Notes on genre.

So I’ve been thinking about genre – some of this is going to be in a paper I’ll be presenting, but I think it deserves being spun out and talked about on its own.

I’m taking as a starting point Rick Altman’s paper on a semantic/syntactic theory of genre, and also Mark Wolf’s The Medium of the Video Game. Wolf promotes an interactive theory of genre, by which genre is determined by the interactive structure of the game. His actual catalog of genres involves a combination of interactive strategies, simulation targets (by which artificial life games are distinct from resource management sims), and diagetic structure (adventure games are partially defined by the existence of different world-areas.) Wolf does not claim that iconographic genre is irrelevant, he notes that interactivity is a universal aspect of all videogames.

To some extent the practice of the videogame industry and its market/reception community supports his categories (reasonably, since he drew those categories from existing genres, not formally). On the other hand, there’s a great deal that it doesn’t account for. Games with gangster themes resemble each other in a way that has little to do with interactivity. Grand Theft Auto is interactively more an adventure game like Onimusha, but thematically more like Mafia. Elements of visual aesthetics make Mario Kart more different than alike Gran Turismo. DOA Beach Volleyball is as much a cheesecake game as it is a sports simulation, and in that sense is more closely related to BMX XXX. Of course, no one is expecting set-theoretical, heirarchical models of genre to map the universe of game production and consumption. I just want to note how much is left out by failing to account for thematic (what Altman and film theorists would describe as semantic) content in genre rationale.

Altman posits a mutual relationship between syntax and semantics in genre formation: loosely speaking, that a “stable set of semantic givens” will evolve and change its syntactical expression over the course of time to create new genres (from Stagecoach to The Unforgiven; from Night of the Living Dead to Army of Darkness), or an establish, well-understood syntax will be applied to new semantic material (Blade Runner: film-noir syntax with science-fiction semantics, creating a cyberpunk genre in film which has thrived better than its counterpart in literature.)

It occurred to me that interactive genre in videogames is considerable less stable than film syntax on some levels, although not in others, and that thinking about genre in videogames needs to deal with this. The market expectation for innovation in the interactive elements of game-play is stronger than the analogous expectation for film; while a film audience may be disappointed about the triviality of a film narrative, for the most part they are unlikely to protest that the sequential structure of events in the film has been “done before.”

Game audiences, I suspect, expect innovation at either the syntactic or semantic (thematic, simulation-target, or narrative) level, or the visual aesthetic level, and are less likely to be disappointed by failures of innovation at the narrative level than film audiences are. The stronger pressures to innovate mean that interactive genres are likely to be made ambiguous, to conflate, or to become simply obsolete over time. I have reasons for believing that semantic genre will be somewhat more stable – partially because they are more intertextual and cross-media, meaning that they will participate in the genre-formations of film, literature, television, pen and paper games, etc.

On a finer level of analysis, though, games are more stable than film in terms of their syntax, particularly on a cognitive level. Most strikingly, considerably more ambiguity about sequence of events and causality is tolerated in film than it is in games. The fact of player agency makes it difficult to imagine muddying the contract between game and player which maps cursor/avatar motion with cursor motion, that maps the fall of an opponent with the firing of a shot, that maps the death of the player with zeroing-out on a health bar. It is conceivable to play with this conventions to a limited extent: several games have. However, such play is unlikely to form genre in the way that new conventions of editing, filming, and storytelling created the French new wave, or German expressionism. It is at the next level of analysis, about interactive demands on the player rather than the codes that are used to communicate the specific structure of those demands, that the development of interactivity forms genres, and does so at a destabilizing pace.

There may be more about this later …


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