In his latest book, entitled I'm Just Here For More Food, Food Network icon Alton Brown argues that a system of classification should always shed light upon matters, and never obscure them. In this book, you will find that buttermilk pancakes are classified as muffins, and pie crusts as biscuits, because this helps the reader to see the fundamental similarities and differences between different types of baked goods. I'm Just Here For More Food is a mighty fine book. And as with all mighty fine books, if I try hard enough, ponder long enough, and channel the spirits of enough of my ancestors, I can ultimately find some way, however small, to relate it to gaming.
Games are not the only form of escapism about which I am passionate. On the wall to my left, hundreds of works of fiction are prominently displayed; but not just any type of fiction! Speculative fiction is the name of the game here. "Speculative fiction" is a particular book classification that cannot be found embossed on the shelves of your local bookstore. It exists only in the minds of some forward-thinking authors and critics, such as Harlan Ellison, and in the minds of their pretentious devotees, such as yours truly.
In his seminal 1967 collection Dangerous Visions, Ellison famously argued that certain genre terms, terms that had long been affixed to stories containing references to monsters and ray guns, were effectively obsolete. Ellison realized that the old nomenclatural schema -- comprised of such terms as "science fiction", "fantasy", "supernatural horror", and "alternate history" -- was actually obscuring more than it was enlightening and hindering more than it was facilitating. Under the umbrella term of "speculative fiction", the next wave of authors could freely explore new avenues of creativity, while the readers (or more to the point, the editors) needn't be troubled any longer with trying to decide which genre is better than the others, which subset of books to accept and which to guard against, which to scorn based upon their cover art, and which to exalt. The old terminology forced people to contrast the differences between certain types of fiction. This in itself would not have been so bad, were it not for the stereotyping and pigeonholing that inevitably came with it -- the aftereffects of which remain quite detectable to this very day. Ellison's new term emphasized the essential "what-ifness" of its member books, and rightly so; for this quality was the one thing that they all had in common, and the thing that separated them from fiction at large. The term "speculative fiction" never penetrated the masses, but it had the desired effect upon the minds of the authors, editors, publishers, and critics of the trade. Much of the speculative fiction (or just "sf", as many advocates refer to it) written since the late 1960s would positively defy classification under the old terminology. Witness just about everything written by the inimitable Samuel R. Delany, for one.
I can sense that some of you are just bristling with objections already. Allow me to summarize: "The term 'science fiction' and others like it are simply too useful to abandon. Look at the way things are marketed! We really do need to differentiate between science fiction, fantasy, and all the rest, for practicality's sake at the very least. These terms are still in common usage!"
The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce argued that the meaning of a term is not determined purely by its etymology; nor is it determined by how it is commonly used at present. The meaning of a term at any given time, according to Peirce, is comprised of the term's own history of linguistic deployment. We may therefore continue to use such genre terms as "science fiction" if we wish. However, we should do so in light of the history of the term itself, with due consideration given to the perceived harm which the worshippers of the term inflicted upon the genre, and the hugely influential countermovement which formed in the 1960s in order to minimize that harm. Ellison wasn't simply saying, "We mustn't delineate between sub-genres!" He was pleading with the established movers of the industry to stop constraining emerging fiction to the narrow notions of "science fiction" that had dominated the stories, serials, and comics of the 1950s and earlier. If we are to continue to use the term "science fiction" in any context outside of documentary projects and the occasional debate over whether or not to use the term "science fiction", then we should be fully and explicitly aware of all the extra baggage that goes along with it. To do otherwise would be to neglect nearly four decades of important and relevant history.
Back to gaming. Ours is a hobby that thrives on the separation of genres. As I browse through the review archives of IGN or Gamespot, I see that each and every game has been neatly categorized according to its genre. Rumor has it that when game ideas are pitched, the designers start with such phrases as, "It's like Diablo, but...," or, "It's Quake meets Diablo," or, "It's a bigger, better Diablo." If such presentations are really being given in the shut-off conference rooms of companies the world over, it is because the designers understand that Diablo and games like it came to define entire genres of gaming. And when a game like System Shock 2 successfully combines elements of two previously distinct genres, it is said to have "created its own genre." Whenever this happens, rest assured that imitations will soon follow.
Who benefits from all this? The game reviewers benefit, because having a giant list of genres with which to saddle a game makes their jobs a lot easier. Gamers who are in such a rush that they can't bother to read a full review and don't mind shoehorning every game into a set genre may derive some benefit. The many lazy, backward-looking game designers that are out there benefit, too. Like the science fiction authors who became hopelessly lost amidst the upheaval of the '60's, they have grown indolent by retreading old turf.
But then, the gaming upheaval has yet to arrive. Nor will it arrive any time soon, in my opinion. The forces that drive the gaming market have no eye or ear for vitality or creativity. They do not seek to engender the slightest artistic pedigree within their companies. Nor is the typical gamer terribly concerned with the lack of ingenuity displayed within the hobby of late. The big sf publishers realized, or were made to realize, that there is real, long-term value -- monetary and otherwise -- in rewarding talent and allowing it to grow. Will the game publishers eventually do likewise? Who will bring that great realization to them? Who will cram it down their filthy, laughing maws?
The extreme genre-fication of gaming is not in and of itself the biggest problem we face; it is only emblematic thereof.
Hold on, folks. The ride's going to get bumpy from here.