Genre in Video Games (and Why We don’t Talk [more] about it )

This is my tenth monthly Patch Wednesday post (this one a bit out of band) where I discuss a question about video games that I think is unanswered, unexplored, or not posed yet. I will propose my own tentative ideas and invite comments. 

The series is called Patch Wednesday to mark the sometimes ragtag and improvised character of video game studies.

[Note 2014-12-19: From the feedback on this post, it became clear that my general intuition (“there is surprisingly little work on video game genre”) is not universally shared.

So I should explain why I believe this is the case. If we compare game studies to the history of genre work in literature or film studies, there are whole classes of academic output that game studies should have now, had  genre played the same role in our field (correct me if I am missing some event or publication):

  1. Several monographs on video game genre
  2. Several conferences on the subject
  3. Several journal issues
  4. Conference keynotes on genre
  5. Academic feuds based on genre.

These seem to be MIA, hence my desire to hypothesize about the different role of genre in game studies.]


Someone asked me the other day: couldn’t you use the concept of genre for analyzing video games, or for thinking about video game history?

Let us ask this in the general: why is genre such a neglected concept in the study and discussion of video games?

The standard argument for genre is something like this: genre plays an integral role in the design, promotion and consumption of video games. We design a video game as an adventure game, a game is promoted as an adventure game, and as players we see a game as an instance of The Adventure Game, and this concretely shapes our expectations and behavior.

So why is there so little discussion of genre in game studies?

I think the short answer is this: Though video game genres are volatile and changing like all genres are, video game genres just change at a faster rate. And more importantly, video game genres lack some of the important touchstones that have made genre such an interesting topic elsewhere. Examples follow.

There is some discussion of video game genre, of course (see [1] [2] [3] [6] and much more), but I think it is safe to say that genre does not figure very prominently in the study of games or in game design discussion. Genre just tends to take a back seat to discussion of smaller units such as design patterns or mechanics. Why is that?

Are video game genres more volatile than other genres?

One simple explanation is that video game genres change very quickly and hence form little basis on which we can actually make any analysis, apart from noting how quickly video game genres change.

Wait, you may say: but genres in all art forms are always in flux!

This is true, but in different ways. Consider Tzvetan Todorov’s 1976 article on The Origin of Genres, where he discusses and rejects the sentiment that genres used to exist, but have been splintered and made irrelevant today.[4]

Everyone knows that they existed in the good old days of the classics – ballads, odes, sonnets, tragedies, and comedies – but today? Even the genres of the nineteenth century (though not altogether genres to our way of thinking) – poetry, the novel – seem to be disintegrating in our era, at least in the literature “that counts.”

Certainly, we can find a similar sentiment expressed about video game genres: that they are “a mess” [3]. But what is different is that there is no “good old days” of stable genres to refer to. There is no set of classical genres from some early time before genres splintered. (This may be an imagined situation in literature anyway, but it is a belief that exists.)

Did genres always exist?

A parallel observation from Todorov notes that genres have always existed:

There has never been a literature without genres; it is a system in continual transformation, and the question of origins cannot be disassociated, historically, from the field of the genres themselves. Chronologically, there is no “before genres.”

Again we can say that this argument does not work for video games. The early history of video games (1960-1980 perhaps) is rather one of nearly complete invention outside genre labels. So there is little sense of any stable past that has been replaced by a current “mess”; video game genres rather started out messy, and in living memory too.

The politics of genre

At the same time, we can consider more modern genre theory such as that of Jason Mittell [5], who gives many great examples of the political and economic stakes in genre discussions in television about music videos (Michael Jackson’s videos rejected by MTV ostensibly because they were too long), cartoons (which stopped being considered relevant for adults).

Bringing this to video games, it is clear that genre figures only weakly in the bigger battles and controversies we have had. Video games controversies rather concern questions of whether a game is “casual”, “indie”, or – always – whether something is a “real game.” And none of these are genres in any meaningful sense. Hence the interesting politics in games appear to rather take place in broader and orthogonal categories – “game”, “casual”, “indie”.

The object of study

This, I think, is why video game studies, and discussions, are generally more preoccupied with either smaller units such as design patterns and mechanics, or with the very big definitional questions.

The design pattern/mechanic angle is also so popular because (video) games really do consist of segmented units that can be replaced independently by other patterns. For example: the player’s energy level really is just a number, and thus any pattern or mechanic that can output a number can be brought to bear on the player’s energy level.

Hence video game genres are quite openly promiscuous about borrowing patterns and mechanics, with (say) infinite runner games suddenly borrowing inventories and character stats from role-playing games in order to facilitate microtransactions. And so on. Therefore the interest in these smaller units.

This is not to say that video game genre should not be studied more, just that these are the reasons why genre has not been the first choice for analyzing video games, or for considering developer or player expectations.


[1] Greg Costikyan, Game Styles, Innovation, and New Audiences: An Historical View, 2005,

[2] Thomas H. Apperley, “Genre and Game Studies: Toward a Critical Approach to Video Game Genres,” Simulation & Gaming 37, no. 1 (2006): 6–23.

[3] Dominic Arsenault, “Video Game Genre, Evolution and Innovation,” Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture 3, no. 2 (2009),

[4] Tzvetan Todorov, “The Origin of Genres,” trans. Richard M. Berrong, New Literary History 8, no. 1 (October 1, 1976): 159–70, doi:10.2307/468619.

[5] Jason Mittell, Genre and Television (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[6] Lessard, Jonathan. “Game Genres and High-Level Design Pattern Formations.” In Proceedings of the 2014 Foundations of Digital Games Conference. Florida, 2014.

New issue of Eludamos: Vol 8, No 1

New issue of Eludamos: Vol 8, No 1, special issue on Digital Seriality.

Apple “mistakenly” censors Papers, Please.


According to Polygon, Apple “mistakenly” censored the game Papers, Please over its optional nudity.

I believe this is misleading. Apple has deliberately set up a vague but very prude system for preventing games (and apps) from covering anything remotely “controversial”.

Their playbook then states that they should declare”oops” whenever the media storm is sufficiently strong. It is completely dishonest for Apple to claim that this was a mistake.

The Four Theories of Fun

This is my ninth monthly Patch Wednesday post where I discuss a question about video games that I think is unanswered, unexplored, or not posed yet. I will propose my own tentative ideas and invite comments. 

The series is called Patch Wednesday to mark the sometimes ragtag and improvised character of video game studies.

I have come to think that there are four main theories of “fun”, or at least experience in video games. They are: Rules, Fiction, Social and Feel. When I teach game studies classes, I usually invite students to mention their favorite game and then discuss which of the categories it falls under. The categories are not exclusive, but they have their own favorite game examples.

Here they are:

1) Rules

This is still the primordial theory of games. According to this theory, (video) games are by definition (or essentially) rule-based structures, and the player’s experience hinges on rules that create interesting mental challenges for the player. This theory tends to claim that it has identified something unique about games.

It can of course then be extended from the description to the prescriptive, and claim that because games are defined by the presence of rules, all games  should be centered on rules, with all other possible design elements (say, Fiction) being negative agents that dilute the purity of a game.

This theory has typically been promoted by game designers and people wishing to identify games as a unique art form. It is also very hard to imagine teaching video game design without it.

Favorite example: Go, StarCraft, Tetris.

2) Fiction

Another classic, this theory has some backing from especially the humanities, and argues that video games first and foremost are about experiencing, and possibly feeling immersed in, stories and fictions. This theory is particularly useful when we think about games in a cross-media perspective.

This theory has typically been promoted by literary and film scholars.

Favorite game examples: Final FantasyUncharted, BioShock.

3) Social

This is a slightly different theory in that it doesn’t invoke the game’s content, but the social sphere around it. The paradigmatic game genre for this theory is currently MMOs. And this is sensible as an explanation of why many players keep returning to this type of game.

The social theory also has a stronger version in which the social sphere isn’t simply something around the game, but it defines or is the game, both for multi- and single player games. (Mikael Jakobsson and Anne Mette Thorhauge are probably the main proponents of this strong version.)

Favorite game examples: World of WarcraftDungeons & DragonsWii Sports.

4) Feel

feel - swing

Feel is the newer theory, and it is only really articulated Steve Swink’s book on Game Feel. Here, video games are seen as centered on the immediate sub-second experience on controlling something and receiving audio and visual feedback. This is the theory for discussing game controls, graphics and sound. (Yes, you could argue for graphics as a separate theory, but let’s just put it here).

It is also a good theory for teaching how game design often starts with narrowing down a central core mechanic which feels good as in the picture, and how designers must then add context around the core mechanic for it to remain interesting.

I suspect feel hasn’t been popular in media or literature departments because it talks about an experience which is very hard to verbalize, and hard to connect to existing theories. (Though Donald Norman’s Emotional Design has some family semblance).

Favorite game examples: Super Mario BrosSuper Mario BrosSuper Mario Bros.

The meaning of “is”

The question of course is what we mean when we say that a video game is anything in particular. As always, there is a fine line between:

  1. Proposing a particular description (“feel is one way to look at it”).
  2. Insisting on a particular description (“to ignore the social is to ignore the lived experience of players”).
  3. Insisting in having identified an essential component of video games (“without rules, there is no game”). (Though the rigid designator comes up here: it just is easier to claim a central position for rules than for, say, 3d graphics).
  4. Insisting that all video games should be made with a particular theory in mind.

There are other theories, of course, but I think these are the four dominant ones at the moment, November 2014.

PS. This 4-part list does not replace the (cough) ludology-narratology debate or the rules/fiction distinction in Half-Real. The rules/fiction distinction is about how the players conceptualize the game that they encounter. Feel and Social are theories about other aspects of game-playing.


ToDiGRA, vol 3, issue 1 on “Physical and Digital in Games and Play”.

This is a special issue on “Physical and Digital in Games and Play”. The issue editors are Frans Mäyrä, Katriina Heljakka, and Anu Seisto.  A big thanks to the issue editors and all authors for your work!


  • Frans Mäyrä, Katriina Heljakka, Anu Seisto: Editors’ Introduction to the Special Issue
  • Stephanie de Smale: Building Material: Exploring Playfulness of 3D Printers
  • Paul Coulton, Dan Burnett, Adrian Gradinar, David Gullick, Emma Murphy:  Game Design in an Internet of Things
  • Mark Lochrie: From the board to the streets: a case study of Local Property Trader
  • Frederika A Eilers: SimCity and the Creative Class: Place, Urban Planning and the Pursuit of Happiness
  • Inger Ekman: “That’s not a secure area”– physical-digital sound links in commercial locative games
  • Karl Bergström, Staffan Björk: The Case for Computer-Augmented Games
  • Marcus Carter: The Roll of the Dice in Warhammer 40,000
Transactions of the Digital Games Research Association (ToDIGRA) is a quarterly, international, open access, refereed, multidisciplinary journal dedicated to research on and practice in all aspects of games. ToDIGRA is published in print as well as electronically. ToDIGRA does not currently accept unsolicited submissions. Submissions must be directed towards a specific call for paper and conform to the specific focus of that call.

Common practice periods: When games are stable

This is my eighth monthly Patch Wednesday post where I discuss a question about video games that I think is unanswered, unexplored, or not posed yet. I will propose my own tentative ideas and invite comments. 

The series is called Patch Wednesday to mark the sometimes ragtag and improvised character of video game studies.

It is easy, and probably common, to think of video game history as a series of innovations that propel video games “forward”, allowing for new experiences and expressions. (Not that anyone has written such a history in any significant detail.)

But what about in between? There are periods of time where, as I like to say, we know what video games are.

Four voices
When I took music classes in high school, I learned to do 4-voice arrangements of church hymns according a set of rules for harmony and voicing. Though it has later come in handy in weird ways, I can’t say that I appreciated learning those rules at the time, as it was rules about music that I did not care much for in the first place. In music theory, what I learned relates to the common practice period, ca 1600-1900, which is considered a stable period with certain rules about harmony, well-known chords and so on. One of the famous rules of the period is that two voices/instruments cannot follow each other in octave or fifth intervals. This was strange to me as I listened to much music, say Led Zeppelin, which often has the bass and the guitar playing riffs in unison.

I think I would have appreciated the lessons much more if I’d understood that the rules were a description of a particular musical style, and that all musical styles have sets of rules for what can and cannot be done.

Common practice periods in video games
And so it seems that video games have similar “common practice periods”, where video games, or at least certain video game genres, follow a set of rules. For example, the shooter genre is still in a common practice period where we expect a new game to contain both a single and multiplayer game, with the single-player game lasting between 10 and 30 hours for story-heavy games, and <10 hours for multiplayer-focused games. In addition, we expect such games to be promoted on ever “better” graphics, allow us to shoot firearms, collect more of them, manage ammunition, and so on.

In a bigger perspective, another common period was from 1980 to 2005 where we knew that video games were sold in boxes, aimed at a particular demographic, and (also) promoted on “better” graphics.

Does it follow that changing distribution models have bigger influence on the stability of game design than technology does?

And we can keep zooming out: When I was writing my game definition I dealt with the issue of change by not claiming that I had defined everything called games for all time, but rather that I was identifying a particular “classic game model” that had been dominant for several thousand years.

Institutions behind common practice
Going back to music, periods of stability may often have some institutionalized codification where rules are followed not only by observation, but may be explicitly taught to practitioners, and sometimes enforced. Video game educations and game design books can then also serve to define and maintain a period of common practice, though I suspect that many contemporary video game educations are more fascinated with breaking the rules than with maintaining them. Though that can become a type of common practice by itself, a “tyranny of pixelated platformers”.

That would be another type of history to write, one where we examine what it was that made certain periods of video game history so stable.

Surveillance, Gaming and Play special issue

Special issue of Surveillance & Society on Surveillance, Gaming and Play.

Surveillance, Gaming and Play

edited by Jennifer R. Whitson and Bart Simon

Table of Contents


Game Studies meets Surveillance Studies at the Edge of Digital Culture: An Introduction to a special issue on Surveillance, Games and Play PDF
Jennifer R. Whitson, Bart Simon 309-319


Surveillant Assemblages of Governance in Massively Multiplayer Online Games: A Comparative Analysis PDF
Aphra Kerr, Stefano De Paoli, Max Keatinge 320-336
Surveillance and Community: Language Policing and Empowerment in a World of Warcraft Guild PDF
Lauren B. Collister 337-348
Getting Played: Gamification and the Rise of Algorithmic Surveillance PDF
Casey O’Donnell 349-359
Games of Drones: The Uneasy Future of the Soldier-Hero in Call of Duty: Black Ops II PDF
Carrie Elizabeth Andersen 360-376
Creative Misuse as Resistance: Surveillance, Mobile Technologies, and Locative Games PDF
Jason Farman 377-388
The Gift that Keeps on Giving: Google, Ingress, and the Gift of Surveillance PDF
Nathan Hulsey, Joshua Reeves 389-400
‘I had no credit to ring you back': Children’s strategies of negotiation and resistance to parental surveillance via mobile phones PDF
Carol Margaret Barron 401-413
Gaming Privacy: a Canadian case study of a children’s co-created privacy literacy game PDF
Kate Raynes-Goldie, Matthew Allen 414-426


Enclosures at Play: Surveillance in the Code and Culture of Videogames PDF
Alex Dean Cybulski 427-432
Reporting From the Snooping Trenches: Changes in Attitudes and Perceptions Towards Behavior Tracking in Digital Games PDF
Alessandro Canossa 433-436
Watching Us Play: Postures and Platforms of Live Streaming PDF
Austin Walker 437-442
Diverting and diverted glances at cameras: playful and tactical approaches to surveillance studies PDF
Justine Gangneux 443-447

Research Notes

Playdates with Big Brother: Playfully Repurposing Surveillance Cameras to Build Communities PDF
Holly Robbins, Katherine Isbister 448-458

Artistic Presentations

Surveillance Chess PDF
!Mediengruppe Bitnik 459-465

Book Reviews

Review of Björklund and Svenonius’ Video Surveillance and Social Control in a Comparative Perspective PDF
Catarina Frois 466-467
Review of Lianos’ The New Social Control: The Institutional Web, Normativity and the Social Bond PDF
William G. Staples 468-470

Are Game Experiments Apolitical? Avant-garde and Magic Realism.

This is my seventh monthly Patch Wednesday post where I discuss a question about video games that I think is unanswered, unexplored, or not posed yet. I will propose my own tentative ideas and invite comments. 

The series is called Patch Wednesday to mark the sometimes ragtag and improvised character of video game studies.


Here is a figure from Brian Schrank’s interesting new book Avant-garde Videogames. In the book, Schrank discusses various types of art-world avant-garde, and examines how they correspond to experimental video games.

Schrank structures the discussion around two axes of radical-complicit and political-formal. (I am personally placed in the bottom-right mainstream formal and complicit quadrant, but that’s OK.) He acknowledges the simplicity of this model and has many nuanced points and observations.

But let me just look at the political-formal axis. It represents video games, and art, such that a video game is either political or it is a formal experiment. Art historians can talk about this question at great length, but it is certainly an idea that was also expressed in 1940’ies denunciations of experimental, formalist, art. In that case, a powerful political entity felt threatened by experimental art and therefore decreed that artists should simply stop experimenting and rather only express established ideas in well-known form. And of course, the well-worn argument about art for art’s sake – that art should be judged on its own terms outside politics – sets up a similar opposition between the political and the formal experiment.

But is this really what we see in video games? Consider any of the high-profile political video game such as Howling Dogs, Dys4ia, Unmanned, September 12th, Cart LifeAll of these games are highly experimental in form and political. In fact, it is clear that their political messages are expressed through their experimental form. And it seems the formal-political distinction breaks down in most of the obvious examples of political video games.

Fortunately, there is an alternative view which has much more explanatory power. Here is Salman Rushdie reviewing Gabriel Garcia Márquez’ novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Rushdie says that magical realism (where supernatural events naturally happen in seemingly realist settings) is a way of expressing experiences that cannot be expressed through established more forms such as plain naturalism. The formal experiment is necessary in order to express political ideas and overlooked experienced:

El realismo magical, magic realism, at least as practised by Márquez, is a development out of Surrealism that expresses a genuinely ‘Third World’ consciousness. It deals with what Naipaul has called ‘half-made’ societies, in which the impossibly old struggles against the appallingly new, in which public corruptions and private anguishes are somehow more garish and extreme than they ever get in the so-called ‘North’, where centuries of wealth and power have formed thick layers over the surface of what’s really going on. In the works of Márquez, as in the world he describes, impossible things happen constantly, and quite plausibly, out in the open under the midday sun. (Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands)

This, I think, is a more convincing way of seeing the issue. New and experimental literary forms are necessary because they are the only way to express complex and hitherto unexpressed experiences. Political video games are also formal experiments in game design because this is the only way to express new and radical ideas. There is no opposition between the political and the formal experiment. Fortunately, for think how drab the world would be otherwise.


PS. And this is not a criticism of Schrank’s very useful book. It’s just a discussion of a particular view on the relation between formal experiment and political expression.