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Categories, believe it or not, are important. The ability to make distinctions between a large set of objects to help us group them together into smaller sets is something we make use of constantly. Explaining these differences helps us to understand, for example, what we might enjoy about a given topic. If we like comedy, but not all comedy, being able to categorize different types of comedy helps us to sift through everything to identify more comedy that we might enjoy. As opposed to simply running in blind and wading through things you don’t enjoy.
And in video games, that same premise holds true. Imagine that there were no categories for video games. They were all just “games.” If you asked someone what games they like to play, they could only answer “games.” They could give specific examples, but if you aren’t familiar with the examples, then you wouldn’t be able to understand them. The existence of categories helps us to communicate without needing to have more specific knowledge.
But the usefulness of categories depends on how well those categories actually convey information. Categories can be too broad or too narrow. They can fail to actually give some sense of what is in the category. They can rely on names or words or phrases that don’t describe anything. Or the words can describe things that are part of games excluded from the category.
Categories are everywhere. Again, if you ever think about what kinds of games you like to play, you can probably easily come up with a whole host of categories that are part of common language. Action-adventure games? Roguelikes? Sports games? Deckbuilders? Role-playing games? Real-time strategy? You may be familiar with some or all of these terms. But those terms are there and used to help distinguish games from one another.
So in this essay I intend to look at the topic of categories in video games, and in particular, to analyze a common problem with these categories. In a sense, what I’m suggesting here is that we should – if we could – engage in a massive overhaul of our language surrounding video games in order to create a new set of categories that will be more useful.
The Hidden Beauty of Categories
Categories often seem dull. After all, they’re basically just boxes for concepts. And so isn’t a category – and arguing over what belongs in a category – nothing more than mere semantics?
But like so many other elements of language, categories serve an incredibly useful purpose. And that purpose is not merely some kind of intellectual exercise. It helps us in our everyday conversations with one another.
Imagine that you wanted to know about a particular game. Just for the sake of simplicity, let’s take Call of Duty. You have no idea what the game is, how it works, what it’s about, and so on. But your friend is familiar with the game. So you ask your friend to help you out and explain it to you. Because whether it seems intriguing or not will determine whether you want to play it yourself.
So your friend would likely begin by giving you a category: Call of Duty is a first-person shooter. Those three words give you a wealth of information. Firstly, the words themselves convey something useful that you can take away: you shoot things, and you do it from a first-person perspective. That might seem unimportant, but when you’re beginning – as we established – from a baseline of no information whatsoever, even that kind of knowledge will be incredibly helpful.
But let’s say you’re familiar with the concept of first-person shooters in general. Then that gets to the second piece of information that it gives: you can now connect Call of Duty with those other games. Did you like those games? Do you want to play more of them? Are there specific things you need to look out for in a first-person shooter that you like? Just knowing the genre of the game connects that one game to the rest of your experience.
Now imagine trying to have that conversation without categories.
Your friend would have to start by explaining how the game works from the ground up. It would essentially require reinventing the wheel. “So you control a character, and you see from the character’s eyes, and you have a gun, and you walk around and shoot at enemies.” All sorts of information needs to be conveyed regarding how Call of Duty works.
Let’s say that you’ve played one other first-person shooter. In which case, your friend can run through a list of games that are similar to Call of Duty in the hopes that you’ve played them. This could take a while, or take a short amount of time, depending on various factors. But even then, once your friend hits upon an example that is useful for you, they still need to help you out by making distinctions between the game you’re familiar with and Call of Duty. Which means the link that you and your friend can establish is only of limited use.
It’s not that the lack of categories makes this whole process impossible. We can absolutely explain what Call of Duty is to a person who is completely unfamiliar with it. But the lack of categories makes the process much more complicated, and places a greater weight on us to explain things.
And that is what makes categories so useful. A simple piece of information – just a few words – can help us understand how a game works, help us make connections, and from there deliberate about whether we want to try the game out or not.
The Danger of Categories
The value of categories, though, depends on their ability to communicate information, and communicate it fairly quickly. It wouldn’t make much sense if “first-person shooters” were called “games in which the player controls a character and views all action through the character’s eyes; the player uses one or more guns to defeat enemies.” Not that the latter description would be inaccurate, but it would be far too long and clumsy.
But just as important is that we need the name of the category to actually be descriptive in some capacity. This is useful for two reasons. Firstly, because it can immediately explain to anyone who hears or sees it what a game that belongs in the category is going to be like. Secondly, because it helps to guide what games do and don’t belong in the category.
Why care about these distinctions? Because when we start putting games into a category without much care about what the category means, we remove all information from the category itself. Games essentially get placed arbitrarily into boxes because we don’t know how else to categorize them. Which means that when I give you an example of a game that belongs to a “meaningless” genre, you may be unable to conjure up any idea of what the game is like.
So think about the category of an “adventure” game. The number of games classified as adventure games is mind-boggling, though to be fair there are a lot of games in the first place. Keep in mind that it’s not the number of games in the genre that’s important. A category can still be useful even if we think it is bloated. What matters is how varied those games are, such that the games that are the most different still feel like they belong in that category.
But what is an “adventure” game? Going on an adventure is something that most games have you do: explore a world to complete some kind of quest. How broadly we want to understand an “adventure” to be is itself vague, but the problem is that there are plenty of games that aren’t categorized as adventure games that nevertheless send players on an adventure. The problem is that the category of “adventure games” loses its meaning, because it becomes a kind of catch-all for “we don’t know where this game fits.”
A similar problem occurs for “action” games. Most games involve “action,” even if we specify that the action has to be of some kind of sufficient intensity to qualify. There are so many different “action” games out there, but there are so many different forms of action that the term gets applied too broadly. There are so few games that aren’t action games in some capacity that the genre encompasses the vast majority of games, resulting in another meaningless category.
There are plenty of current categories that run into that problem. “Role-Playing Game” is a term with a specific meaning and history, and yet it is generally used today to mean “a game with a rich storyline.” Not that all games with rich storylines are RPGs, but also plenty of games that don’t actually feature role-playing – the act of actually performing as a character within a larger narrative – are still classified as RPGs. We can find plenty of genres that have this problem.
The issue, of course, is not that categories themselves are useless. It’s that we had a bad starting point. When there are a few games, categories can be broad because there are so few games that there is little room for confusion. But as games get more complex and varied, the categories become hazier. And when we insist on keeping those old categories, we end up with a very limited linguistic toolbox.
The solution to this involves a few things. One thing we do now is use subcategories. After all, even if we have a large genre, the variety within that genre will often end up needing further specification. So subgenres get built out to fulfill the purpose that the categories originally did. This can admittedly make describing a game using categories a bit clunky: the more descriptors you have, the harder it gets to say we’re saving time. So there’s always going to be a tradeoff. But it’s still useful to make these further divisions to help keep things in a kind of mental and linguistic order.
Additionally, we can be more open to creating new categories. Occasionally a new category will pop up, but often those new categories are very narrow. Which can be good, but it still leaves us with the problem of having these gigantic categories that are still too broad or meaningless to help us. But getting into the mindset that we should seriously consider when new categories would help us to solve a good deal of our issues with currently existing categories.
Finally, getting into the habit of changing categories and rearranging things. If we have these old terms that aren’t helpful, holding onto them just leaves us with a faulty foundation that we keep building on. But by having conversations regarding what a category means, and whether the very term being used actually helps to convey the information it should, we can fix those foundations. And sometimes it might require burning those old and rotted bridges to build new and better ones.
So we should get into the mindset that we should have conversations about these things. What do various categories mean? How do we tend to use the categories? How well do our intentions and our usage actually match up? It is easy to brush this all off as mere semantics, but there is a real use to categories. Leaving bad categories to exist – and the problems and debates they create – merely to avoid having semantic debates does not accomplish anything. It ignores a problem merely for the sake of ignoring a problem.
We don’t often think a lot about categories, and yet we use them quite often. They serve, in some sense, as a backbone for how we talk about games and how we compare one game to another. So it’s worth taking a closer look at how categories work and why they exist in the first place.
But that closer look shows that categories are a mess. Not intentionally a mess. They are a mess because language is often a mess. But we can still clean up that mess. We merely have to put in the work.
But that work will require dialogue, cooperation, and ultimately an open mind. While we’re trying to rethink what categories should exist and what games should go in those categories, we need to step back and rethink how we use categories as a whole. We can’t just keep sticking with the basic debates of “does X Game belong in Y Genre?” Down that road just lies frustration. We need to be willing to ask the bigger questions.