In a recent podcast, Justin Keverne talked about how it was odd that we define genre in video games almost exclusively in terms of what you do, whereas in other media genre is linked more with the themes that are under consideration in the works. I’m still not sure what I think about this (and, indeed, poking around a bit has just brought home how little I understand the concept of genre; incidentally, CDC podcast episode 4 also had some interesting things to say on the topic), but I do tend to agree that the notion that, say, “first-person shooter” defines a genre is a pretty peculiar one. As Justin pointed out, think how odd it would be to talk about “single-camera TV shows” versus “three-camera TV shows”!

Which got me wondering: what differences are our conceptions of video game genre blinding us to? What are the video games that we think of as being part of the same genre (because of their shared mechanics), while cutting across quite different areas of the theme and design space in ways other than their mechanics?

I’ve been thinking about this recently because of the Beatles game. Which I adore, as do many others; some people, however, even people who are as big Rock Band fans as I am, are less impressed. It generally comes down to the Beatles’ music not being to their taste; if you combine that with the gameplay being in many ways identical to earlier Rock Band iterations, then of course you’d prefer the wider musical variety in the earlier games.

Having said that, however, The Beatles: Rock Band isn’t quite the same as a reskinned Rock Band 2. Some differences:

  • The songs are (almost) all unlocked from the beginning.
  • Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t unlockables: you can unlock pictures and other historical artifacts.
  • If you play through the game in its story-based mode, you encounter the songs in chronological order rather than a difficulty-based order.
  • There are fewer ways in which your play affect the music that is played. (E.g. no drum free play to activate star power.)
  • On the easiest setting (which is the default), you can’t fail out of a song.
  • You can’t customize your avatar.
  • Each song has custom artwork, custom animations.

And these are not random differences or a collection of isolated refinements: they all point in the direction of moving the game away from focusing on players’ generic mastery of techniques and towards a focus on the Beatles’ music and their surrounding history. I’ll even claim that the game’s achievements show this difference: the achievements have moved away from generic gameplay accomplishments and towards achievements that get you focusing on individual songs, and even on techniques within those songs. (I’m thinking of the hammer-on/pull-off achievements for Dear Prudence and Octopus’s Garden; or the achievements for double-fab and triple-fab singing, which will lead you to appreciate just how differently the harmonies play out in different songs.)

The picture that I’m getting from this is a game that, on a non-mechanics genre level, is profoundly different from the vast majority of video games. At its core, the Beatles game is a non-fiction game in the sense that most video games are fiction games: while the game certainly takes its liberties with the historical material that it’s presenting, it’s easy to imagine reaching the game by starting from a book about the Beatles or a course about the Beatles, and dreaming about how to make it more interactive, more immersive, enabling the learner to view the music from different perspectives and to isolate different aspects of their music. (I’m not the only person who appreciates Paul McCartney’s bass lines a lot more after going through the game on bass than I did before playing it.) I’ve been hearing about the Serious Games movement for years; in its own way, this game is one of the best examples of a serious game that I can think of.

Having written the above, now that I’ve had my eyes opened to the nonfiction nature of the Beatles game, I think that other Rock Band games actually largely fit within the nonfiction space as well: they’re much more of a representation and exploration of externally constructed subjects than (to pick another game within the rhythm game genre) Space Channel 5 is. I think it took the kick of a game saying “no, we’re not going to organize the game’s progression in terms of difficulty” to open my eyes to non-fiction video games that surround me, but now that my eyes are opened, I see them there.

Or maybe they don’t surround me, actually—looking at my game shelf, Wii Fit, the Brain Age games, and (I suspect, I haven’t played it) Endless Ocean qualify, but not much else. So maybe what’s really going on here is that two companies, Nintendo and Harmonix, are doing something special; five or ten years from now we’ll look back and marvel at the changes in the possibilities that games represent that are getting their first big market successes right now. (Yes, I am aware that non-fiction games have been around for quite some time; I had a lot of fun playing Robot Odyssey a quarter-decade ago!)

Of course, everybody’s aware of what Nintendo is doing in this vein (it’s certainly hard to ignore Wii Fit); Harmonix’s efforts are, to me, going underappreciated. I’m very excited about the possibilities of Rock Band Network: I now find it frustrating that there’s any music that I can listen to but can’t play along with in a game. So I’m very much looking forward to a future world where that is no longer the case, where we have a continuum moving gradually from recordings of music that we purchase to performances of the music that we play ourselves. (Though, as mashups remind us, the linear notion of a continuum is quite misleading here!)

And just as video games will make their presence known in various places in that continuum, so too will they make themselves known increasingly broadly across our culture. But breaking free of the narrow focus on game classification into genres based on gameplay mechanics is, I think, an important step in that broadening influence.

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