Connecting players and narrative with a genre

author: @aestranger

Reading time: 5 minutes

Connecting players and narrative with a genre

Genre is a potent tool that is often side-lined when discussing narrative and themes. Themes and genre are synonyms in a way but the former is more of a practical application when discussing game-based experiences, whereas the latter, genre, is an overall categorisation of a semiotic domain where narrative can take place.

Genre’s main role is in how we tell stories and the type of stories that we can tell. It creates a scaffold for concepts, contexts and rules which can be placed on a narrative foundation. Not only that but the genre is also part of the cultural variations that we have across the world. A theme may be horror, but the genre of Western Horror versus Eastern Horror varies, and even within those there are sub-genres that have their own rules and practices yet again.

It is worth considering the language that a genre brings with it when creating narratives for game-based experiences. The story you make for the experience is what creates the connection for the player with that experience. But on top of that, if you add a genre to it, one that is recognisable, everything that comes with it will deepen that connection even further for the player.

For the player, when they create and/or find meaning in the narrative experience, they also receive a level of value that is inherent to the genre where the discovered meaning is found. The semiotic domain of the genre thus adds a level of intellectual, emotional and social meaning for the player to accept and internalise. 

The act of storytelling & genre

Stories are an interactive activity; we tell each other stories. Even if we’re alone, as a child with an imaginary friend or person in prayer, the story still came from or is based on an interaction, nothing springs from the void.

Narratives are thus by definition collaborative activities, a game-based experience, in theory, can therefore not exist without a story. The purpose of the genre then is to create a shorthand for the players. It increases the connectivity between the individual collaborators and the story in which they are taking part. Essentially accelerating the buy-in and collaboration within any experience.


Genre & variation

Genre not only aids in accelerating collaboration, but it also offers variation when implementing narratives. The narrative is the foundation upon which the genre scaffold is placed or attached. This foundation details what actions will occur and how the story will unfold, the scaffold then can, therefore, be changed as many times as needed, for whatever purpose.

Cinematic examples of this are the foundation of a Love story. Be it a family love story, between siblings or two strangers, the basic concept of love is there. The genre though can be changed repeatedly. From a science-fiction love story variation such as Passengers to a true-story variation like Titanic or an animated fantasy film like Frozen. Each is essentially a love story, but each is new and somewhat different.

Game examples with a “save the world” foundation are Legend of Zelda for high-fantasy, or Wolfenstein for a sci-fi war variation. In table-top RPG’s there is the collaborative virus battle of Pandemic or the team-oriented, and mind-bending experience of Call of Cthulu. Each revolves around saving the world in way, but each one is very different.

Every genre variation in these examples gives the players a recognisable basis but takes place in a different world with different rules, cultures, customs and aspects to explore. Modern players are largely familiar with the majority of genre’s and therefore know what to expect, but the variations are still different enough to make each experience unique.

The benefit of implementing a genre with a narrative basis is that combined they offer the chance for the meaning and value of the story to be depicted differently each time. When using a game-based experience, learning objectives can therefore be reused and reinforced thanks to the variety of genres. Thereby allowing a level repetition that doesn’t become tedious, and strengthens the learning effectively, through said repetition.

Genre as a teaching tool

Genre not only allows for the reinforcement of a learning concept but it can also teach social skills and social understanding. It is one of the most prominent and powerful tools when used in a social commentary context.

Creating game-based experiences around specific genre’s with strong narratives allows players to examine subjects that would otherwise be difficult to explore. Subjects that discuss things such as oppression, segregation, climate change and social inequalities.

Popular culture examples are the X-Men – taking on the sci-fi fantasy alternate reality genre of superbeings who represent a marginalised section of society, thus opening up the discussion around how marginalised people are treated and their fight against systems of oppression.

Within PC games we have Frostpunk, a post-apocalyptic climate-change world that deals with tough moral and ethical choices and the impact that such harsh circumstances and environments will push people to.

An RPG example that deals with society and marginalised individuals is Monsterhearts. A table-top RPG about (hidden) monsters who go to high-school. It is of interest due to the way it deals with sexuality and queerness, allowing its players to roleplay characters who undergo (sometimes unwanted) changes and how these players and other individuals interact with these changes.

Genre as a tool for connection

Genre and narrative are necessary tools to allow players to connect with stories they may otherwise avoid or have difficulty connecting with. The inherent comprehension that a genre allows if for the door to be opened to a wider variety of experiences and players.

It creates openings for individuals who would usually be apprehensive, inexperienced, blind to and/or ignorant of aspects of the world and society they live in. Especially in role-playing variations of game-based experiences, a strong Genre-narrative may improve the empathy of players for others who are like the character they played or interacted with regularly.

Consider therefore exploring the language of genre’s a bit more thoroughly the next time you are creating a narrative and choosing a theme for your game-based experience. The more recognisable the story is thanks to the genre choice and genre language, the stronger the retention of information and learning will be that the narrative is trying to transfer to the players. 

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æ, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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