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Gaming's Genre Terminology is Pretty Weak


Anybody who’s been alive for more than ten minutes will probably have noticed that people argue a lot. A further ten minutes of functional cognition will reveal that a huge number of these arguments aren’t really arguments at all- they’re just singular points of disagreement being spun out of control by participants who have failed to notice that all they really disagree about is the definition of a single word.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen an “X isn’t a game” argument, probably more due to blind luck than anything else, but that doesn’t mean that the gaming community as a whole has gotten any less prone to vociferous, unresolvable semantic shit-flinging.

As with any medium, the consumer base is eager to classify the works that come their way. That’s all well and good, of course. A system of genre terms is clearly in everybody’s best interests, in that it helps people to locate the games that they know they are likely to enjoy- obviously a good result. The problem is that gaming’s set of genre terminology isn’t good at all. It’s not really fit for purpose in the "helping people to discuss games" sense, whereas it is totally apt for causing shouting matches as to whether or not Dead Space 3 is horror and Child of Light is a JRPG.

The way in which we classify games (1) uses a haphazard set of terms that don’t address the same sorts of data as one another, (2) filters them through an obfuscating lattice of jargon, then (3) combines them in equally ad-hoc, subjective ways. Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t result in a nicely ordered, informative, uncontroversial set of descriptions.


Breaking things down to the single word level, we can easily identify a number of different roles for genre words in games. We have words that tell us what the player does in a given game, like “shooter”, “fighting” or “strategy”. We have words that tell us about a game’s setting and themes, like “fantasy” or “horror”. Then there are terms that attempt to tell us how a game situates itself in respect to realism- things like “sim” or “arcade”, or to signify its origins- “Japanese”, “Western”, “indie”, and so forth. The list could stretch on and on.

Having such a diverse set of things that we could consider to be part of a game’s genre is bound to lead to confusion and conflation. Most importantly, there is a trend towards subsuming terms from other groups into the mechanical set (“shooter, “fighting”, “strategy” etc.). To my mind a “horror game” is one that prominently features the sorts of themes or settings we might associate with horror art across all media, and that’s the only thing it means. To somebody else, however, the word “horror”, takes on a mechanical role, signifying that a game has the sorts of mechanics typically featured in games with horror themes. So, I would consider Dark Souls to be a horror game whereas my theoretical friend here probably wouldn’t. Equally, something like Child of Light is a JRPG to an observer who has reclassified “Japanese” as a mechanical term is this context and isn’t to one who hasn’t.

Note that this process is inconsistent- “horror” as a thematic term has to compete with “horror” as a mechanical term, but “fantasy” is sitting pretty in the thematic section, even though there are plenty of mechanical elements we could associate with fantasy settings. To some, an “art game” is one exhibiting an extremely minimal approach to mechanics, whereas to others the term simply denotes an abstract approach to realism. An “arcade” or “arcadey” game, on the other hand (in the popular opinion), could have any sort of mechanical identity as long as it demonstrated a sufficient disinterest in realistic representation.


We then have to add to our already somewhat fudged set of terms the fact that very few of them actually mean what they would in a non-gaming context, and indeed that some of them mean something almost completely unrelated.

Clearly, a round of Halo involves shooting (so, fighting) and strategy. It occurs in a space which could, under normal circumstances, be described as a multiplayer online battle arena, in which each participant plays the role of a SPARTAN super soldier (or Elite, but whatever). Included in the game are systems that simulate flying and driving various vehicles. Similarly, players are encourage to use stealth to gain the upper hand on their opponents. By any stretch of the imagination, the single player campaign contains elements of adventure and exploration.

As you probably guessed over the course of that nightmarishly laboured example, the point is that only the first of the concepts alluded to is considered an acceptable genre tag for Halo. All of the others, despite possessing default meanings relevant to the game’s contents, can’t be considered part of its genre. Evidently, many of these words carry specific meanings independent of their permanent semantic content when used to define a game’s genre- they’re jargon, simply put. Jargon that has become permanently embedded in the language of gaming despite the fact that its meaning has mutated to such an extent that the gap between what it means and what it means is extremely wide.

“Role-playing game” is a pretty striking example. RPG is a perfectly apt description for the pen and paper games that gave rise to the term, and it’s easy to see how it could then be applied to videogames that share features with them. Fast-forward to the modern day, and RPG basically means “game with levelling up and stats”, which isn’t at all the feature that spawned the name. So we have a context in which some games where the player is encouraged to really put themselves into the mind of their character and inhabit that role are not considered role-playing games but swathes of completely linear games with no sense of “role-playing” are.

This can be repeated as necessary for pretty much every “genre”, although RPG is an especially noteworthy case. The gaps between what a term means in regular use, what it means in facetious use, what it used to mean in gaming use, and what it has come to mean in gaming use is fertile ground for differences in definition, and thus for squabbling. Nobody likes squabbling.


So, you have a whole mess of words that you can use to describe a whole range of features that a game might have, although you can’t quite be sure what any of them mean or whether or not they’re describing the features you want them to on any given occasion. Given those handicaps, what do you do if somebody asks you to what genre a game belongs? Well, the only real options seem to be:

A: Be as comprehensive as possible.

B: Choose the one or two most important terms to try and capture the essence of the game.

Option A is clearly no good at all- you’d end up jamming words like “western”, “fantasy”. “third-person” or “real-time” in places where they don’t really belong. No sane person would go around calling Halo a Western Real-Time Sci-fi FPS, let alone all the other bells and whistles they’d have to bolt on to that description to account for everything.

That leaves us with B: decide on an ad-hoc basis how best to communicate what a game is like. This is certainly better than A, but it still leaves the door wide open for misunderstanding and, again, squabbling. As we know, games have more moving parts than can be captured in just a couple of words unless we have access to a bespoke term like “MOBA” that contains lots of information in a compact package. That means that if we’re going to describe a game’s genre in one to three words, not only are we going to have to hope that whoever’s listening is content with our particular definitions of any ambiguous terms involved (and that’s most of them), we’re going to have to decide which we think are the most important- a matter of opinion. Cue wailing, gnashing of teeth, and the violent slaughter of farmyard animals. But that’s still the most sensible approach based on the tools available.

So, by way of a conclusion, genre terminology in gaming is woefully inadequate- but it was always going to be. Books and film may not be easy to classify per se, but games are certainly a quantum leap more difficult. Even if there existed a perfect set of universally understood, logically constructed terms for describing every possible feature of a game, you’d still have to make a judgement call about which to use, and people would still deploy a variety of colourful insults against you based on that choice. So, we’re doomed on that front. The only thing you can do is remember that how people or institutions present a game’s genre is more a guideline than a definition, and that it’s pretty likely that you won’t share their opinions on the meanings of the words involved OR the defining features of the game in question.

And that is why Dark Souls is a horror game, and anybody that says otherwise is a bigot.

Thanks for reading (if you managed to muster the supreme force of will required to read this far), and have a nice day playing games or doing whatever else it is you feel like doing. Probably playing games, though.

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About Manbatone of us since 3:08 PM on 01.14.2015

I play a lot of games, can transform into a half-bat creature and am missing a hyphen in my name.

I am profoundly upset that there may well never be a good Castlevania game again.

Active mainly at night, because of the bat thing.