What do you think of when I say “comedy movie”? Humour, primarily. But there are many tropes within that genre which such films tend to subscribe to, so the comedy label itself is quite vague; it doesn’t suggest anything in particular about the cinematography or story of a movie falling under that umbrella, but describes the general mood you can expect.
Now what do you think of when I say “first-person shooter”? A videogame wherein events are viewed through the protagonist’s eyes and primarily involve shooting other people’s faces. The term gives no real suggestion of tone, but refers quite specifically to the raw mechanics at work.
Extra Credits (Gaming Vlogger) raised this point a few years ago and it’s generated some interesting discussion. I feel it’s even more worthy of thought given how many traditional gaming genre labels have become increasingly vague and unhelpful, as more games mix mechanics from genres that were once entirely separate; Dark Souls could as easily be called an action game as an RPG, going by the standard definitions of those terms, yet it doesn’t fit neatly into either category. Traditional means for categorising games are becoming obsolete. Surely it’s better to rethink how we compare games than continue trying to squeeze them into narrow definitions?
This is more than a matter of simple pedantry, though. Much of the language we use to talk about games tends to be focused on the mechanical side of the medium, like “levels” or “bosses”, which probably comes from a time when the technology to make games was extremely limited to the point where nothing more than the barest hint of contextualisation was usually possible. Even I, a child of the PlayStation era, remember games whose manuals provided the bulk of the story. But now the potential for games is such that even tiny indie studios can create mechanically compelling titles with emotional substance like Papers, Please, meaning that the focus on mechanics can sometimes limit an audience’s willingness to try new things. Just look at Gone Home, which many felt didn’t qualify as a game because it didn’t neatly fit into the mechanical confines of any established genres.
I’d go so far as to share Yahtzee Crowshaw’s sentiment that even the term “game” could do with a rebrand, but for now, the growing scope of the medium is surely reason enough to change how we think of it. If you agree that a game can be something other than a system to be beaten, then does it not follow that we should judge games by more than just the parts that make up the whole?
Image Rights; Ryan Coachella