foreword thinking. I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard someone sigh out the words “That’s so genre” with a condescending eyeroll. Of course, when those types have to excuse their own art with phrases such as “the just don’t get (insert: art, my emotion, my intelligence, life, etc.), this is them closing their eyes while genre punches them square in the face. The point is that we likely don’t really understand what genre is or how it works. For instance, ask someone what their favorite genre is and you will likely get an answer, even the reply is that they hate genre. Then, ask them to analyze and explain what genre really means, where it came from, and what it really entails. Watch as little floating question marks magically appear around that person’s head as they scramble to spill out more surficial remarks. And that’s the rub…although some surely are savvy in genres, do many of us quibble over a concept we really don’t understand or appreciate? If history, children, and embarrassing family members have taught us anything, it’s that we have to be careful about confidently using terms that aren’t so simple or well understood.
Okay, then…what is genre about? Just a taste…
What follows is just a sample of a quite intricate area of study, but never worry, I will attach a link so that you can delve in as much as you wish.
According to Daniel Chandler’s An Introduction to Genre Theory, the term has French roots that originally derived for Latin. The term literally means “kind” or “class” (Chandler, p. 1). Although Chandler admits genre is complicated and disputed, many genre theorists have worked to make some sense of arranging genre. Genre theorists, you say…err…I say? Indeed. Two notable scholars to enter the discussion are Robert Stam and Gunther Kress. Chandler’s piece notes how Stam addresses four problems with defining genre. These include extension, normativism, monolithic definitions, and biologism (Chandler, p. 2). As for Kress, he defines a genre as ‘a kind of text that derives its form from the structure of a (frequently repeated) social occasion, with its characteristic participants and their purposes’ (Chandler, p. 5). Here, we have a play between an almost scientific call for sorting out genre meeting social patterns. In order for this not to break into dissertation mode, we’ll break away and pose some general questions. What is the overall purposes and objectives of the game, book, or film? What are the main and lesser elements that define the game, book, or film? What is the tone? Attributes? Understood attitudes?
My .02 cents…
I think game genres can evolve more quickly than in some other mediums, but I still think we need clearly defined genres in video games so we have continuity, depth, and a concise organization of elements. Maybe we are also going too horizontal when we should go more vertical. By this, I mean that each genre usually has a myriad of sub-genres. Acknowledging an intricate form of subgenres might sound complicated, but doing so may become necessary since games tap into so many human cultures, identities, interests, and artistic forms. We have some really great games out there, but we still need to hold game makers responsible for understanding genre elements in storytelling. It can really get out of hand to mishmash genres for the purpose of tapping into multiple markets or capitalize on every element of a game. If such were the case, so many great novels like Dracula (as one example) would be horror/comedy/adventure/self-help (moral)/thriller/travel because all those things happen within the text. Similarly, Super Mario Bros. could be and RPG/action/adventure/platform/fighting/horror survival/etc. game. After all, we are “role playing” as Mario, “fighting” monsters, “platforming” our way along as the sole hero against terrifying creatures in dark “horrific” dungeons. I digress as this just shows the amount of ridiculousness we could get into. The problem is that genre isn’t just what’s there in the game, but also why and how it works to develop the story around the characters, central themes, symbols, environment, mechanics, philosophies, atmosphere, and experience of the game. If it is only my opinion, I still assert well developed literature, films, and especially games, clearly know how to weave their specific genres and leave us all the more satisfied for such mastery. Likewise, we should be careful of retrofitting games to fit any sub-element that appears simply because it tickles our fancy. No matter how sadistic humor Freddy Kruger conjures, Nightmare on Elms Street isn’t a comedy, Lara Croft solves puzzles in Tomb Raider but that doesn’t make it a Tetris puzzle game, and if we need more reassurance to avoid disaster, just repeat THE MARTIAN is not a musical or comedy until it all wells up inside of you!
Diving into the Deep End with Genre
We aren’t done just yet with genres. Next time we will close out our discussion where four game genres will be put on the hot seat to determine what they mean for the future of gaming and gaming studies. See you then!
Chandler, D. (2011). An introduction to genre theory.Visual-memory.co.uk. PDF file.
Cork, J. (2016). Do Genres Mean Anything Anymore. Game informer. Vol. XXVI. 7(279). p. 22.