Genre Names Are Weird
So, the latest Jimquisition is about the term “art games,” and why it is not a broken term and does not need to be done away with. He makes a good case, and I absolutely agree with him.
The main argument against the term is that calling some games “art games” implies that not all games are art, and that games not classified in that genre aren’t art. That isn’t really the case, as Jim points out.
It reminds me of a conversation I had at college a few years ago. I was sitting with some acquaintances who were talking enthusiastically about some fighting game. Eventually I said, “To be honest, I just don’t really like fighting games.”
I got a bunch of weird, surprised looks from them, but one person in particular seemed shocked. He said something like, “You don’t like any of them? Not even, like, Call of Duty?”
Then everyone gave him a weird look. One of us had to explain that the term “fighting game” doesn’t just refer to all games that involve fighting; they’re specifically games centered around a one-on-one brawl between two characters standing in an arena of sorts, probably with absurdly proportioned bodies and dressed in their underpants if they’re women.
Going off-track. Anyway, if what these people say is true, that calling some games “art games” implies that they’re the only games with any artistic merit, we’d also have to discredit “fighting games” as a term, because most games are about fighting.
I guess Jim’s video reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to talk about for awhile: video game genres have weird names, and sometimes the way we classify them is strange and contradictory.
Some genres are defined by their mechanics or how you play them. Fighting games, as I said, are games that have one-on-one brawls between two characters etc. Strategy games are games about controlling a veritable army with troops and headquarters, and that’s kind of a broad term used for a specific genre again, since you could argue that there’s plenty of strategy to be found in a competitive Street Fighter 4 match. Tactical shooters are shooters that employ realistic elements like iron sights, low damage threshold, and accuracy reduction from movement, which seems to imply that unrealistic run-and-gun shooters don’t involve tactics (they often do).
Then there are genres that aren’t defined by mechanics, but by the emotions they’re meant to elicit. Survival horror, for instance, is meant to engender fear and survival instinct from the player. This can be achieved using any game mechanics the designer chooses, which is why Sweet Home, Dead Space and Amnesia: The Dark Descent are all considered part of the same genre despite playing very differently from one another. There’s also the label of “party game,” which can refer to all sorts of games that are designed for casual multiplayer.
The other big argument against the label of Art Game is that it’s very vaguely defined. That also doesn’t really hold up, because there are other genre names we use that are also very difficult to provide a strict definition for.
The big one, of course, is the RPG, or Role-Playing Game. If you take it by its literal definition it means games that involve roleplaying. (That also requires us to choose a definition for “roleplaying,” because that can technically refer to any game in which you play a role, which would be basically every game ever.) In reality, it refers to games ranging from Diablo to Elder Scrolls to Final Fantasy to Mass Effect, which seem to have little in common with one another when you look at their actual mechanics.
Since the genre evolved from Dungeons & Dragons, ultimately it refers to any game that resembles D&D to any significant degree. Mass Effect doesn’t play anything like D&D, but it involves creating a character, and making choices that define your character’s personality (that’s that roleplaying we discussed earlier) and impact the world around you. Final Fantasy doesn’t have anything like that, but it does have turn-based combat built around commanding each member of party of adventurers. Diablo and Skyrim don’t have that, but they do have exploring, leveling-up, and looting epic gear.
I think the bottom line is that while genres can be hard to classify and sometimes the classifications sound strange or meaningless, that doesn’t discount them as labels. If we all know what I’m talking about when I say “fighting game” or “art game,” then the system is working. If a term becomes particularly outdated, it will probably die away overtime. (Remember how we all used to call first person shooters Doom clones?)
As a final point, I’d like to add that this phenomenon is by no means exclusive to video games. You can probably look up any number of music forums right now and find a heated debate about whether or not KoRn can be legitimately classified as a “metal” band.
And to anyone who’s curious, the Diablo 3 post is coming. It’s… taking awhile.