Emergent Genre

There seem to be differing views of what “genre” is, at least as it pertains to video games. I suspect partly this is due to the fact that there are differing views of what a “game” is. One viewpoint, which is probably working its way forward as we speak: “Why does it even matter?” The answer is very simple, and gets back to the entire point of language in the first place.

We use tokens (sounds, letters, images, etc.) to communicate. You cannot communicate effectively without an agreement on the meaning of the tokens. If you think that “cheese sandwich” refers to a piece of cheese between two slices of bread, but I think “cheese sandwich” means being stuck between two tv news anchors, our conversation could get rather confusing.

Of course, conversations can (and do) get confusing all the time, because lots of words have multiple meanings, nuances, and associations, so in order to have a formal* discussion on a particular topic there must first be a clear agreement of the meaning of particular terms used. This is why any field develops its own jargon, and why academic articles, textbooks, contracts, etc. can come across as characterless and bland.

Some may still be asking the same question. After all, they’re only games; why would we want to be formal about them? Thus we turn a corner and bump into the “Can games be art?” debate. For what it’s worth, I think they can be, but that’s not really germane to this topic (genre, in case you’d forgotten. I almost had). Regardless of their artistic merit, games are certainly worthy of critical** analysis. If we cannot examine what worked (or didn’t) about a particular game, how can we expect to make the next game better? Plenty of movies have the aim of entertainment, without aspiring to high art, but still benefit from a clear understanding of the art of cinematography.

So, back to the topic: How to define genres for video games? To a large extent, I suspect (as implied by the title), that genres emerge from the exploration of a medium as the creators codify aspects that work well together. They can be influenced (basically, given a head start) by pre-existing genres in another medium, but they must take into account the techniques and details of the newer medium. “Hard-boiled” detective/thriller novels served as inspiration, but noir is a uniquely filmic genre (including particular styles of plot, lighting, music, etc.).

Similarly games must establish their own genres based on the features of the medium. Aspects of look, tone, plot, etc. can be taken from other media (film seems a particularly favourite source of inspiration), but the “ludic” aspects must be involved as well. We can see the beginnings of this: a FPS (First-Person Shooter) would once have been referred to as a “Doom-clone”***. However, I think these “genres” are as-yet too broad to be of much use; the genre of a game should give an indication of the style or tone as well as how you interact with it. For example, Doom (horror/action) and Portal (sci-fi/puzzle) could both be classed as FPS.

I’m confident we will eventually settle upon a more useful classification system; we just need to keep paying attention to what aspects of a game contribute to the overall experience.

* As opposed to a casual conversation. Most of the time, people are content to accept a little ambiguity (which is often quickly resolved by context) in order to facilitate conversation.

** That’s “critical” as in “critique”, not necessarily “critical” as in “criticism”.

*** A particularly notable example is often the starting point for establishing a category, which will probably be called “things like X” until a more suitable name is decided upon. An example of the transition can be seen in the debates over the term “rogue-like”.

A House Divided

Recently, Rose Red and I watched the film version of Divergent (the first episode in yet another of the currently-popular young-adult dystopia trilogies). I found it interesting, and enjoyable, though a bit on-the-nose in places; I was unsurprised to discover the author was inspired by their Psyc-101 classes at university.

Lest I sound condescending, let me be clear that I mean no disrespect. I certainly haven’t managed to write a best-selling novel that’s been turned into a multi-million dollar Hollywood production, let alone to have done so in my early twenties. My perspective involves somewhat more experience (in life, education, and stories) than the target market for the book, so it’s not surprising it comes across a bit simplisticly.

Anyhow, what I found interesting in Divergent was the concept of “Factions”, which—like the Hogwarts Houses in the Harry Potter series—are defined based on particular personality traits/virtues*.

This [personality-based groups] can be an interesting way of revealing the characters, in terms of showing how they do/don’t fit within a particular group. Indeed, part of the point of Divergent is that people shouldn’t be defined so simply (different situations call for different approaches), which is not addressed in Harry Potter**. In the real world, there are a great many attempts to categorise people’s personalities, though they often involve more than a handful of different types (a well-known example being the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator).

One aspect of any sort of group segregation, another concept from psychology, is “Us vs. Them”. It’s been shown that the mere act of dividing people into groups (regardless of whether the division is systematic or arbitrary) causes them to value in-group individuals (“us”) more than out-group individuals (“them”). Essentially, there’s an instinct to compete (whether the competition is overt or indirect). This is one of the reasons behind the idea of “divide and conquer” (“A house divided will not stand”). For example, in The Hunger Games, the Capitol separated the populace into districts to prevent them working together.

Where this can come across as simplistic is when it becomes clear which groups the author identifies with (would be in, or wishes they would). Regardless of the value of other traits, Gryffindor is the best, and Slytherin’s are all dodgy (if not outright evil). Rose Red was very amused when I commented on the main character of Divergent choosing to leave “Lame Boringville” in favour of “Exciting McAwesomeSauce” (though, having not read the book, I don’t know if that bias comes from the author or the film-makers).

It’s very difficult to achieve, but there is great value and nuance in showing pros and cons to both/all perspectives without significant bias (other than the fact that the protagonist is on one side and the antagonist another).

* In some ways, the factions are better defined by the absence of vices: Abnegation reject Ego, Dauntless reject Fear, Erudite reject Ignorance, Candor reject Falsehood, and Amity reject Aggression.

** For example, Harry is told by the Sorting Hat that he would do well in Slytherin, but this is used to emphasise that he chose one over the other, rather than making a point of showing him using different approaches (“Choice” being a more pertinent motif of the series, as opposed to Divergent’s “Adaptability”).