The self-imposed genre ghetto (Wish-Fulfilment, Part 2)
In Michael Chabon’s essay, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story”, I find that this thoughtful writer, who has been on my reading list for some time, brings into clearer focus some of the things I was talking about in some of my previous articles.¹ He deftly separates the issues of marketing and creation, discusses the ghettoization of genre fiction, and the difference between actual rules and conventions.
I am clearly the audience he is simultaneously writing to and satirizing—anyone who knows me will see how neatly skewered I am by his admonishment to those who disdain entertainment in literature:
Intelligent people must keep a certain distance from [entertainment’s] productions. They must handle the things that entertain them with gloves of irony and postmodern tongs. Entertainment, in short remains junk, and too much junk is bad for you—bad for your heart, your arteries, your mind, your soul.
Touché, Chabon. But he is actually pushing to expand the definition of entertainment, just as I was suggesting we should endeavor to broaden the focus of our medium of games. He provides a list, which he says is partial, including:
[The] engagement of the interior ear by the rhythm and pitch of a fine prose style; the dawning awareness that giant mutant rat people dwell in the walls of a ruined abbey in England; two hours spent bushwhacking through a densely packed argument about the structures of power as embodied in nineteenth-century prison architecture; the consummation of a great love aboard a lost Amazon river boat, or in Elizabethan slang; the intricate fractal patterning of motif and metaphor in Nabokov and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; stories of pirates, zeppelins, sinister children; a thousand-word-long sentence comparing homosexuals to the Jews in a page of Proust (vol. 3); a duel to the death with broadswords on the ancient coast of Zingara; the outrageousness of whale slaughter or human slaughter in Melville or McCarthy; the outrageousness of Dr. Charles Bovary’s clubfoot-correcting device; the outrageousness of the outrage in a page of Philip Roth; words written in smoke across the sky of London on a day in June 1923; a momentary gain in one’s own sense of shared despair, shared nullity, shared rapture, shared loneliness, shared broken-hearted glee; the recounting of a portentous birth, a disastrous wedding, or a midnight deathwatch in the Neva.
Perhaps some of the types of entertainment to be found in games might be different, but I’d argue they can and should be just as varied.
But Chabon also finds the conventions within genres of fiction are tightly restricted. He finds himself bored as a reader and bored as an author. Carefully codified, decades-old rules and formulae for how to create works of genre fiction have left them tired and stagnant.
And this was where the essay began to resonate with my thoughts on examining our medium’s rules, seeing which ones actually serve us and our audiences, and looking at advancing the form in terms of the ways it can deliver meaning to an audience as well as the types of meaning that can be thus conveyed. Chabon’s and our media have different sets of problems but ultimately these are barriers between creators and audiences, that I compare and contrast here.
In Chabon’s definition, rather than a rule, wish fulfilment can clearly be seen as merely a convention of a certain genre of games. The lack of clarity on this point, coupled with the fact that until quite recently a primarily male, young adult audience was thought of by many as essentially the audience for games, and that this also coincides closely with the marketing of such games, it’s easy to unravel why it came to be held as such a sacred truth. In fact, I don’t want to nullify the idea: if you are trying to make a story-driven action game intended as a power-fantasy for members of this demographic, it is clearly worth consideration. But it’s a “rule” only as much as anything in How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way is. I also think that taken to its logical conclusion the result (and one that certainly we see currently) is very limited types of characters, particularly protagonists, being created for games. To draw a parallel to yet another medium, this is what has led to #OscarsSoWhite in film.
Returning to games for an example, I had to fight hard for the race and gender mix of playable characters in Diablo II: many players and team members said they did not want to play female characters or characters of color. My feeling was that presenting people with a variety of backgrounds and motivations was important to the creation of an expansive, rich, and rounded world, as was a sense of inclusiveness for players. In fact, this is wish fulfillment, just not the type that panders to a homogeneous demographic.
In ChronoBlade, sadly, I lost this fight: Lucas was supposed to be Asian, Thera was supposed to be both brown (Minoan) and a tough warrior; none of this came to pass. We still wrote Thera as we had envisioned her but there was some cognitive dissonance involved because of her stereotypical appearance. The characters were still decently varied, just not as much as I’d have liked. Certainly a large number of other factors were involved in the greater success of the former and the lesser of the latter, but I’d argue that this is essentially the first choice the player was presented with in both games, and so of major importance to the player’s decision to engage with them or not.
Regarding Chabon’s feelings of the stifling of genres, another thing to note is that there are two axes of “growth” in games, one being the content and the other being technology. I think it’s easy to see the technology progress and feel that change is occurring, but this is a trap—using the analogy of literature, moving from a scribal copy of The Canterbury Tales to a Kindle edition changes only the delivery; the content is essentially similar.
Another element of stagnation Chabon finds in his own medium relates to the arbitrary and ossified definition of what is literature, and therefore worthy, versus genre fiction, and so junk. Basically, the powers that be—critics, academicians, etc.—decide what is lauded and what is trashed. The forces of marketing reinforce this, leading to what he calls the ghettoization of the bookstore, corresponding to what is labelled literature versus the bookshelf slums that genre fiction are consigned to. Although I enjoy bookstores, I believe one benefit of online sales is that these barriers will tend to break down over time as they have in games.
This at least is a problem we don’t have to deal with in games. In brick-and-mortar game stores there has for some time been a shelf war that has denied some games a place, but with online sales, tech-savvy gameplayers generally have no problem finding whatever game they are looking for regardless of where or how it is made available. Players also define the genres themselves on outlets such as Steam. There seems to be a general trend in this direction which I think will continue, where creators and audiences engage more directly. Also, pointedly, Steam has a tag for Female Protagonist, suggesting that players want to move away from stereotypical main characters, and this was just one easily identifiable element (though, admittedly, many games that meet this criterion still fail on that score). Indeed, games are one of the more successful categories on crowdfunding venues such as Kickstarter, allowing players to directly influence what gets made, rather than just choosing from among products.
Another factor that holds back ghettoization in games is the constant change that keeps stagnation from taking hold. Looking back, for example at early game titles any given platform there’s very little homogeneity, but later, “best practices” begin to emerge. However, things loosen up again when a new gaming device like the smartphone appear. Although there are occasional changes to film and literature, they are much more incremental (with a few exceptions), and so do less in terms of the freeing up of forms.
Therefore it seems very much up to us as games creators to decide if we want to hew closely to the conventions of whichever genre we are working in, or instead to understand clearly what those rules are and choose instead to break them in order to transcend the genre. Hybrid games clearly do this and it’s a great luxury—if a novelist writes an SF/ mystery, marketing folks have to choose which bookstore ghetto to put it in, while for us this choice might affect marketability, but not much.
Finally, of his favorite authors, Chabon says that they,
[…] derive their power and their entertainment value from a fruitful self-consciousness about the conventions of their chosen genre, a heightened awareness of its history, of the cycle of innovation, exhaustion, and replenishment. When it comes to conventions, their central impulse is not to flout or to follow them but, flouting or following to play.
Read Previous Articles in This Series
- The essay is collected in Maps and Legends. I’ve been reading Chabon since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, though I do confess disappointment in his Telegraph Avenue, mainly because, as a local, the title was inseparable in my mind from the several blocks of Telegraph that end at the main gate of UC Berkeley, where it is simply referred to as “The Avenue” or even “The Ave”, even featuring in the title of the Green Day song, “Stuart and the Avenue” (Stuart being one of the cross streets in the locale). The book was not about the crazy scene there.