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

Kinephanos journal special issue (link)

2016 symposium chairs:

  • Andréane Morin-Simard, Université de Montréal
  • Pascale Thériault, Université de Montréal, Canada
  • Hugo Montembeault, Université de Montréal
  • Jean-Charles Ray, Université de Montréal
  • Dominic Arsenault, Université de Montréal
  • Bernard Perron, Université de Montréal

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 was dedicated to the historical and theoretical exploration of game and video game genres.