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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Gaming and Literary Genres: Some Thoughts

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On Reddit, a new chart offers a useful visual typology of video game genres (shooter, RPG etc.) and platforms (Sega Megadrive, Xbox etc.).

Scraped from a historical database of 24 000 video games, the chart provides at-a-glance confirmation of significant historical changes, such as that text-based adventures peaked around the mid-1980s, and have declined to virtually nothing today. Strategy games have been more or less consistent throughout the last thirty years, whereas scrolling shooters have gradually decreased in popularity. The latter genre was common in an age when hardware could only render two-dimensional graphics, but has been supplanted by three-dimensional action shooters now; strategy games, by contrast, could evolve and adapt across different platforms because they are less dependent on graphics.

This chart of generic trends will no doubt be poured over by game historians. However, in keeping with my current research project on Reading Games: Computer Games and the Limits of Literature, I want to think - very hypothetically and off-the-cuff - about how literary themes and genres might map onto game ones, and vice versa.

The first thing to note is that there is a potential correspondence between game platforms and the main literary modes: novel, short story, drama, poetry. As Jesper Juul points out, platforms are less subject to changing interpretations: an Xbox game will not run on a SNES. In much the same way, the novel, drama and poetry are on the whole easily discriminated. A novel is generally not mistaken for a poem, or a play for a short story. Of course, there are some interestingly fuzzy edges. Is an extract from verse drama capable of standing alone as a poem? How long does a short story have to be before it becomes a novella, or novel? By and large, though, our definitions of these forms are fairly robust. The similarity between games and literature is possible because the criteria of "platform" is determined according to the physical media on which meanings are produced, not how those meanings are styled.

The major difference, however, is that game platforms are far more diverse and fragmented than writing "platforms." The chart includes 34 different gaming platforms, ranging from the mobile phone to the ZX Spectrum to the PC. Novels may come in all shapes and sizes, but we would not say that a cloth-bound text is a fundamentally different media to a softback, because most of the significance of the text is embodied in the story it communicates and not in the medium it uses (although interestingly the rise of the ebook and hypertext may be shifting our preconceptions about this).

At a quick glance, I would guess that a similar pair of charts for literature would show inverse trends to that for games. The chart for literary "platforms" (novel, poetry etc.) would have relatively few different colours, and thus would look more like the chart for game genres which has just 14 separate strands. The chart for literary genre, by contrast, would be massively chaotic, looking more like the chart for game platforms which has 34 different colours. In gaming, then, it is the platform - or medium of production of meanings - that is more variable than genre.

Certainly, within literature, it is when we get to the level of genre rather than "platform" that things become most messy. It is relatively easy to distinguish a play from a novel, but somewhat harder to distinguish a satire from a comedy, or a mock-epic from satire, or parody from farce. Labels of genre are notoriously slippery. Postmodern literature, indeed, brings these conflicts and overlappings to the foreground of the text. As I recently noted in this essay, contemporary works like China Mieville's The City and the City or Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go are fascinating because they seem intuitively to be science fiction, but as soon as we start to try to put our finger on the conventional technological imaginaries that are inherent to the genre we find they are not there, and their "proper" genre remains elusive.

A critic of the game chart could perhaps argue that such a mess should also be apparent here too, but that the chart is instead artificially uniform. Are there really just 14 or so different game genres? One could certainly argue about the categorisations used here, which are necessarily subjective. For example, when does an arcade game - which on this chart is a consistently dominant genre - become an action adventure? Many people would identify Space Invaders as an arcade game, by virtue of the physical space in which it was played in the 1980s, namely amusement arcades. At this early stage of game history, genre is quite correspondent with platform, as is epitomised by the use of the term "arcade" as both a genre and a platform. However, if updated today Space Invaders would probably manifest itself as a space-based shooter framed by other elements of play; it would no doubt allow a player to interact with other characters, with missions embedded within an ongoing story. Does this make it an arcade game, an adventure or an RPG? Even another early game like Elite could be said to be all three at once.

So out of this chaotic and colourful pattern of genres and platforms, are there any useful questions that can be asked?

From a culturally materialist point of view, the interesting issue to explore is the degree to which genres and the medium or platform on which they are produced are interlinked. Marxist critics of the novel such as Ian Watt or Raymond Williams contend that the novel arose at a time when printing had become widely available and affordable. It catered to the tastes of a newly middle-class reading public, and as a consequence the genre that is most closely associated with the novel is realism, the depiction of comparatively ordinary life, as opposed to heroic or epic romance that had been the preserve of poetry, which was disseminated orally or via song to courtly audiences.

Despite the diversity and fragmentation of game platforms, it is not hard to figure out that a similar relationship between medium and message will apply here. For example, the sudden growth of mobile gaming on the iPhone or iPad (which in this chart provides around a third of platforms) is surely an explanation for the sudden spurt in the puzzle genre from the mid-2000s onwards. Mobile hardware, and the circumstances in which games are played on it (often in short bursts while on the move) elicits different types of games. Similarly, I would guess that most RPGs are played on PC systems, because the mouse allows for the fine control of a complex interface, whereas shooters dominate on next generation arcade platforms like Xbox and Playstation.

The one further question to ask, though, is the degree to which platforms and genre are necessarily interdependent, and the degree to which games and/or literature can resist the stylistic expectations placed upon it by the underlying platform. Although certain game platforms may lend themselves better to certain genres, such as the RPG on the PC, this is not an exclusive link. RPGs like The Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect, for example, have been extremely popular on consoles as well. Similarly, supposedly "mobile" and casual devices like the iPad are increasingly being used for immersive adventures.

By contrast, I would hypothesise that when a literary "platform" starts adopting genres that are conceived as being more appropriate for a different "platform" of production, this is construed as ironically disruptive. In modernist writers like James Joyce, for example, the introduction of different typographies - such as advertising headlines - into a physically conventional novel like Ulysses was provocative. In A.S. Byatt's postmodernist Possession, carefully-contrived Victorian poems and archival letters are placed in amongst a twentieth-century campus fiction so that we are unsure whether we are reading a fictional novel or a historical study. Even Shakespeare, in plays like Othello, has his villain Iago speak largely in prose to distinguish him disturbingly from the rest of the characters who converse in blank verse.

Thus readers have preconceived notions of what style or genre is appropriate to what literary "platform." When these conventions are broken, the result is ironic and self-conscious. By contrast, I doubt that any gamer has felt that if they boot up an RPG on an Xbox, or a puzzler on a PC, or an arcade game on an iPhone they are having their expectations played with. Game platforms and game genres may be less conventionally correlated than literary media and literary genre may be.

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Posted by Alistair at 3:00 pm

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