What defines a game genre?

NOTE: This is a very early draft of what eventually turned into a longer study. Please read the full essay here.

As video game players, we are constantly looking for new games to play. But when we decide amongst thousands of titles, there are many different factors we take into account.

One of those factors, is the genre.
The genre sets our expectations and let’s us know what we sign up for, before we even boot up the game. But what determines the label that goes on the box?

First of all, what is a genre, and why is it important?

We commonly think of a genre as being a combination of the individual components of the game production pipeline: Art, sound, setting, story, player goals and challenges. They all have an impact on which category the game eventually fits into.
However: one theory, by Zimmerman and Salen[1], states that it is simply the similarities between games which will dictate it’s label. Through analysis we can find common traits and patterns of particular games. When you have a collection of patterns, you can then divide these games into individual genres, and conclude how they relate to one another.
This index can help define the genre itself, and also makes it easy to categorise future products that hits the market.

Ernest Adams[2] refers to genres in games as being completely different from genres in movies or literature, since we tend to describe the style of gameplay, and not the story elements. An action game, for instance, can be set in the old west, or on an alien planet – it is still an Action game just the same.

“A genre is a category of Games characterised by a particular set of challenges, regardless of setting or game-world content.” – Earnest Adams

Another important factor to note, is the limitations of technology.

Andrew Hutchison[3] writes about how a designer will always have to work around technological shortcomings in order to execute his vision the best he can. This is also why we have seen a massive shift in play styles over time, from simplistic games like Arcade, to more graphic-focused choices such as 3D Shooters. (see fig. 1.)
A game like Space Invaders is considered Arcade, but it is not far fetched to think that if it had been made with todays technology, it would be an entirely different game, belonging to an entirely different genre.

figure 1: Game genres since 1975

Finally, there is the issue of App Stores and marketing. These platforms and PR teams are deciding the genre with little disregard for what the developer originally thought. While it is a great way to target certain audiences, it can most likely also limit certain products.

It is curious to think that the genres themselves have been created by the early examples of the video game industry, and now the newer games are subject to them, by being forced into predetermined categories.
Are current game developers limiting themselves, just to fit into a genre? And what will genres look like in the future with technology still constantly changing?


  1. Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen, The Game Design Reader, 2006, The MIT Press
  2. Earnest Adams and Andrew Rollings, Fundamentals of Game Design. 2007, Person Education Inc.
  3. Andrew Hutchison, Making the Water Move: Techno-Historic Limits in the Game Aesthetics of Myst and Doom. 2007, http://gamestudies.org/0801/articles/hutch
  4. (Figure 1) NcikVGG, Reddit (Via jesperjuul.net) https://www.reddit.com/r/gaming/comments/13l9ad/recently_i_scraped_a_database_of_24000_videogames/

3 Replies to “What defines a game genre?”

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