Meditations on Genre: Does interactivity change how we label our games?
We have all had that conversation when you first meet another person who is also into video games as much as you are; “What do you play?” you might ask, or “What kind of games are you into?” And we all have our favourite genres. Just telling someone you play MOBAs or FPS helps to give a great deal of context to how you like to engage with your hobby. For example, it might reveal that you are a filthy, filthy DOTA 2 player.
But how often does someone turn to you and say “I am really into crime fiction” or they express their fetish for exploring a post-apocalyptic world. The setting, narrative and thematic elements of games are often pushed to the background when discussing genre, or attempting to categorise our favourites. This is so prevalent that tags arise on Steam to identify “story driven” or “story rich” games. The question I ask is why is this case?
One of the simplest answers to this question is the fact that video games as a medium are not always concerned with narrative in the same sense that other linear and non-interactive media is. It becomes hard to categorise titles like Tetris and League of Legends in a way that allows for strict comparisons to pre-existing media.
Some even argue that using genre definitions from existing mediums is incorrect and over-simplifies the nature of digital games. Thomas H. Apperley argues that “The established genres of video games, while being substantially different from literary or filmic genres, still emphasize visual and auditory representation over any notion of interactivity.” He argues that we need to look beyond “video game aesthetic borrowing from cinema and television” and look to adopt an ‘ergodic’ approach towards understanding them. Apperley is referring to the works of Espen Aarseth here, who coined the term ‘ergodic’ to describe the interaction of reader with ‘cybertext’ (in this case, video game) by actually interacting in a way that involves effort beyond that of simply reading; essential the ability to choose a path and make a choice.
Whilst this unique element of interactive media like video games is obvious, I can see the need for academic game studies to attempt to reposition a focus on to it. There seems to be an explicit disconnect in the way games are perceived and categorised.
We are obsessed with defining, categorising and discussing video games in terms of their gameplay features – to the extent that Just Cause and Saints Row are both popularly described as being within the same genre of ‘open world action adventure’. This is hardly fair in terms of describing these games on a thematic or narrative level – it is overtly reductive and simplistic.
There is a difficulty in categorising video games that comes from their relatively new status as a medium, and their heavy reliance upon codes and conventions of the media that came before it.
On the one hand, here I am suggesting we look at the narrative, thematic and iconographical elements of the game to position them within wider literary or artistic schools of thought. But on the other hand this ignores the very nature of video games as interactive experiences and the ‘ergodic’ nature of interactive fiction.
This simplified way of categorising games is perfectly fine in understanding the core gameplay of a title. In many ways it functions as an easily digestible discourse between consumer and producer – a way to market a product or to find similar titles to those you have enjoyed previously. This function is a necessity within the industries surrounding cinema and video games, and shouldn’t be ignored.
However, for those of us concerned with the medium as potential art, the stories being told and the themes explored, it isn’t helpful. Red Dead Redemption may be a third-person shooter with similar systems and mechanics to that of Saints Row, but on a thematic level its concerns with the death of the west and the romanticised notion of the cowboy place it within a the genre of post (or anti) Western. The problem comes in the fact that describing it as simply a Western, or simply a Third Person Shooter are both extremely vague and potentially misleading. The simple answer would be to reframe the dialogue to talk about a differentiated ‘gameplay genre’ and ‘narrative genre’. Gameplay would look to tell us about the ergodic elements of the experience, whilst narrative genre would perhaps focus on the thematic, plot and iconographical elements of already established film and literary genres. The interplay between both genres can be a point of discussion in many ways, such as the ‘tank-controls’ of earlier Resident Evil being an element of the game’s ergodicity that strongly supports the horror themes and opressive atmosphere of its narrative genre.
This was in many ways suggested by Geoff King and Tanya Kzywinska, who suggested that a more academic discussion of video games would focus on four levels of description – genre, mode, platform and milieu. If you want a succinct evaluation of this methodology, I advise you read Apperley’s ‘Genre and Game Studies: Toward a Critical Approach to Video Game Genres’.
Apperley further criticises the genres used to define video games as simply “loose aesthetic clusters based around video games’ aesthetic linkage to prior media forms”. He explains that this is simply a form of ‘remediation’, as defined by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin as “the formal logic by which new media refashions prior media forms”.
Of course, there are games that are almost impossible to compare to pre-existing media from other formats – the traditional puzzle game ala Tetris is a prime example. But aside from these cases, the majority of video games can and should be defined by their links to previous mediums and genres. The very nature of video games as an audio visual medium that can explore stories and experiences over extended periods of time (much like a TV serial, or novel) means that it makes use of codes, conventions and ideas already established by a rich inter-contextual history of texts that came before it. Why would we want to disconnect video games as a medium from this heritage when it helps us to understand titles and extract meaning from them? The ergodic aspects of the game experience does not distract from the codes and conventions of literary genres, much in the same way the visual nature of cinema or theatre does not remove a production of Hamlet from the great literary tradition of the Shakespearian Tragedy. That said, I would love to see a mature attempt at such a genre within video games.
There is an argument put forward by Bolter and Grusin (although they focus explicitly on virtual reality and ‘digital technology’) that video games do present a unique mode of communication in that we are seeking immersion beyond that of traditional art forms. From paintings to television, earlier media seeks to engage its audience through a linear perspective, one that can be shaped and moulded by artist in a far more stricter sense. In spite of the non-linear and ergodic nature of ‘gameplay’ or ‘interaction’ it doesn’t stop video games borrowing liberally from pre-existing methods of meaning creation. In fact, digital games present us with a medium in which aspects of disciplines like photography, architecture, literature, film and music (amongst others) are brought together in one cohesive packaged with huge scope for possibility. For this reason we can’t exclusively discuss just ergodic and non-ergodic elements when looking to define genre – we must look at it as a whole.
Now if people could stop describing Final Fantasy as an RPG, I would be a lot happier.