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The Designer's Notebook: Sorting Out the Genre Muddle
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The Designer's Notebook: Sorting Out the Genre Muddle

July 9, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Game Genres

You can slice up the universe of interactive media along many different dimensions, and genre is only one of them. But in order to be able to talk about it sensibly, we have to define what these dimensions are.

Fiction book genres are based on subject matter and to some extent, emotional tone. There are techno-thrillers, westerns, romance novels, mysteries, spy novels, historical fiction, and so on. The book's setting plays a role in defining its genre.

Film is much the same, except that far more films than books are comedies, and just about any other genre of film can be made into a comedy: Blazing Saddles and Rustler's Rhapsody were western comedies, for example.

Video games work differently, as we know, and so far as familiar cases are concerned, it's easy to see. Video game genres are determined by gameplay: what challenges face the player and what actions he takes to overcome those challenges. So we clearly have sports games, shooter games, racing games, and so on.

Genres actually exist in a hierarchy. The Entertainment Software Association's 2009 Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry explicitly identifies (using data from the NPD consumer research firm) a number of what they call super-genres.

For example, sports games can obviously be further subdivided by sport, and racing games by type of vehicle. Tactical shooters emphasize real weapons and quantities of ammunition, while games like Quake, which is mostly about speed, do not.

Genres themselves are fluid. More and more games are hybrids of the traditional genres: modern role-playing games often incorporate physical coordination challenges more typical of fighting games, and action-adventures are now more popular than either the pure platformers or the pure adventure games they borrow from.

And in the current explosion of creativity, it may be difficult to assign a game to a familiar genre, as with Passage. But that's all right. It's still the case that gameplay (which determines genre) is a separate dimension from the other dimensions that define a game. I'll look at them next.


A game's setting is independent of its genre, which I think confuses people who are more familiar with books and movies. Westerns and science fiction books are in different parts of the bookstore, but that's not true of games.

A shooter is a shooter, whether it's set in the Old West or on Mars or anyplace else. A player who enjoys shooters will probably enjoy one no matter where it's set, if it's well-made.

Likewise, you can have completely different genres in the same setting. Both Gun (a shooter with RPG elements) and Oregon Trail II (a management game with a hunting mini-game inside) are set in variants of the Old West.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

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Dominic Arsenault
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I appreciate your attempt at clearing up terminology, and I think you succeed. I don't have any hope that we'll ever make it out of the muddle however. The ESA document you cited contains "super-genres", but does not say anything about the genres (or sub-) they themselves contain, which makes any sense of hierarchy moot. It's difficult then to know what they mean by "Action" games; all we know is they're not Shooters, Fighting or Racing games, since those are also Super-Genres. And their criteria are as diverse as anyone's: next to Role-Playing, Strategy and Adventure, they feature "Arcade", "Children's Entertainment", "Family Entertainment" and "Other/Compilations". Two of those, as you pointed out, are intended audiences without any gameplay implications; one is relative to the number of games in the package and the fact they have been published before; and one is tied to a context of play (arcade VS home) rather than specific gameplay. That ought to convince anyone of the relevance of writing papers like this.

Film studies and literature have been struggling with what I call "genre leveling", that is, identifying the levels of criteria used to distinguish genres, for about 50 years and more than twenty centuries, respectively. I don't think we'll be out of the woods soon. But maybe if we strike the iron while it's hot, we can have a bit more ground on which to stand.

Gregory Kinneman
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As always, Adams, you have a way of explaining things that anybody can understand. You bring up good points, and I think the brief nostalgia piece at the beginning set the mood nicely for what we can hope for in the future.

Tom Newman
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Some great points! I really believe what defines a genre in gaming will absolutely change in the future. Games are becoming less genre-specific and becoming more virtual worlds for the player to explore. Content will eventually drive what genre is (horror, western, fantasy; etc.), and play-style will replace what we now typically call genre (FPS, 3rd person action; etc.).

Overall a very enjoyable, thought provoking read, and it will be interesting to revisit this topic in a few years.

Kris Ridley
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I think what ultimately decides a genre is gameplay mechanics; what are you actually *doing*? In shooters you shoot, in platformers you jump on platforms, in rpg's you develop and level up your character(s), in racing games you race, etc... Obviously you can do much more than that within each game or genre, but what matters is the primary game mechanic, which is remarkably consistent between games in a genre. I think what causes confusion these days is that more and more games are coming up with unique and original gameplay mechanics, which is fantastic, but which makes it harder to fit into a genre.

Jamie Mann
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Interesting article, but I'm not sure why "games for girls" is not classed as a genre but "games for christians" are. They both feature heavily stylised gameplay and audio/visual design intended to target their specific demographic.

Ultimately, I think the "genre" term is outdated: games now feature so many influences and gameplay mechanisms that trying to boil them down to a single word is often impossible. For instance, how do you describe GTA:SA? It's a third person sandbox game featuring driving, shooting, flying, RPG elements, stealth antics - there's even a host of virtual arcade games to sit down and play!

Unfortunately, people tend to like simple, one-word labels...

Ernest Adams
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Correction, Juice: Games for Christians is NOT classed as a genre. Read it again; it's classed as a THEME.

Greg Costikyan prefers the term "play style" over "genre." He has a point. And yes, the Grand Theft Auto games are hybrids.

Jamie Mann
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@Ernest: true, I should have paid a bit more attention - it was on a coffee break! That said, I think there's a lot of shades of grey inbetween "theme", "genre" and "purpose" - I'd even be tempted to throw "target audience" into the mix as well, though the games industry still seems to be working with very heavy brushstrokes in this area. Still, that's something for another coffee break...

Ernest Adams
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And indeed "audience" is also there, on page 3. :-)

Noah Falstein
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Good points here. The definition of serious games that I like is "games with a purpose beyond entertainment", and breaking down games not just by genre by by purpose and audience is a good idea. One consequence of that definition is that the same game can change classification depending on how it is used. DDR wasn't built for anything except entertainment, but if you use it to lose weight, it's a serious game. I use Advance Wars on the DS for that purpose (combined with a recumbent bike). It works for me, but of course the game wasn't designed as an exergame. Creating a 3D matrix with play genre, audience, and purpose as axes might be intriguing. Or not - I'm writing this at an airport after a red-eye so forgive me if I'm rambling!

Gregg Tavares
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The Platformer genre (or play style) classification has always seemed loose to me. Mario and Sonic few will argue about, they are both platformers. What about Gunstar Hereos, Turrican, Contra? Are those shooters or platformers? They feel like they play nothing like Mario and Sonic. Their main gameplay is shooting and so most people call them shooters. Once they went 3d the problem got worse. Lots of people like to call the Jak series or Ratchet and Clank platformers but why? They are basically 3d versions of Turrican, not Mario because the #1 activity in those games is shooting. How is Ratchet and Clank at a very basic level any different from Tomb Raider or Uncharted other than Jak and R&C are cute? Yet, we find people want to classify by art style. I don't know what my point is except to there is no logic to what people will classify things as and that in any case classification is hard.