7 min read

The Origin of the Genres

A summary of the origins of video game genres.

Recently, my classmate John Billingsley and I got to present on the history of video games. Being such a huge subject, we decided to break it down into threads about game design's origins, trying to find where each genre in video games came from. Our results were a mix of the wildly unexpected with the should-have-seen-that-coming predictable, and below I have summarized the best of what we learned.

Adventure Games - one of the oldest genres in video games, these developed alongside the Choose Your Own Adventure book series in the 1970s with Hunt the Wumpus (1972) and Colossal Cave Adventure (1976). The true origin of the genre though came from Jorge Luis Borges' book, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941). This novel worked like a CYOA book with multiple stories out of order and no explanation of how to navigate it, but with a greater meaning by understanding the stories' relations to each other. Its structure made way for hypertext's later developments of navigating stories, which led to adventure games and interactive fiction as we have them today.

Art Games - largely now a response to Roger Ebert's claims that games could never be "Art" and a desire by the industry to mature its abilities expressively as a unique medium, art games mostly came about in the last ten years to begin pushing an industry that was artistically stagnating. It shares its origins with modernism and film, attempting to push the boundaries of a unique medium and challenge the many definitions of art (as well as the current cultural perception of the medium). Early experiments like Alien Garden (1982), Moondust (1983), and Takeshi's Challenge (1986) introduced the idea to games, even if the modern genre did not really start before about 2005.

Educational Games - this one is easy, since play has always been a part of learning. What's more interesting then are prior examples like Kindergarten, which Friedrich Frobel introduced in the early 1800s for learning through play, or Monopoly (1933) teaching the issues with an unrestricted market by having a clear monopoly be a fun objective rather than a terrible horror. Nursery rhymes like "Ring Around the Rosie" and "London Bridge is Falling Down" use the same concept of play to educate, but spread linear knowledge rather than teach skills. Oregon Trail (1971) introduced the video game genre, but now modern titles like Dragon Box (2013) are teaching through gameplay rather than context or setting.

Indie Games - mostly a return to the three person teams of 1970s and 80s game development, this genre has appeared recently as game development software has improved in quality and expanded in accessibility. The easier it is for people to make games, the more experimental games we will see, as it becomes more affordable to make games in one's free time and more worth the risk of trying something new. More accessible distribution methods also make this a more viable product form, and encourage more growth in this area.

FPSes - one of many military-in-origin genres, First Person Shooters mimic advanced forms of archery contests, gladiator battles, and even tag (Cops and Robbers, Laser Tag, etc). The development of this genre though actually warrants discussion more than the origins here, as it so tightly weaves with the development of all technology in games. Maze Wars (1974) introduced 3d perspective navigation, shooting players, and networked multiplayer. Doom (1993) then brought LAN mutliplayer, Quake (1996) with online multiplayer, Halo (2001) standardizing twin stick gameplay, and Halo 2 (2004) introducing console online standards. Without the processing power, controllers, and networking, FPSes would not be what they are today, and without these incredibly successful games, the consumer hardware would not continue to be bought. No genre has such a supporting and also dependent relationship with the technology as this one.

RPGs - probably the most stereotypical video game genre, Role Playing Games come almost entirely from Dungeons and Dragons (1974), but where did that come from? Chess in the 6th century is the oldest origin, a game for nobility planning war strategies (also the origin for strategy games), but it was not until the 1800s that wargames were introduced in Europe for more advanced tabletop military training. The early 1900s also brought games like Jury Box, which may have been one of the stronger origins for role playing elements in games, but it was not until the 1960s when war reenactment groups started adding creative interpretations, often with fantasy elements from the recently finished (1949) Lord of the Rings book trilogy. This led to the fantasy role playing that created Dungeons and Dragons, and RPGs as we know them today.

WRPG/JRPG - worth noting here too is that Western RPGs and Japanese RPGs quickly split, with WRPGs focusing on mechanics and building deep and complicated worlds, whereas Dragon Quest (1986) established a strong and successful set of mechanics, causing JRPG's attention for the next thirty years to shift mostly to storytelling.

MMOs - an expansion on MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons), Massively Multiplayer games came out of multiplayer WRPGs getting access to stronger and stronger networking technology. With old mainframe computers, college campuses and major technology centers could do the equivalent of MUDs and MMOs through many terminals connecting to the mainframe computer at once. Now with many server setups, we have the equivalent but with issues like sharding (where multiple servers are used when there are too many players for one server, but then two players may be unable to play together due to the server difference). This genre is entirely based on the strength of networking technologies, and will continue to grow with our infrastructure.

Strategy Games - also came from the same origins as RPGs, but instead of following Dungeons and Dragons, originated from H.G. Wells Little Wars (1913) and later tabletop wargames like Warhammer Fantasy Battle (1983). Most interesting about this is the relationship between miniatures and tabletop strategy games, where wargames came first, but then toy soldiers came later in an unrelated form for use in miniature models. This led to different rules originated for each, with wargames having more of a focus on strategy, and toy soldiers being given rules to give the soldiers more life. As the manufacturing prices of the miniatures went down, so then did the accessibility and the popularity of these games rise.

Music Games - these largely came from Simon (1978), also by Ralph Baer (creator of the first game console), which featured rhythmic memorization and repetition patterns. Parappa the Rapper (1996) later used the similar gameplay with song and story added.

Casual Games - a recent market, this genre largely came out of the accessibility of video game hardware and software to the average consumer. Whether through Facebook as a regular website sending notifications about gameplay, the Wii remote eliminating the need to learn any buttons, or capacitive touch screens in everyones' pockets making the consumer inherently an owner of a gaming device, breaking down barriers to play is always the cause of revival of this genre.

Fighting Games - with their origins in duels and hand to hand combat, fighting games mostly just act like sports games, attempting to mimic a real world sport (sometimes with fantasy elements). The strength in this genre comes from the sense of community around these games, with the Fighting Game Community developing to be one of the strongest around any genre in the industry, but that falls outside the scope of this discussion. The loyalty and investments absolutely mirror that of real world sports, but it is probably best suited for a post on the origin of game audiences instead of gameplay genres.

Ultimately, almost all of these genres originated independently, but many of them share common backgrounds. Between technology opening new possibilities, fantasy worlds inspiring play, or external discussions entering the world of games, games share a wonderfully rich background even before they became video games, and I hope that means only the best for where they will go next.


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