hc11: Rune Klevjer Genre Blindness

Genre blindness

Rune Klevjer Department of Information Science and Media Studies, University of Bergen

There is a curious lack of genre studies in our field, which strikes me as a bit of a missed opportunity. It means that variation, tension and significant detail too easily fall below the radar of academic game studies. It also means that we are less able to bridge the gap between the very specific and the very general, and less able to describe the connections between aesthetic convention and social practice.

Compared to other media, the dominance of generic categories is unusually strong across the practices and discourses of computer game production and consumption, often in strikingly rigid ways. Nevertheless, there is not much dedicated attention to genre in academic game research. One reason may be that computer games are not ‘media’ in the way that books or films are media, and as such do not easily conform to traditional models of literary or cinematic genre. However I still think that as a whole, we should be paying more attention to mechanisms of generic difference than we are doing at the moment. Our object of study covers an extraordinary variation of interactions, technologies and meanings. How can we expect politicians, businesses, teachers and journalists to recognise the potential of this diversity if we are not ourselves able to describe it?

There is a gap on our field between general theory and analysis of particular games. There are notable exceptions to this overall tendency, like for example Bernard Perron’s recent work on horror games. Still, if we take a quick look at the contributions so far to Game Studies or to the later years’ conferences in Tampere, Utrecht and Vancouver, there are surprisingly few that direct their attention at the level of genre. We see a lot of theoretical investigation into aesthetic, social and psychological mechanisms that applies either very broadly or to games and play in general. On the other hand, there is also quite a lot of analysis that focuses on one, or maybe two or three games, and which may include some general observations on the condition of modernity and so on, but which does not make any consistent claim to describe the typical characteristics of larger categories of games.

The general field of genre studies is not, as Greg Costikyan recently suggested, mainly about ‘themes’, which would ignore patterns of interaction and communication. Neither is it confined to a narrow domain of literary and media studies. Research on genre covers approaches from a wide range of disciplines, and is concerned not just with media objects but with communicative practices of all kinds, from funerals and political speeches to the generic discourses of university campus parking-lot managers. Consider Lloyd F. Bitzer’s influential definition of a rhetorical genre:

From day to day, year to year, comparable situations occur, prompting comparable responses; hence rhetorical forms are born and special vocabulary, grammar, and style are established. Bitzer, 1968: 13

Games are rarely ‘rhetorical responses’ in a direct sense, and the idea that games should be considered as speech (or, more generally, as language) is problematic in certain respects. Still, I would argue that Bitzer’s definition is relevant also for game researchers. Genre, as it can be observed in the ‘vocabulary, grammar and style’ of games, are rooted in ‘comparable situations’; that is relatively stable forms of activities. The generic situation is a cluster of meanings and habituated practices that tell us what the ‘gaming situation’ is about, what is going on, what histories and what people we connect to when we play.

There is a strong tendency in game research to describe the gaming situation in the most general and the most specific terms only. We are eager to connect the local principle to the big system, or the fleeting moment to the grand historical formation. Technologies, conventions, institutions and identities that fall in-between those two poles are too often left unexplored. So far, studies of Role Playing games represent, to a certain degree, an exception to the rule. This could be because role-playing appears highly distinct as a historical genre, with very clear and deep-rooted continuities from its pre-digital origin. It could also be because quite a few role-players grow up to become researchers. On the opposite end we find racing and sports games, which may in some respects display similar continuities, and which arguably dominate the market, but which nobody wants to study.

According to Phil Agre, genres are “effectively codesigned with forms of activity, even if this codesign process might be unconscious, haphazard, or even the result of conflict between parties with differing interests or worldviews” (Agre, 1998:84). This process of ‘codesign’ is hard to get at using only theories and models that either try to map the diversity of a broad field or which seek to grasp something that is common to a range of very different activities. The more diversity our theory covers, the more abstract tools we will need, and the more difficult it will be to include descriptions of concrete and changing phenomena in their various contexts. The advantage of the concept of genre is that it allows us to highlight specific contexts (reducing diversity and generality) without restricting our focus to the singular occurrence.

The general theoretical study of games is often directly or indirectly concerned with the ‘situations’ of genre. Notably, Jesper Juul’s comprehensive structural approach, rather than merely suggesting a schematic typology or catalogue, provides tools to describe how different categories of games enable different experiences of play, and – we could add, by implication – how these categories might link up with particular historical, social and technological ‘situations’. What still largely remains on our field, though, is to begin the investigation into how particular generic formations – big or small – develop over time, and how differentiation, hybridisation, ambiguity and conflict within a given domain is being played out in context of technological, economical and cultural change. Not a small task, admittedly, but we do not all have to go for the big picture.

I do not claim that ‘genre’ is an unproblematic or uncontested idea, whether applied to games or to other activities. Is, for example, ‘platform game’ a more productive category than ‘games with animals’? The simple answer would be, I think: not necessarily. There is no single aspect or component of games and game playing from which the relative stability of generic distinction and cohesion emerges. In studying genre, our point of departure could be game mechanics and style, technological and perceptual modalities, types of fictional or narrative engagement, forms of player discourses, or social and economical organisation. Genre is a framework for linking game aesthetics to typical contexts and practices. In our field, Dovey & Kennedy’s notion of ‘technicity’ is an example of this way of thinking, linking types of play and types of technological competence to particular cultural histories and identities.

Finally, we need to take genre more seriously because we need to take the games themselves more seriously. We need to look for the significant difference before we settle for the well-formed generalisation. Genre blindness means game blindness. There is a point at which game studies needs to go beyond the claim that, for example, all First Person Shooters are ‘basically the same game’. Where there is a lack of interest in variation, conflict and nuance on the different levels of aesthetic experience, there is really a lack of interest in building knowledge. The assumption is that rough, schematic and static generic maps will do – for ever, and for all practical purposes. This is definitely not hardcore.

It could be that the tendency to reduce generic richness and ambiguity into easy categories also reflects, paradoxically, the functions of genre. Researchers are also players, and most of us have our hearts and minds in certain types of games and certain types of player situations. There is always the temptation to assume that generic territories we are less familiar with are less rich and diverse than our own. Our challenge, in other words, is not just disciplinary diversity but also a diversity of generic instincts and discourses.


Agre, Philip E. 1998. Designing Genres for New Media: Social, Economic and Political contexts. In Cybersociety 2.0. Revisiting Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, edited by S. G. Jones. London: Sage Publications.

Bitzer, Lloyd F. 1968. The Rhetorical Situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric (1, 1968), pages 1-14.

Costikyan, Greg. 2005. Game Styles, Innovation, and New Audiences: An Historical View. Paper presented at DIGRA 2005, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada. Available at http://www.gamesconference.org/digra2005/viewabstract.php?id=6

Dovey, Jonathan, and Helen Kennedy. 2006. Game Cultures. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Juul, Jesper. 2005. Half-Real. Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Perron, Bernard. 2005. Coming to Play at Frightening Yourself: Welcome to the World of Horror Video Games. Aesthetics of Play Online Proceedings. Available at http://www.aestheticsofplay.org/perron.php

[Contact: rune dot klevjer at infomedia dot uib dot no]

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