Upcoming Events
Unite 2010
11/10 - 11/12 @ Montréal, Canada

GDC China
12/5 - 12/7 @ Shanghai, China

Asia Game Show 2010
12/24 - 12/27  

GDC 2011
2/28 - 3/4 @ San Francisco, CA

More events...
Quick Stats
49 people currently visiting GDNet.
2406 articles in the reference section.

Help us fight cancer!
Join SETI Team GDNet!
Link to us Events 4 Gamers
Intel sponsors gamedev.net search:

My Name is Daniel and I am a Genre Addict


The game industry is maturing and some worry that it is stagnating. Every hit game is a sequel and new concepts and titles seem few and far between. What causes this pattern? Is it a good thing or is it a fatal flaw in the structure of the game industry?

It is easy to look at other media and though there are many of the same business trends of consolidation and mass culture product, games stand alone in their blatant recycling of old concepts. Not even the Clear Channel world of Britney Spears relies so heavily on remakes and remixes.

Unlike movies or books, games are unique in that you can make quite a bit of money by simply repackaging an old successful game with better graphics, slightly tweaked levels and an additional power up. The majority of money in the game industry is made from either direct sequels to successful games or games that are minor improvements on existing game designs.

This is not an accident of history. Exactly why this happens is due to the fundamentally addictive nature of games.

The Basics: Games as Psychological Drugs

What is a game?
Let's be blunt. Games are drugs.

A game is a pre-packaged set of stimuli and directed player responses that piggy back on existing human risk / reward systems and create a measurable psychological addiction.

"A set of stimuli and directed player responses"
The first step to understanding this definition of games is to strip away everything that games borrow from other media. This includes plot, sound, or even recognizable real world objects. The result is often a set of abstract symbols and game rules that still have the fundamental qualities of a game. The classic example is Tetris. It contains an arbitrary ruleset, no setting or plot, yet it still causes players to spend immense amounts of time playing one more round.

"Piggy back on existing human risk / reward systems"
Due to the mysterious meandering of human evolution, people can be made to do things if you know what buttons to push. A child will salivate if you show them a picture of a meal. A male will become aroused if you show him a picture of a naked female. These basic physiological responses have spawned entire industries that take advantage of such built-in triggers.

There also exist psychological triggers. Through risk/reward schedules, you can cause a person to do a variety of mundane activities that only have meaning within the context of the overall system. Gambling, Super Mario, Solitaire, and B.F. Skinner's experiments on dogs are all examples. It is these pre-existing systems of psychological triggers that all games use to generate 'fun', the pleasant buzz that encourages us to keep playing.

"Measurable psychological addiction"
The ever helpful Wikipedia defines addiction as "an uncontrollable compulsion to repeat a behavior regardless of its negative consequences." Psychological addiction is "dependency of the mind, and lead[s] to psychological withdrawal symptoms." This is strong language and I use it as a foundation for understanding games, not as a medical definition.

The portion of addiction most pertinent to games is the 'uncontrollable compulsion to repeat a behavior.' Games strongly encourage players to repeat specific behaviors over and over again. Most games structure themselves around a core game mechanic, a simple repetitive activity.

Admittedly, games exist in a gray area when it comes to 'negative consequences'. A player's addiction can be mild, (the need to play 'one more turn') or serious (the gamer who died from playing for 32 hours straight). What is important is that a game gives players a rush that they desire to repeat.

What is a game genre?
Think of 'genre' as a common class of drug. In the game industry a genre is a common set of game mechanics and interface standards that a group of titles share. The names of the drugs may be different, but the biochemical impact on the body is the same.

Genre speaks heavily to the addictive systems behind a game and less to setting, plot, or other typical categories. Warcraft and Starcraft have very different plots and settings, but they still belong to the same genre of RTS.

This is admittedly a horrible overloading of the term 'genre'. I pity those schooled in movie history trying to wade through this essay. However, historical usage in the game industry leaves us little other choice.

The Birth of the Genre Addict

  The Birth of the Genre Addict
  Publishers: How the Drug Lords of the Industry Profit
  The Role of Game Developers in the Drug Trade
  Marketing Lessons
  Closing thoughts

  Printable version
  Discuss this article