Should Game Genres Be Redefined In Terms Of Storytelling?

In a recent article appearing in MCV: The Market for Computer & Video Games, video game developer and publisher Telltale Games urged the games industry to reconsider how it categorizes game genre, as the medium’s storytelling ability continues to mature. Rather than being classified as platformers, first-person shooters, or strategy games, the developer is advocating that the industry adopts “science fiction”, “fantasy”, and other terms the film and television industry uses for describing a creative work’s genre.

When I read the article, I thought, “Well, of course they would like game genres to be defined in terms of storytelling.  They are primarily known for making adventure games based on movie and television franchises.”

However, I then remembered an episode of the web series Extra Credits that also suggested that game genres should be redefined without reference to mechanics.  After all, they argue, films don’t  base their genres on elements like “wide-angle punching”, “close-up kissing” or “steady-cam running”.  Genres should instead be defined by the emotive play experience they create for the player.



While I agree that games are best described by the experience they create for the player, I don’t think the answer lies in using film or literary genres.  Most people decide what films to see or books to read based on the story they tell.  Yet the main appeal of video games is about the actions people perform in them — running and gunning in first-person shooters, jumping and collecting in platformers, gathering resources and building combat units in real-time strategy games.  The story the game is often secondary.  In fact, many games don’t have a story at all, and some, like checkers and poker, don’t even have a theme.

If we were to apply the word “genre” to a game’s theme, setting or story, then I think we would then need to describe games in terms of mechanic and genre.  For example, Call of Duty would be described as “Mechanic: First-Person Shooter, Genre: War.”   But describing games by story-genre alone only would imply that Call of Duty provides the same experience as the strategy game Company of Heroes, and that scenario may not have a happy ending for the game purchaser who wanted more strategy than action.


Then again, the game product landscape has become so rich and varied that maybe we are boxing ourselves in too much no matter how we define genre categories.  If storytelling is indeed becoming more important to players, then maybe we can afford to describe the game experience to them in more than a word or two.


About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on August 22, 2016, in Game Design and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. In general I’m under an impression that genres make a pretty good work on describing an experience that the player might expect. Of course, they won’t describe the games perfectly – but they’re not supposed to; as you noted, games are extremely varied, and it’s not really possible to just describe them with a single term – unless there were lots of those terms. That’s why we have subgenres – for years players have been differentiating games like Battlefield or Call of Duty, with games like Unreal Tournament and with games like Counter Strike. They’re all FPS, but each belongs to a different subgenre.

    And it’s not like it’s any different in the movie industry. Movies are typically very different from one another, even in the same genre. A western can be serious and focused on happenings of one person (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. Or, well, anything with Clint Eastwood), focused on a group (“The Maginificent Seven”), or comedic (“Blazing Saddles”). Sci Fi differs a lot between one another (after all, there’s a massive difference between anything based on Philip K. Dick and Star Wars, with the latter even needing it’s own genre name of space opera). There are genres with less variety (like children’s animated full feature movies), and things that even “genrefied” are different from everything else (like 300).

    You said that in your opinion the most defining feature of games (as a medium) are actions done by the players. Ever since I started treating video games as an art form (rather than a toy) I believed that to be the case (though my views on it became more refined after reading Linda Aronson’s “XXI century scenario”, which gave me more tools to analyze storytelling). I always found it surprising when people in business were expressing negativity over lack of focus on the story – are there many people like that? Is it a popular view?

    Is there something in the way that I write comments that makes them annoying to read? I’m worried there might be.

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