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):
- Several monographs on video game genre
- Several conferences on the subject
- Several journal issues
- Conference keynotes on genre
- 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     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.
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” . 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 , 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.
 Greg Costikyan, Game Styles, Innovation, and New Audiences: An Historical View, 2005, http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/theory/styles.html.
 Thomas H. Apperley, “Genre and Game Studies: Toward a Critical Approach to Video Game Genres,” Simulation & Gaming 37, no. 1 (2006): 6–23.
 Dominic Arsenault, “Video Game Genre, Evolution and Innovation,” Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture 3, no. 2 (2009), http://www.eludamos.org/index.php/eludamos/article/viewArticle/65.
 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.
 Jason Mittell, Genre and Television (New York: Routledge, 2004).