PAX East: Game Genres

View of the expo hall, with crowds of gamers at videogame booths

PAX East Expo Hall

I recently attended PAX East—a three-day gaming event in Boston—and it was quite an experience! Video games, board games, and card games everywhere! Tens-of-thousands of gamers—some in quite elaborate costume—packed into rooms, standing in long lines, playing games at tables, in booths, and on spare patches of floor, and generally having fun—very serious fun.

There were sessions, too. One that I found particularly interesting was The Genre Divide: Reassessing How We Define Videogame Genres by James Portnow, the CEO of Rainmaker Games. Unlike the other sessions I attended at PAX East, this one actually had an academic paper reference—MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek (2004)! More importantly, this session got me thinking.

James Portnow’s core argument was that a game’s genre should be defined by the Aesthetics of game, not the Mechanics. According to Hunicke et.al., Mechanics “describes the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms,” while Aesthetics “describes the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system.” Portnow is arguing that we should categorize a game by the reason why you go play that game. For example, one Aesthetic is “Sensation” or “game as sense pleasure”. In other words, we play some games for the way they stimulate our senses, such as the beautiful visuals and audio of Journey. Another Aesthetic is “Fellowship” or “game as social framework”. These are games we play to be playing with other human beings. The interactions don’t have to be direct, such as the ability to leave notes in Dark Souls, but they do need to be a primary reason why one plays the game. Games can have many Aesthetics, but the idea is that they probably have one or two that are the primary reasons people play them.

Female avator standing in a beautiful

Martian Boneyards — Aesthetic: Sensation?

So what does this have to do with EdGE? We’ve had a hard time figuring out the genres for some of our games, and maybe, part of the reason is that the genre system itself is at least partially broken. But if we go with Portnow and try to categorize our games by their Aesthetics, where do we get? Certainly the primary reason folks played Martian Boneyards was Fellowship, but after that, what would one say was the balance between Sensation, Narrative, Discovery, and Expression? And what about Canaries? We wanted Narrative to be a reason—and didn’t achieve this—so maybe some mix of Challenge and Expression? As for our latest batch of Leveling Up games, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Anyway, I left PAX East with a new lens with which to view our work… and what more can you ask of a conference.

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