What’s wrong with categorization?

I am an unabashed modernist. I think that postmodern theory is an exercise in lack of intellectual discipline at best. The French existentialists, for example, are utterly useless when it comes to determining “morally right” action because they seem to dismiss the concept altogether. If moral philosophers aren’t discussing the concept of “right,” how are they still moral philosophers rather than solipsists?

Luke Plunkett wrote a piece on Kotaku today criticizing the fashion by which we derive the names of game genres. He takes issues with the names of the genres themselves for being nonsensical if we take them literally. I’ll cede that point, but the labels aren’t meant to be taken for their literal meaning. They are jargon, the language of a sub-culture or a particular discipline. Who cares whether someone not versed in gaming lexicon understands what the labels mean? Are they having these discussions in the first place such that the words come up at all? This sounds like criticizing the technical language of quantum mechanics because someone who isn’t a quantum physicist wouldn’t understand what the words mean.

Game genres are like stereotypes – they are not always 100% accurate, but they exist precisely because there is some truth to them. Categorizing video games by mechanics is not only appropriate, it’s also necessary. There are so many games which come out every year competing for our dollars, and more importantly for those of us with full-time jobs and families our attention, that we need a quick way to assess potential interest in new titles.

Intentionally trying to evade genre is often a fool’s errand. David Cage doesn’t want to call Heavy Rain an adventure game, but he’s full of it. The graphics might be cinematic, the storyline might be mature content, but the way we interact with the environment in Heavy Rain is pure adventure game. Cage wants to avoid the label because adventure gaming is considered a dead genre – does he really think that the label is going to kill interest in the title? That’s absurd. Adventure games were great in their day – why not champion Heavy Rain as a return to an established genre now that we have the tech to make that genre interesting again?

Borderlands is a FPS title. Leveling doesn’t make it an RPG, and co-op doesn’t make it an MMO. There’s no defiance of classification here whatsoever, there’s only a press angle and an ad campaign to try and make the title stand out. That’s to be expected, but any critical analysis should get past that claptrap quickly. Pun intended.

The benefit of genre classification is that when we get a title which defies classification, like Shadow of the Colossus perhaps, or Katamari Damacry. That’s when we know that we’re looking at a title which is potentially groundbreaking, which is undeniably innovative, and therefore exciting. That’s how we will begin to find the video games which actually might be art, because we won’t be able to break them down into simple genres and they will therefore force us to actually think about them.

I blame the business side of things, not the restrictions of categorization, on why developers don’t often challenge us in this fashion. They often can’t afford to challenge us, much like movies don’t take risks for fear of not getting return on investment.

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