The argument over whether video games are art or not is pretty much over: they are. Anyone who disagrees at this point is mostly trying to be contrarian. That said, we are still refining our skills and vocabulary for critiquing games, and more rapidly than ever. This very blog uses an intersectional feminist/social justice framing when we look at video games, and even that is evolving. However, there is a fairly strong canon of social justice literature and discussion that we can draw from to observe media. Video games are difficult in that they are still a young medium, and one thing we are still working on is genre.
Saying that video games struggle with genre may sound weird at first, but we wrestle with this dilemma anytime we try describing a game to a non-game-playing audience. To someone like me who is very invested in the medium, the term JRPG means something very specific: I imagine some sort of turn-based combat, use of anime tropes, a heavy focus on story, and at least forty hours of game. To an outsider, that might not indicate anything other than maybe faint images of Final Fantasy, if that. As another thought experiment, think about what games could be considered First Person Shooters; games that put you a in first-person perspective to shoot a weapon. So offhand, we might imagine Call of Duty, Doom, Overwatch, and Portal. If you have heard of any of these games, you might already see an issue. Call of Duty features military tropes, nationalism, and realism. Doom has you killing demons on Mars and fast-paced action. Overwatch is a futuristic setting with some characters rarely (or never) firing a gun. Lastly, Portal doesn’t have you firing any offensive weapon at all! Your character does kind of engage in combat, but only by manipulating space time, and only in self defense. “First Person Shooter” may not encapsulate these experiences.
How does this happen? In movies, for example, the genre is based on the theme and plot. They have comedy, horror, and action as some of the major categories, but there are also sub-genres such as romantic comedy, or slasher horror, or spy action. Video games tend to describe their genre in terms of mechanics and gameplay. Again, we have First Person Shooter, but we also have Platformer, Action-Adventure, and Puzzle, for some quick examples. These are very vague and don’t get us anywhere because they don’t differentiate the specifics of what is actually going on in each experience. Since they all fall into the same grouping, it’s harder to critique the specifics of each. For example, it would be difficult to use the same terminology to discuss Uncharted as you would Grand Theft Auto. Wikipedia has them both as Action-Adventure, but if you’ve played either, you know they’re worlds apart.
There are a few problems here. When we lump everything into broad genres, we might apply unfair critique to games, which ultimately makes consumer understanding more strained. One hallmark of the GTA games is that the world seems to be alive, even when you aren’t directly interacting with it. The non-playable background characters get into conversations, and may even commit crimes and be accosted by police, and those things have nothing to do with you. This is a nice feature and makes the world feel more alive. In that vein, should every “Action-Adventure” game have that level of background detail? They probably shouldn’t. Uncharted games are often defined by their “cinematic” feel with scripted and heavily planned events. If too many organic interactions like the GTA non-players occurred in the Uncharted games, the general feel could be tainted. So, if that is one of our criteria for judging those type of games, Uncharted would definitely seem like a lesser game, which isn’t fair, especially considering the Uncharted series has won multiple Game of the Year awards including “Best Action/Adventure” game. This sort of reductive genre description is how we got the derogatory term “Walking Simulator” for games that are heavily story-based with little to no combat. Games like Gone Home that are in the first person perspective tend to be judged according to what other first person perspective games offer, which is typically combat. By that metric, these story-based, exploration games are a failure, since they don’t contain solid combat. But this metric is wrong.
The poor describing of genre also leads to bad recommendations. I refer to my previous example of Uncharted versus Grand Theft Auto. Liking one definitely will not translate into liking the other. People who like Tetris won’t necessarily like Candy Crush, and so on. As genres stand now, someone who is trying to get into more games cannot simply go along with genre distinctions for the reasons listed above. This issue makes the expansion of the industry more difficult both from a profit standpoint, but also a consumer and critic standpoint. This becomes even more important when you remember that a much larger financial investment is required to get into many high-end games as opposed to various TV shows, a bad recommendation has the potential to sour someone on video games as a whole.
Lastly, the way we talk about video game genres is very insular and only slows down expansion of the medium. Two of my favorite games of the last two years have been Splatoon and Overwatch, and one of the reasons I liked each was due to their relative accessibility to newcomers and diverse audiences. But if the characters and fandoms aren’t enough to pull people in, the mechanic description is tough. You could refer to each as a class-centric, team-based, objective-driven shooter. Splatoon was third person with a bit more focus on movement strategy, but regardless, that description may as well be another language to someone who isn’t immersed in games. And this is a problem. We don’t have vocabulary, yet, to pass on those ideals to non-gamers, and many people would understandably just not bother putting in the time to get it.
The problem of an insular community can be fixed if we focus more attention on describing our games correctly. There are already great websites describing video games in more academic and critical ways, but these sites still feel aimed at the in-crowd. Which, to a degree, is fine while we’re still furnishing the home, but onlookers see the house and want to visit. We have to put a more concerted effort in describing our games (particularly genres) in a way that makes sense to more than just the people who have put the hundreds of hours in already. And while it will be useful to have more user-friendly, specifically defined mechanic genres, we should not shy away from adding story and aesthetic elements to our descriptions. If you look at the Rockstar titles Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, they are both action-oriented, third-person, open world, adventure games. However, the former is usually a crime drama in an increasingly modern city, while the latter is based on the Old West. This not-so-subtle distinction could absolutely matter to a consumer or critic. Overall, games share a lot of similarities with other artistic media, and we should consider some of the more evolved styles of discussion they are using.
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