The Secret Handshake And The Problem With Gaming's Hidden Code

Gamers are always on the hunt for vindication. Some form of acceptance amongst the wider community. Thing is, we're so busy worrying over whether games are art, or dangerous, that we overlook a potentially larger problem: what we call them.

I don't mean the names we give to the games themselves. Those can be as magnificent or as awful as their creators desire. I don't mean the name of the medium itself, either. Games are games, and you play them on a TV or monitor, so "video games" makes total sense.

No, I mean the names we've given over the years to the genres, and sub-genres, of video gaming.

"Genre" can sometimes be a dirty word. Some people don't like to classify things, and other people don't like to have their works classified. I see their point, most things having genres being creative artforms, after all. But then, most people need genres. They're touching stones, a framework by which we can both identify something, and compare that something to something else.

So we're stuck with them. Books, movies, TV shows, artwork, music, stuck with them. And video games, by extension, are stuck with them too.

Which is a problem. Because video game genres suck.

The Secret Handshake And The Problem With Gaming's Hidden Code

Think about it: Why do we call action movies action movies? Because they're full of action. War movies are war movies because they're about wars. And horror or comedy movies are given that name because that's how they make you feel. It's simple, it's to the point, and most importantly, it makes communicating about the product or piece in question dead simple.

Now look at games. We - and I mean we, since we all use them, developers, writers and fans alike - don't use such accessible, broad terms. Games aren't classified and labelled based on what they're about, or how they make you feel. Instead, they're usually based on something obscure, abstract and even exclusionary: mechanics.

Gears of War, for example, isn't a war game. Even though it's entirely about war. It's not a science fiction game either, despite the fact the game is a work of fiction, involving futuristic, fictional technology, set on a futuristic, fictional planet.

No, we gamers call it a "Third-Person Shooter." Even if you know what the term means, repeat those words back to yourself. They're ridiculous, aren't they? Tell that to someone not versed in gaming lexicon and all you'll get in return is a blank stare.

What does the "third-person" relate to? The perspective of…the narrative, perhaps? No, it's the camera perspective. Oh, so it's a game about cameras? No…

And that's an easy one. Some genre names are even worse. Like these:

Shooter (Halo, Modern Warfare) - A "meta-genre," whose games are normally broken up into "first-person shooter" and "third-person shooter", and even sometimes the dreaded "squad-based tactical shooter." At first glance, it makes sense. In these games, you shoot things! But you shoot things in most video games, even ones that aren't called shooters. Which is usually what makes people get specific, and call them "first-person," or "third-person," leading to the problems described above.

Survival Horror (Resident Evil, Silent Hill) – They're horror games. And the objective is to…survive? Isn't the objective of the main character of just about every horror story ever written to survive?

Of course it is! The survival in the genre name in this case relates to the manner in which you're left feeling helpless thanks to handicaps like a lack of ammunition or an underpowered character. Great design choices for a horror game, but such a pointless label does them a disservice.

Tactical Turn-Based Strategy (X-Com, Final Fantasy Tactics) – Mechanically, in terms of how the game plays, it makes sense. You're controlling individual units on a battlefield, and you take it in turns to move them. But again, repeat that label back to yourself slowly. Or try and imagine saying those words to your grandmother. They're so obtuse it's enough to make you laugh.

Action Adventure (Uncharted) – Another confusing redundancy. So the action is an adventure, and on the adventure, there is action. I can see the attraction of slamming the two words together, but really, any game that earns this tag can get by just fine with "action."

Role-Playing Games (Oblivion, Fallout 3) – You play a role in just about every game on the market, not just those with hit-points and mana pools.

I will point out that some genres get it right. Sports, for example. Sells itself, and does a great job in doing so. Ditto for puzzle games. Brawlers, too, managing the rare feat of describing both content and gameplay. Same goes for music games, flight simulators and fighting games.

Don't think this is just about confusing people, either. It's not just potential consumers kept at arms' length by these coded descriptions. Games developers have trouble with them, too.

The Secret Handshake And The Problem With Gaming's Hidden Code

"The problem with genres is that something that begins as a great idea can become dogmatic or restrictive – and that's when problems can happen", Rockstar's Sam Houser tells me. "Of course, as game makers, it is inevitable that we are inspired by other games, but in such a new (and potentially infinite) medium, it is important we don't get entrenched in a limited way of doing things, and that with every game, we try to do something new and to bring fresh ideas and new influences into play."

Of course, it can be argued that these labels evolved over time for a reason.

"All games are, at one level, an attempt to represent an aspect of the world and make some kind of sense of it," Houser adds. "Given the technological component of games, genres have often emerged as a solution to the limitations of making games on relatively primitive hardware, either through limiting the perspective - in say, a side-scroller - or by limiting the mechanics, so the game is just a shooter, or a driving game, or a sports game etc.

"People who found successful solutions to the problem of representing an aspect of existence on limited hardware have found themselves as the founders of a particular genre - Wolfenstein being a classic example.

"What began as an idea became a genre."

These days, those ideas - and genres - have changed. Even the most straight-forward games like Halo and Killzone now have entire fictional worlds (and histories) crafted around them, and old genres have splintered, fractured and in some cases even been usurped by pioneering new titles like Heavy Rain and Katamari Damacy.

The Secret Handshake And The Problem With Gaming's Hidden Code

"I don't think there is any perfect system when it comes to trying to classify entertainment into categories that are just a word or two", Gearbox bos Randy Pitchford says. "But yes, sometimes it's frustrating when you're put into a box that doesn't quite fit.". And he should know, Gearbox's surprise 2009 hit Borderlands defying classification by being a little bit RPG, a little FPS and a little bit MMO.

Best way around that? Pitchford offers substitute genres, like "Has Cats", "2:1 Cutscene To Game Ratio," "Kotick'd" and "No Midgets." Sounds like a joke, but it's a joke some publishers are already in on; take Capcom, for example, who famously – and officially – label Dead Rising games sold in Japan as "Zombie Paradise Action" titles.

Now, I'm not going to follow all this up by writing some manifesto on replacement names. That's pointless, since genre names aren't handed out by an official board, influential person or industry representative group. Genres evolve amongst the people, slowly and over time, until you wake up one day and the words "heavy metal" just make sense.

I will offer a few suggestions, though. Food for thought, if you will! Role-playing games should be called adventure games, since that's what you're actually doing. Adventure games, like Monkey Island, should be called puzzle games for the same reason. The barriers between strategy genres need to be torn down, uniting them all under the one banner, strategy. And if the game is action-heavy, it's an action game, regardless of the camera perspective (and to be fair, some marketing teams seem to actually be catching onto this notion).

It seems absurd that for an industry so intent on expanding its audience, on seeking out the acceptance of others, in "going mainstream" and in trying to forge innovative new styles of gameplay for itself, that for all the good work done in creating accessible platforms and easy-to-play software, one of the most important things – what games are called and how they're classified, and thus recognised – is stuck in the days of a niche hardcore.