The Rise(s) and Fall(s) of Video Game Genres

Bilingual Conference (French/English)
June 28-30 2017, Montreal

The issues associated with the history and evolution of genres span multiple disciplines and punctuate the development of several media. In the field of literature, for example, the works of several theorists dedicate special attention to questions related to genres, notably the work of Todorov (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 1973), Fowler (Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes, 1982) and Genette (The Architext: An Introduction, 1992). The study of generic dimensions is also the subject of several theoretical works in film studies, which include contributions by Tudor (Theories of film, 1979), Altman (Film/Genre, 1999), and Neale (Genre and Hollywood, 2000) and Moine (Cinema Genre, 2008). As is the case for these disciplines, the study of genre is also necessary for games and video games, where labels such as “platform games”, “first-person shooters”, “adventure games”, “action games” or “real-time strategy games” are at the core of what sets horizons of expectations and energizes exchanges between gamers, developers and journalists. Yet there is still little scholarly literature showing an interest in (video) game genres, not to mention the alarming lack of genre studies in the context of board games (save for Trammell, Torner and Waldron’s Analog Game Studies, 2016). Only a handful of authors have dedicated an entire book to the subject (Carr et al.’s Computer Games: Text, Narrative and Play, 2006; Barton’s Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games, 2008; Perron’s Horror Video Games, 2009; Voorhees, Call and Whitlock’s Guns, Grenades, and Grunts: First-Person Shooter Games, 2012). The literature on the subject is otherwise dispersed through scholarly articles (Apperley’s “Genre and Game Studies: Toward a Critical Approach to Video Game Genres”, 2006; Arsenault’s “Video Game Genre, Evolution and Innovation”, 2009; Gregersen’s “Generic Structures, Generic Experiences: A Cognitive Experientialist Approach to Video Game Analysis”, 2014), book chapters (Wolf’s The Medium of the Video Game, 2001) and sections in doctoral theses (Järvinen’s “Games without Frontiers: Methods for Game Studies and Design”, 2008; Pinchbeck’s “Story as a Function of Gameplay in First Person Shooters and an Analysis of FPS Diegetic Content 1998-2007”, 2009).

The dissemination of generic studies is symptomatic of the multiplication and vagueness of the notion of genre in itself (for example, Mark J. P. Wolf’s typology alone lists approximately forty genres). The proliferation of classifications always raises more questions than it answers. The fact remains that genre is still a functional communication and classification tool in several communities. This is what leads Arsenault, in his French doctoral thesis devoted to the topic and titled “From Typologies of Mechanics to the Aesthetic Experience. Functions and Mutations of Genre in Video Games” (2011), to define genre not as a structural phenomenon, but as a discursive one stemming from the “temporary crystallization of a common cultural consensus” (2011, p. 334, freely translated). It is indeed because a given genre’s characteristics fall under a consensus – as opposed to a specific authority or a rigid structuralism – that a myriad of generic forms appears, disappears and reappears in different shapes or under different names (one might think of the first-person shooter, first known as the maze game or 3D maze game and then as Doom-like, before it splintered into the first-person tactical shooter or other more specific names; the case of the jumping game also comes to mind, which may become an action-adventure game, then a platformer, and finally a Metroidvania). Yet, while some video game genres benefit from a strong consensus, others raise more protests and suffer from a lack of recognition (this is the case for walking simulators, serious games, art games, hidden object games or erotic games). This transformative and discursive dynamic is at the heart of the processes of innovation, reiteration and rupture which constantly enliven and redefine the outlines of genres.

In order to clarify the multidimensionality of generic ramifications, the symposium’s 2017 edition is dedicated to the historical and theoretical exploration of game and video game genres. We encourage scholars to submit a proposal which echoes the questions set forth in one of the three proposed axes:

1st Axis: Form and Experience of Genres

The first axis of the symposium adopts a historical perspective on formal and experiential transformations of (video) game genres. Following Thomas Schatz (Hollywood Genres, 1981), if a genre offers a range of expression for creators and a range of experiences to consumers, the study of the mutations in these experiences and expressive forms over the course of history should be undertaken. The objective is to examine the genealogy of genres in terms of gameplay, aesthetics, themes, iconography, hybridization, remediation, platforms, etc. Questions falling within this axis may take the following forms:
• How can we or should we historicize the formal characteristics of a (video) game genre, knowing that they are multiple, changing and often hybridized?
• What roles do technological developments play in the emergence, evolution or decline of genres?
• How is the history of (video) game genres traversed by the remediation of formal patterns derived from other media or ludic activities?
• How can formalist and narratological approaches engage in the micro-analysis of ludic forms in order to renew the historical knowledge on genres?
• What is the place of “lost” or “marginal” subgenres in the broader historiography of genres?
• How can recent generic innovations or reiterations revitalize the historical outlook on the past, present and future of genres?
• What are the possible avenues to challenge the “dominant” generic continuities and ruptures in order to establish alternative historical paths?

2nd Axis: Discourses and Communities around Genres

The second axis of the symposium is an exploration of the discursive logics driving the history and historiography of (video) game genres. If one subscribes to Andrew Tudor’s (1979) thesis which considers that a genre never describes a formal reality of objects, but rather a collectively and socially built idea, one can wonder how the same gaming experience (or a series of experiences across a given historical period) is described successively or synchronously by one or several communities in the evolving landscape of the video game industry. The aim is to address the way discourses energize, negotiate or reflect the common cultural consensus around genres. Questions falling within this axis may take the following forms:
• According to what logics do different communities (gamers, journalists/critics, designers, scholars, artists, advertisers, etc.) produce discourses on (video) game genres, and which aspects of genre make up the object of their discourses?
• What are their conditions of expression (tools, platforms, target audiences, interests, expressive formats, communicative strategies, etc.) and how do they participate in the discursive construction of genres?
• How does each community develop a singular vision of a genre (its birth, evolution, decline, rebirth, etc.), and how can we account for a plurality of visions from a historical perspective?
• What are the power dynamics, relations of influence, exchanges and transfers between the various communities that talk about genres, and what place does this discussion hold?
• How can (video) games be used as a means to produce a (meta)discourse or a comment on (video) game genres?

3rd Axis: Appropriation, Circulation and Disruption of Genres

The third axis of the symposium intends to examine the role of cultural practices in the historic deployment of (video) game genres. The appropriation may be downstream or upstream; one can think of underground fan conversions or remakes that result in extremely difficult Super Mario Bros. levels, which now find a sanctioned corporate portal to pursue this practice in Mario Maker, or the emergence of the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) based on a map of Warcraft III, Defense of the Ancients. But various other forms of circulation exist; the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons has often been described as a transposition of the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) toward the tabletop role-playing game, and plenty of critics have remarked on first-person shooter sequences in films which obviously called for them (Doom, Andrzej Bartkowiak, 2005), or where it seemed like a more singular artistic choice (Elephant, Gus Van Sant, 2003). The study of the extension of genres through various modes of appropriation, circulation and disruption will allow for an evaluation of the retroactive effects of cultural creativity on the genres themselves. Questions falling within this axis may take the following forms:
• What roles do appropriation strategies play in the creation, hybridization or disappearance of genres?
• How are (video) game genres extended through diverse cultural practices or productions which are peripheral to games (fan art, cosplay, e-sport, modding, walkthroughs, strategy guides, webcast channels, etc.)?
• What do methods of disruption or hijacking (cheating, hacking, third-party add-ons and programs, glitch hunting, speedrunning, griefing/trolling, etc.) have to reveal on the history of genres, its actors, its objects, its dynamics, its alternative paths, its writing, etc.?
• How are certain generic forms crystallized in games subsequently remediated or repurposed for other ludic activities?
• How must we address the historiographical challenges posed by various modes of appropriation and disruption for the history of (video) game genres?

Keynote speakers

▫Andreas Gregersen (Associate professor in the Department of Media, Cognition, and Communication, University of Copenhagen)
▫Gerald Voorhees (Assistant professor in the Department of Drama and Speech Communications, University of Waterloo)
▫Surprise guest

Conference features

▫Ludic event: Laser Quest.
▫Publication of selected papers in a peer reviewed journal
▫Special hotel rates for conference participants
▫Centrally located near the Quartier des Spectacles
▫38th International Jazz Festival

Abstract submission

▫500 words plus references
▫Please send your anonymized submission to GameHistoryMTL@gmail.com
▫Deadline: February 1st 2017
▫Submissions will be reviewed (blind) by the conference chairs for the 2016 edition with the help of the scientific committee