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Redefining Genre

One aspect of games that intimidates non-gamers is how we define our genres. Let's look at why this is a problem and how we can fix it in the long run. I also use examples from books, movies, and stage productions to compare and contrast genre systems.

What separates games from other media is their interactivity.  So to some degree, it makes a fair amount of sense that our genres would be divided by various types of interaction.

Games which require quick-thinking and reflexes are typically labeled Action games; games that require you to control multiple units in battle simulations are called Strategy games; games that require you to micromanage individuals, either singularly or in groups of up to around five or so, and pay attention to intricate statistics, are often called RPGs; and so on.

Such genre divisions help because certain types of mechanics appeal to certain target audiences, and the consumer wants to know what kinds of mechanics to expect ahead of time.

We also see genres mixing and matching these days, with Action-Adventures, and more recently FPS-RPGs, despite how far apart such demographics are traditionally thought to be.

We've also split our genres down with fine granularity.  I can't name too many games that fall under the genre Vehicular Combat, but we have it to differentiate them from Racing games, which look similar at a glance.  Action games were some of the first games to emerge, and perhaps have the most sub-genres and cross-genres there than anywhere.

But such distinctions only help to a point.  After awhile, we began adding games by subject matter, rather than mechanics, such as Sports -- simulations of the real life activities, which can have a wide variety of mechanics.

Next came games based on emotions, and we only have one: Survival-Horror.  The term "Survival" suggests certain mechanical aspects of the genre, but "Horror" clearly states what you are expected to feel.

Now I want to jump back for a moment and discuss movies, our closest relative.  Movies divide genres by two things:  the setting (Sci-Fi, Western) and the emotion (Comedy, Romance, Horror).  We also have Action and Adventure movies, but these both indicate you are intended to have a feeling of awe while watching a spectacle, so they can be grouped with the emotive genres.

When movies first came out, there wasn't much in the way of genre.  There were motion pictures.  Soon, the talkies appeared.  Then color came in.  Movies were separated by technology for a short time, before finally reclassifying into the genres we know.  Eventually, all movies had sound, and most movies were in color.

Now we're slightly bringing back the technological idea with 3D, since it is largely a gimmick (certainly in the 50's and 80's, but we won't know if it stays a gimmick in these 2010's).  However, this makes a fair amount of sense, as it serves as a warning to viewers who get sick from watching 3D movies.

In some ways, the same can be said for games.  My father gets sick playing FPSs, but is fine playing Top-Down Strategy games.  But with movies, however, the technology is not the main thrust of the experience.

Now if we take a look at fiction literature, we see a similar grouping to movies:  setting (Sci-Fi, Fantasy) and emotion (Humor, Horror, Romance), and occasionally plot (Detective, Courtroom Drama).

Now, the stage, believe it or not, is the closest to a games-style classification system.  The stage has plays, musicals, operas, and ballet.  These are conventions of the stage which appeal to certain people.  I get bored of ballet, but I love a good musical or opera.  These conventions of stage are analogous to mechanics in games.  Below those genres, stage productions can be divided further into dramas or comedies.  Games' only subgenre of that type, again, is Survival-Horror.

It is important to note these classification models to see how we can improve ours.  Stage productions in the first place focus on a smaller segment of the population (compare the number of Americans who have seen a play in the last year versus a movie).  So following their model is not a key to popularity, surely.

With movies, people quickly got over the technology of it, and so even though Clerks is in black and white, we don't seem to care.  But never did the conventions of movie-making ever become a class of genres.  We don't watch Cloverfield because it's a shaky-cam movie.  No movie is advertised as having establishing shots, pans, zooms, jump-cuts, fade-outs, or any other camera or post-production trick that makes movie-making a separate art form from others.  The cinematography of a movie is analogous to game mechanics.  And cinematography is something that goes unseen when the audience is busy paying attention to the story.

Similarly, a novelist's style (his or her mechanics) fades away if done well, because a reader gets so sunk into the book that they don't even realize they're reading anymore.

When a novelist has a bad style, you get sucked out.  When a movie has bad cinematography, you get sucked out.  The best of these book and movie mechanics go unnoticed.

Similarly, we should be thinking about how to make game mechanics so intuitive that they fade away altogether and we forget we are playing games.  Players who are deep into a game genre do this simply by getting used to the mechanics enough to grok them, but new players find a barrier of entry.

I think games, in general, ought to find ways to accommodate all players so that the mechanics are no longer an issue.  This is not to say we shouldn't have hardcore games, of course, but hardcore games will fade away in the long run if we don't make them more accessible.

One way of doing this is to make games with hardcore genre mechanics for children, so they grow into the mechanics.  But I think there are better options.

Feeding mechanics into games a bit at a time is a better way.  I can imagine an FPS where you don't fire a gun in the first few levels, because you're busy learning so many other important FPS mechanics first, like basic navigation, which is complex to a non-gamer.

Once we get a sort of standard into game tutorials, then any genre, even yet-uninvented genres, will come easily to everyone, ending the barrier of entry that prevents games from being as popular with everyone as movies.

Then, we can start to rethink genres, because thinking by mechanics will become unnecessary, and people will buy games because of the emotional content in it.  They will by a Horror game, whether it's an FPS or an Adventure game, without caring so much, just wanting a good fright.  Housewives will by Romance RPGs, and teens will buy Comedy Puzzle games.  We will then drop the notion of "RPG" and "Puzzle," and games will reach the status of movies in our culture.

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