Hey, do you guys watch Extra Credits? If not, you should. Each week the team there shares insightful, animated essays on topics related to video game design, culture, and business. They’re often pretty amusing, too. A few weeks ago they did a series on the difference between Western and Japanese RPGs that reminded me of a theory from the field of media psychology that aims to explain why we gravitate towards certain genres of entertainment.
In part 1 of the Extra Credits series the authors argue that the whole way we look at genres and sub-genres is inherantly flawed:
Most of the time when we talk about what makes a game belong to a certain genre we only talk about surface elements. The visible mechanics or dynamics of a game. This game is an RPG because it has a leveling system. That game is a first-person shooter because it has guns and a first-person camera. That other game is survival horror because there are zombies in it. But what we really outght to be looking for are the underlying reasons why we play a genre.
…Genres in all things are actually defined by what the audience desires to get out of interacting with them. We go to a romance for different reasons than we go to a comedy or a drama. We can identify a romance by the emotions it tries to invoke in us, not by its editing styles. And the same is true of games.
Let me ask you: Why is it we thnk of Mass Effect as an RPG even though its combat is built around third person shooting? Why are we so confident around labeling Call of Duty a first person shooter even though it has a leveling system? It’s because we’re assigning those labels not because of their surface mechanics or camera perspectives or techniques. But because of the fundamental human desires, emotions, and interests those genres deliver on; the underlying reasons we play which are radically different in these two cases.
…There are various different ways that games can engage us, which some designers refer to as “core play aesthetics.” Narrative, challenge, fellowship, discovery. And that’s just to name a few.
What James1, Daniel, and Alison are explaining here is called “needs and gratification theory” even though they don’t label it as such. It’s actually been kicking around the media psychology circles for decades, starting back in the 1940s when social scientists were interested in why men in fedoras chose to listen to radios dramas or read the newspaper over other activities.2 Though the methodology and theory building improved, the core concept of needs and gratification theory has largely stayed consistent: We are attracted to media based on how well we expect it to satisfy internal needs.
In the case of television, consider Sally, who has a high need for intellectual stimulation and validation of her intelligence. Sally might prefer quiz shows like Jeopardy! because of how it meshes with these internal needs. Her friend Dick, on the other hand, is high in emotional intelligence and thus likes to ponder and understand interpersonal relationships. He would be more drawn to character driven dramas like Breaking Bad or even relationship driven reality television like Survivor.
The important point here to understand is that each person isn’t drawn to a show because the program guide labels it “Game Show” or “Drama.” Those are just convenient genre labels that Sally and Dick might use in the absence of other information. The point is that shows in each of those genres tend to satisfy different needs and we’re pretty good at noticing this kind of thing.
Due to the interactive nature of video games I think the needs and usage theory makes even more sense, though it hasn’t been empirically tested much. We are attracted to games because of the internal needs they help us fulfill. The Extra Credits examples of narrative, challenge, fellowship, and discovery make a pretty good list, though I would suggest additions like expression (for games that let you build, customize, and share), competition (for those games that facilitate comparing yourselves against others), and brain teasing (for puzzle games and word games).
For every one of those needs, you can probably think of a game that does an exceptional job of fulfilling it through its “core play aesthetics” to use the Extra Credits terminology. The main point of Skyrim, for example, is exploration. The main point of Minecraft is expression. The main point of SSX is challenge. Each of these games has a core play aesthetic that meets one basic psychological need that varies in intensity from person to person.
What’s interesting about this perspective is that it suggests that our current genre conventions are lackluster at best and flat our wrong at worst. Typical genre names like action, role-playing, adventure, and puzzle are widely used because games we’ve put in those genres tend to possess similar core play aesthetics —tend to but don’t always. Do you think if when you walked in to a big box retailer or browsed for games on Amazon you would have a better experience if the shelves and menus used words like Challenge and Narrative and Fellowship instead of “Action” and “Strategy” and “Role-Playing?” Do you think you’d be better able to find a game that you’d end up loving?
Needs and gratification theory suggests that you would.