Elemental Genres: Why We Play

Posted On: 2022-08-22

By Mark

I've written previously about how game genres are problematic, yet since writing that original post, I've realized it overlooks what is perhaps the most important issue with genres - both in games and, to some extent, in many other media as well. As such, I thought I'd dive back into the topic of genres, this time focused on an essential, unmet role of game genres: explaining why we play.

Purposes of Genres

Genres are a categorization tool. Genres group together separate works in ways that are (hopefully) useful - but there are many different ways of categorizing, and, as such, many different genre sets. Looking at writing, for example, genre may categorize a work as either prose or poetry, or it may use more fine-grained distinctions (ie. the familiar genre fiction categories of fantasy, horror, romance, etc.) Generally speaking, these categorizations each serve an external purpose, whether that's organizing the book store or gathering together like-minded fans.

The Elemental Genre

In writing, there is one genre purpose that is particularly useful for authors: understanding why an audience wants to read a book. The (generally excellent) podcast Writing Excuses calls this the "Elemental Genre", to differentiate it from other kinds of genres. The Writing Excuses team asserts that the defining feature of the Elemental Genre is what emotion it evokes - in their words, the emotion is what makes the reader "turn the page". In the Elemental Mystery Genre, for example, a reader is drawn to the thrill of solving a mystery, while in the Elemental Thriller Genre, a reader is drawn to the fear of approaching danger.

An important application of the Elemental Genre concept is that a written work doesn't need to stick to a single genre for its entirety. Different genres can be mixed into the larger story, through elements like subplots and character arcs*. Ultimately, however, having a single genre serve as the main focus for the whole story will help it resonate more strongly with readers seeking the associated emotion - even if that isn't the emotion they were expecting when they first opened the book.

From Writing To Games

The concept of Elemental Genre, I think, can be neatly applied to all entertainment media. People seek out emotional experiences, whether it's the excitement of a big-budget action film, or the sadness of a song about losing a loved one. Games are no different: players are drawn to games for the thrill of triumph, or the fear of a looming threat. In this regard, I think game designers stand to benefit greatly from using the Elemental Genre concept: designing every part of the game (systems, mechanics, audio, etc.) to build towards the intended emotion will go a long way towards making a game that players love.

More Than Design

There is also value in using Elemental Genre (or a layperson-friendly substitute) in everyday conversations about games. As I've discussed previously, the existing game genres are, to put it bluntly, quite bad. Where some game genres pull from existing literary ones (ie. horror), many are a seemingly random mashup of unrelated features (like camera perspective or control scheme) tacked onto an arbitrarily chosen game design element from a seminal game of that genre*. If players discarded what they call a "game genre" right now, and instead embraced talking about what emotion(s) they want to get from their games, it would open up whole new worlds of design, empowering developers to make games that players want to play, even though they've never played anything like it before.