Monday, January 12, 2009

Modernizing Genre, Part Two

This post is part two of a three part series. In part one, The Bane of Genre, I criticized existing videogame genres as limiting and increasingly inaccurate. This week I offer a very different opinion on the utility and favorable traits of genre. I owe credit to Thomas Apperly, whose essay on Genre and game studies stimulated my own thoughts. I am also indebted to fellow Berkeley resident, and talented storyteller, Michael Chabon and his numerous essays in support of literary genre. I borrow many of his ideas, some of his words, and a lot of his fervor.

In Defense of Genre

The appeal of genre is natural: genre is comforting. It is a path well traveled, on which we've come to rely. The representatives of genre across mediums have embedded themselves into popular culture. As sources of entertainment and adventure, Doctor Who and Doctor Jones are as trustworthy as as the family physician (I recommend frequent visits to all three). To abandon genre entirely would be to strip players and developers of a map, far from the beaten path.

Most videogame genres describe how a game is played, not its content. The similarities within a given classification are not entirely useless, as they represent familiar territory to consumers. If a game is labeled as a Platformer for example, one can safely assume game progression involves maneuvering over terrain and the management of platform elements will likely be the source of most enjoyment. Though the average player may not be a fanatic, there is something to say for equipping consumers with even a rudimentary understanding of game mechanics and how these design choices shape the games they play.

Where gamers spend their money is important, and considering mechanics can make or break an experience, it may be beneficial to classify games around gameplay elements. Would a stranger to videogames be able to adequately assess their enjoyment of Asteroids by calling it a science fiction? What about equating Puzzle Quest primarily with its fantasy elements? Gameplay description may be the common denominator for creating an accurate prediction of player satisfaction.

Even genres describing content are not without technical conventions. As Thomas Apperley notes, "a growing body of work on horror-genre games argues that the effectiveness of the horror milieu is enhanced by using particular mechanical and structural rules." It is no coincidence Survival-Horror, what I consider to be the most applicable videogame genre, shares many of its characteristics and history of the Horror genre in film and literature. The Horror classification is content driven but maintains very noticeable structural and mechanical traits. The only aim of Horror games is to scare the crap out of you. Beyond low lighting and the laughter of children, it just so happens scarce resources and moments of immobility are game design choices that lend themselves well to the creation of fear.
These conventions, audio, visual, and mechanical, are the tools by which players can explore content beyond the basic characteristics of an experience. By accepting the genre conventions of a Horror or Platform game, players and developers can focus on a game's narrative themes or mechanical innovations. Genre can act as a map for explorations, the conventions are well worn paths to interesting discoveries.

Literary and film genres can provide useful examples for genres liberating characteristics. The best Science-Fiction, even Hard SciFi, says more with its content than its descriptions of space stations and alien life forms. Blade Runner teaches us more about death, human emotions, and the destructive nature of man than it does about creating artificial intelligence. Likewise, the frontier landscapes of the Western genre say a great deal about intangible frontiers. John Ford thrived in this genre not because he showed the audience how to herd cattle, but because he shared with viewers his thoughts on the American West, the sacrifice of heroism, and how even on the raggedy edge of civilization, a sense of belonging can be hard to find.

These genres have been built upon, reinterpreted, and disassembled. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven is undoubtedly a Western aware of its history, and armed with convention, Eastwood uncovers the sins of its past. The cycle of interpretation creates a conversation between creators and consumers across time, and this is incredibly powerful. Michal Chabon illustrates this raw potential exquisitely in regards to the "finest 'genre writers'":

"[They] derive their power and their entertainment value from a fruitful self-consciousness about the conventions of their chosen genre, a heightened awareness of its history, of the cycle of innovation, exhaustion, and replenishment. When it comes to conventions, their central impulse is not to flout or to follow them but, flouting and following, to play."

Some games would not exist without the developers consciously toying with genre. Were it not for genre conventions, Call of Duty 4 could not have gripped players with the same sense of uncomfortable awe when these very genre conventions were ignored. And, as Krystian Majewski and James pointed out in comments section of last week's post, Braid also inhabitants the border lands of genre. Braid's narrative strength draws in large part from Platformer conventions and our own expectations.Genre invites developers and players alike to participate in a dialogue, between entertainer and audience, to grasp at the potential of the medium with a shared vocabulary. The worlds populated by heroes and villains, knights and dragons, aliens and space marines, are open for exploration. It would be foolish to venture into the uncharted territory of a new and growing medium without a map to guide us and help us frame our experiences. Genre may be a habitable middle ground between asserting the independence and uniqueness of videogames, while also embracing the storytelling and play that permeates through the most serious and jovial forms of entertainment.


  1. Nietzsche wrote once that artistic expression is about imposing on oneself artificial constrains and then overcoming them. The awe comes from making that struggle appear easy and effortless. He referred to it as "dancing in chains".

    I often ask myself in genres are just that: artificial constrains that everybody understands so it is evident when somebody managed to overcome them.

    From the perspective of the audience, genres have a lot to do with being able to judge the value of a work. By being categorized into a genre, a work can be easily compared to other works from that genre and the quality can be judged more easily. A work outside of genres is much more difficult to evaluate as there is no reference.

  2. I would add that genre can be used in ways that aren't constrictive, at least not just so a creator can break free of said constrictions. To borrow your magic trick idea, genre can be the chains, the stage, the outfit, and the rabbit in the hat all at once.

    And then there are cheap magicians who prance about in chains to show off.

  3. Exactly. I think Nietsche wasn't suggesting you could break the chains, though. According to him, they could either hinder you in your dance or you could learn to "dance in chains". This in turn encompasses all of what you suggested: using the chains to your advantage.

    What "magic trick idea" are you referring to, btw? Sounds intriguing?

  4. The "magic trick" was referring to "dancing in chains." I was thinking of Houdini. As you'll come to realized from posts and podcasts, I cling to bizarre analogies for far too long.