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A Short History: The Rise of Video Game Genres

When thinking about the evolution of video games, we cannot, in any situation, separate it from technological advancement. “The history of the video game is, in parts, a history of technology” (Juul, 2001:online) because games rely on the processing power of technology to function, and even more extensively, to be visually represented. Some academic literature claims that the appearance of video games as such owes a lot to a cultural shift of perspective. But it is debatable whether this cultural shift was produced by an initial technological boom or that cultural development actually inspired new technology.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, so that games appeared as a result of the mutual influence between culture and technology. To make myself clear, I’m going to quote Juul’s example: “the computer game was originally developed on equipment designed for military and academic purposes. But today the computer game is the driving force in the development of much hardware such as 3d graphics accelerators.”

From Arcade…

The video game most widely accepted as being the first is Spacewar!, which was developed in 1962 at MIT (credits go to Stephen Russell). Although the graphics of the game were rather primitive (compared to today’s standards, at least) the game itself was addictive: two players took controls of spaceships orbiting a planet. They had to exterminate eachother and they could shoot, accelerate and turn their ship in order to win the game. Besides being more of a scientific study, this game couldn’t have become a market success because it required a computer the size of a car to run smoothly.

It took 11 years for the first commercially available game, Pong (developed by Atari, California, in 1973), to appear. It was perceived as a very simple tennis game because it featured two white blocks on a black background and a ball that would go back and forth on the screen. Players had to move the blocks so as the ball not to fall into the void. The player who let the ball fall out of the screen would lose the game. In the beginning, Pong was placed at entertainment venues, markets, and fun fairs all throughout America, next to mechanical games. Soon after its release, Pong consistently earned four times more revenue than any other coin-operated machine, which resulted in an increase in the number of the orders Atari received (Kent, 2001:38-39). And by 1974, it was already shipped worldwide.

But, most importantly, Pong is one of the first games to fight for the idea of the video game being played primarly at home, and not at an arcade hall. Due to Pong’s huge success, Atari developed a version of the game that could run using the home TV and managed to commercialize it in 1974. The key importance of the slide from public to personal space of videogames is that “developers could make games of longer duration, games that were not focused on the simple goal of having as many players insert coins as quickly as possible” (Juul, 2001:online).

But computer game evolution is not purely a fight between the technical and cultural. The linear, somewhat expected evolution of computer hardware is less surprising than how games have conceptually altered. I was saying that the first games were mainly what would now be called action-arcade titles. Video games that followed in Pong’s steps, such as Space Invaders (1977) and PacMan (1980) all applied to these rules:

–          A score was kept

–          The player had to either avoid or destroy the enemy

–          The video game was real-time and required fast reflexes

–          The player had a fixed number of lives

–          The difficulty would increase with each level

–          The video game had no, or a minimal narrative bone

In these classical action games, the player couldn’t really win, because the game would at one point go beyond his physical abilities. The most important thing one could achieve in such a video game was to enter the highscore list. So, developers thought of an alternative to this lack of satisfaction that video games gave to players. What if the player would identify with the in-game avatar and his background story? In this way, the digital dreams and wishes would surely have an echo upon the individual’s own feelings and thus the conclusion of the game would have a bigger impact on the player.

…to adventure

This is the reason for which the first “text adventure” game first appeared (Adventure, in 1977). Unlike the action game, “an adventure is not based on fast reflexes; the time of the adventure game is on pause when the player does not do anything” (Juul, 2001:online). The player does not use a specific set of keys to control the imaginary character, but rather uses basic words to interact with the game universe. For example, he could type the direction he wants the character to move in:

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.

>enter building

You are inside a building, a well house for a large spring. There are some keys on the ground here. There is tasty food here. There is a shiny brass lamp nearby. There is an empty bottle here.

>get lamp


These games are not only textual in nature, but also intertextual, because they are almost always based on very loose interpretations of famous fantasy books, such as those of Tolkien, from where a wide number of magical creatures originate (like elves, trolls, orcs etc.). This is why they generated a lot of confusion at the time of their appearance, to the point that the adventure game was actually renamed “interactive fiction” in the early 1980. According to Juul, the term “was never defined theoretically, but was basically used to claim literary qualities for a game” . These games were the image of a fictive world, taken in the narrative sense of the term, they represented a universe you could interact with and in which you could get deeply involved.

What is interesting about adventure games is the fact that they continually defined themselves as opposing other types of video games and, as they evolved, they even managed to define themselves as opposed to the their early beginnings. Take for example the Zork trilogy (developed by Infocom in 1981-1982), which the developers described in their advertisements as an alternative to the fast-paced action game through rich textual descriptions and an intelligent sense of humor that was more satisfying for the player:

We unleash the world’s most powerful graphics technology. You’ll never see Infocom’s graphics on any computer screen. We draw our graphics from the limitless imagery of your imagination – a technology so powerful, it makes any picture that’s ever come out of a screen look like graffiti by comparison. Through our prose, your imagination makes you part of our stories, in control of what you do and where you go – yet unable to predict or control the course of events.

 (Infocom advert, 1983)

Note the ironic attack towards the representational power of other types of games. According to the advert, the video game should be closer to a novel, it should stimulate the imagination, allow the player to become part of the story and also make him part of the game universe.

But on the long run, these games could not compete with the flourishing visual culture of their counterparts. Because they were pretty rigid at the structural level, the only way in which they could catch up was through graphical advancement. As a conclusion, the last purely text-based interactive fictions were published in the late 1980’s and, with the arrival of the mouse, even textual interaction was replaced by graphical interfaces (see point and click games).

Back to Video Game genres

There are two important aspects that should be underlined at this point of my game history. Firstly, the action game and text adventure constitute probably the first two video game “genres” that have ever been delimited. Secondly, these two video game genres are the ancestors of any modern video game, as they developed divergently, incorporating new kinds of mechanisms, probably because of the invention of the video card and the technological boom of graphical rendering. But, by the year 2000, a phenomenon of convergence has appeared, in the sense of the hybridization of genres.

Still, I haven’t defined “genre” so far and, in order to make clear the current categorizations of video game genres, more explanations are necessary. Genre theory belongs to a tradition of classification often traced back to Aristotle who, in about 335 BC, laid out systematic criteria for the analysis of epic poetry, tragedy and comedy. For Aristotle, poetry was, above all, representation (or mimesis) and this serves as one basis for his classification: how do different fictions represent the world in different ways? He was also concerned with form as another basis for distinguishing between the various kinds of poetry, and with medium (voice, flute, or lyre). This balance between content, form and medium continues in genre theory to the present day.

The most influential modern theory on genres is that of Bakhtin, a cultural and literary theorist who saw genre as a form of social action. According to him, genres are the conventional uses of language by social groups, and are formed in the ceaseless exchange between speaker and listener. He accepts the Aristotelian model, but adds four new ideas to the theory (Bakhtin, 1981:120-135):

–          genres can be found on all uses of language, not only in artistic text

–          genre is not only found into text, but also in the social context that produces it

–          genre is not a fixed set of properties; it is actually fluid, constantly remade from dialogue in order to suit the needs of the social groups who produce, define and contest its structures

–          genres help both at producing and receiving texts

If the two visions upon genres are to be combined and rounded up, they lead to the image of some “ideological straitjackets that control how texts represent the world” or “structures whose patterns help us navigate through and beyond existing representations of reality, and to find communities of like-minded readers, viewers and players”. (Carr, 2006:15)

It is important to note that games, in their modern form, appeal to the two theories upon genre, because, as I have underlined above, they have come to incorporate both primitive forms of video game genre: “action” has become a vital part of gameplay and the “interactive fiction” is part of its representational dimension. Truly, the video game can no longer be seen different from the idea of a story to interact with. For example, Laurel (1991:135-142) believes that the computer program must take on the role as author, while the game progresses. Any action by the player must lead to the system adapting the fictive world so as to make sure every story is well formed. Although the idea is a bit too ambitious, we have clear examples of some of the most successful videogames that base their appeal on this harmonious communication between action, storyline and player. A fine example would be the Mass Effect series, that actually has the second episode (which appeared several years after the first) adapt its story according to the decisions that the player took in the first game. Note that the program is incapable of literally creating a proper story, because it lacks sufficient knowledge of the real world. It cannot be a true story teller, not only because it cannot avoid the absurdity of the impossibility of creation, but also because it cannot create stories that can really suck the player in (it does not have narrative skill). The trick that computer-generated stories are actually based on is the coding of a basic knowledge of the needs and interactions of humans and their goals. The key factor is making the players part of a fictive world, which is fully defined and whose rules they have to respect in order to properly play.

But games also go beyond these theories on genre. Because games are (and will remain) fully hybrid in nature, even the genre classification cannot be generic. Generic classification that foregrounds one of the factors of video games (like rules, outcomes and so on) is valid, yet taken in isolation, it would prove partial. Thus, classification must be compound and games can be classified simultaneously according to:

– the platform they are played on: PC, Xbox, PlayStation, Wii, iPhone etc.

– the style of play they employ: single-player, multiplayer

– the position of the player in the game world: first person, third person, “god”

– the rules and goals of gameplay: racing game, action adventure, shooter etc.

– the representational aspects: science fiction, high fantasy, urban realism, apocalyptic vision etc.

All these possibilities for classification coexist in games and none are irrelevant, although the style of gameplay is most often of fundamental significance in genre categorization.

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