The guys over at Penny Arcade had a great bit where they poked fun at gamers’ obsession with fitting everything into neatly defined genres. The stars of the strip are sitting at a tasting table with Gabe snootily remarking, “This is more of a late eighties platformer, with …Yes, I believe there’s a hint of sim.” To which Tycho replies, “Yes, sim. Quite right. Garcon! More genres!” ((Yeah, I know, I just quoted the Penny Arcade guys just last week, too. I’ll quit for a while.))
Why are we so obsessed with cramming games into genres and slapping labels on them? Most game reviews will remark on what genre a game fits in if not declare it outright, and if a game refuses to fit properly they’ll create a new genre just for it –witness the rise of the ridiculously named “third person, cover-based shooter” genre a la Gears of War. When I worked at GameSpy, we developed successful “genre sites” like 3DACtionPlanet.com ((Yeah, it’s an awkward name, but “ActionPlanet.com” was already taken and the guy wouldn’t sell)), StrategyPlanet.com, and SportPlanet.com that focused only on games in those genres. There was considerable internal debate over whether this made a lick of sense, but our ad sales guys loved it because it let them sell more targeted ads relative to a huge, monolithic site that covered everything.
Part of the reason for this genre love is that classifying things is human nature. It’s a habit instilled and rewarded early in life, as most toddlers love arranging objects according to shape, color, size, or function. And for good reason: assigning objects to sets builds the neural pathways necessary to develop basic skills in logic, counting, and mathematics. So when little Billy puts Doom and Modern Warfare 2 together, you reward him with a delicious frozen treat.
But there’s more to it than that: genres are useful for what Amos Tversky and other researchers call “elimination by alternatives” decision making ((Tversky, A. (1972) “Elimination by Aspects: A Theory of Choice.” Psychological Review, 76, 31-48.)) Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein elaborate on this concept in their excellent book, Nudge. ((Thaler, R. & Sunstein, C. (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New York, NY: Penguin Books.)) Imagine a simple decision, like say buying a new keyboard for your desktop computer. You’d probably be able to identify all the relevant factors, like your preference for ergonomic layouts, whether or not you want wireless, and price. You can look at the alternatives, take all that into consideration at once, and make your purchase. Fine. Bam. Done. This is called a “compensatory choice strategy” because for any one alternative a single factor (like low price) can compensate for a deficit in another (like lack of wireless support).
But think about something way more complex like renting an apartment. You’ve got a multitude of factors at play –distance from work, rent, lease terms, proximity to public transportation, safety of the neighborhood, square footage, and defensibility in the event of a zombie outbreak, just to name a few. AND you’ve got hundreds of potential apartments to choose from.
In situations like these, people tend to adopt that “eliminations by alternatives” approach I mentioned earlier. You’ll start picking out factors and setting thresholds for them. So you think “Anyplace with fewer than two bedrooms is out. And it has to be within 30 minutes of work. And it can’t currently be on fire.” And so on. This makes the decision manageable and prevents you from stroking out when you try to combine the weights of so many factors in a compensatory manner and simultaneously compare all the alternatives –of which there could be hundreds. And this usually works. The problem is that options that are outstanding on some important factors can get nuked just because they’re just barely on the wrong side of a cutoff for another. Alas, we are but puny humans.
This is a decision-making process that businesses and marketers are eager to hijack, sometimes in ingenious and even helpful ways. Thaler and Sunstein point to paint stores’ use of a color wheel to help you choose colors, as opposed to figuring out the difference between “Eggshell” and “Off White” based on names alone. Or think about going to a bar that boasts “100 beers on tap.” If you look at the menu, they probably don’t have your options listed in alphabetical order because how is the uninitiated supposed to know the difference between “Boddington’s Pub Ale” and “Dirty Dog Hefeweisen?” What any savvy owner of such a bar would do is facilitate elimination by alternative by grouping the beers by more meaningful factors, like taste, body, or color. That way people who dislike, for example, dark beers can automatically discard those options.
In other words, group them into genres.
This is why I think the habit of sorting genres in video games (and movies and music, for that matter) is so hard to shake. When faced with a huge number of possible games to buy, people use simplifying strategies to make that choice more manageable. One such rule may be “I only like role-playing games,” though I suspect less exclusive rules like “I’ll consider anything that’s not a sports game, a flight sim, or a survival horror game” are more common. It narrows the field and lets you focus on other things. Sure, maybe you’re missing out on some great games through this, but at least you don’t have an aneurysm every time you walk through a Best Buy.
Unfortunately I think this is part of the reason that Brutal Legend didn’t do as well at retail as it could: people couldn’t figure out what genre it belonged to. Action? Adventure? Driving? Real-time strategy? It was its own (totally awesome) creation, but because people couldn’t apply a certain decision simplification strategy on it, they missed out.