One of the biggest challenges when trying to make sense of games is subdividing the space meaningfully. In literature, the idea of genre serves a kind of taxonomic purpose: it lets critics, theorists, authors, and of course readers know what kinds of writing a book is likely to contain. Often genre serves a hierarchical purpose as well, as usually “fan fiction,” for example, is likely to be regarded as of significantly lesser merit and importance than, say, an epic poem.
Yet genre, however useful, is a cultural construct, and is not inherent to a book. While it is true that many writers purposefully right in a particular genre, that is only because our genres have become so well-accepted that it is often easier to gain acceptance within one than it is to forge a new one.
All of this can be said, also, of games. Genre is perhaps the single most defining feature of any game. No wonder that Steam, several months ago, introduced a tagging system which essentially allows players to let other players know the genre of various games. I don’t want to get into a debate as to whether user-generated tags are genres; some are (RPG) and some aren’t (Steam Trading Cards).* But needless to say the development of generic expectations is exactly the kind of project that the wisdom of the masses is actually good for, and so Steam’s list of tags is interesting as a repository of the most popular and common game genres (at least on PC).
* It is interesting to me, however, what gets tagged and what does not. “Female Protagonist” and “Open World” are both fairly common tags in Steam, but they categorize wildly different elements of a game’s design. Open world is, if not a genre, a pretty fundamental mechanic. The gender of the protagonist, on the other hand, may be of narrative importance, but is unlikely to significantly impact actual gameplay. Perhaps more to the point, it is interesting and perhaps a bit telling that the game community is so self-conscious about protagonist gender that the tag appears more than “Sandbox,” “RTS,” and “Retro,” in the Steam store, in part because it is applied – apparently more frequently than “choice of gender” or “character creation” or some such – to games like Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, in which the player can choose a gender.
The current list of tags sorted by frequency on Steam shows the most commonly applied generic labels to products in their store. They are as follows:
8) Free to Play
10) Massively Multiplayer
I’ll leave the list at 14, because while non-exhaustive, it gives a good sense of what the core game genres are. Action, Strategy, Adventure, RPG, Simulation, Racing, FPS, and Sports top the list, and while those genres sometimes overlap, each contains its own mechanical generic expectations. This list also includes a handful of non-genre qualities – namely “Indie,” “Casual,” “Free to Play,” and the number of player tags – which suggests to me that some of those qualities are as important to gamers as genre. These three tags in particular seem wrought with (debatable) meaning. What makes a game “casual,” exactly? Why does it matter if a game is “indie,” from a player or purchaser’s perspective?
The question I want to raise here is not about the specifics of each genre, though certainly thinking about what makes an RPG, for example, an RPG seems like an interesting and non-trivial question to me. Rather, I want to ask what it is that makes a genre a genre in the game world. In literature this is a complex question, as genre is determined by some strange intermixture of content, style, length, and even quality. In games, I’m tempted to say that genre is purely a matter of mechanics, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Sports, for example, as a genre, can designate strategic management games like Football Manager or more action-oriented titles like FIFA. So content has something to do with genre as well, though what content means in various game genres is itself an open question.
Perhaps playstyle is another factor in defining game genres. Playstyle is tied into and enabled by core mechanics, it seems to me, but in some sense it’s also separate. For example, many games contain “strategy” on some level, but strategy as a genre denotes a particular orientation towards strategic play. The difference between a World of Warcraft and a Warcraft is, in large part, a matter of the level at which strategic decisions are made and enacted (that is, in the former they’re made at the individual character level, whereas in the latter they’re made at an empire/base wide level). Yet the former is considered an RPG and the latter an RTS.
All of which is to say that genres are useful, but somewhat arbitrary. Which I think matters from both a design perspective and a critical/theoretical perspective. Designing a game – or trying to understand a game – purely through the lens of a particular genre is a mistake. Games may be able to be tagged and categorized into specific genres, but those genres, I think, should not be regarded as the defining features of a game. Rather, looking carefully at games means thinking about the kinds of interactions it enables or prevents, the kinds of mechanics it uses, the kinds of stories it tells, and the kinds of experiences players have (whether they are meant to or not). I suspect that, looking at enough games, our existing generic taxonomies are not sufficient to categorize and make sense of the game space.