Ratcheted Progress
Dog Adopts Squirrel

DGD2: Genre Skeleton Key

Can genre be used as a skeleton key for learning about how and why people play games? Or is it too vague and variable a system to have any research value?

Pre-requisites: You may need to have read DGD2: How do you play games? to get the most from this post.

I'm still searching for viable options for gathering data for the DGD2 audience model. Case studies are too slow by themselves; we need to get a lot of data together quickly in order to test whatever the initial hypothesis will be, then follow up with case studies. To do this, we need fields of information we can tabulate. I've therefore been wondering whether or not we can use people's capacity to employ genre definitions freely as a skeleton key for gathering play preference data.

The principle is this: if we ask people to provide a parameterised response to different genre categories - like, dislike, don't care - we will get some sorting effects which will allow us to produce statistical categories once we have sufficient data. As in the past, running a competition seems to be a relatively good way of getting respondants especially as this method can attract responses from both Hardcore and Casual players - albiet in an unknown ratio.

Since I am still looking at formulating the hypothesis in terms of Temperament Theory (see here for a briefing on Temperament Theory in the context of DGD2 - it's the same post indexed in the pre-requisites at the start of this piece), a starting point could be to make predictions about the relationships between the skill sets of Temperament Theory (Strategic, Tactical, Logistical, Diplomatic) and genre categories. That everyone uses genre terms slightly differently should not matter as at a statistical level some coherent pattern should still result. (Diplomatic is going to be the problem skill set, as this is much harder to relate to existing games.)

We can then cross refer this with data gleaned from a hypothetical set of 'micro-games' designed to test  the degree that the player enjoys and/or employs the different skill sets - although this is another problem that needs working on. Alternatively, it may be that the genre method produces sufficiently coherent clusters that it could be used as a the basis for a new audience model anyway (one cannot have too many in my opinion!)

As a starting point, we need a set of readily understandable genre categories that tell us something about how or why people play games. For example, 'sports' is probably not much help for identifying play style - although it would act as a good test between Casual and Hardcore. However, this is another area I would like to improve upon in DGD2 - move to a frequency of play model rather than a strict 'Hardcore/Casual' split. We might as well try and improve every dimension of the model.

Categories of Response

Before looking at possible genre categories, in what form should we take responses? Several options spring to mind:

  • Free Response: gets the richest data, but produces data that cannot be automatically tabulated, so is of lesser value. We could take a free responses in addition to a parameterised response though.
  • Simple Scale: perhaps ++, +, 0 (zero), - and -- to indicate a degree of positive or negative response. I favour this over a numerical scale which is prone to greater variety of individual response (witness the way some reviewers consider anything below an 80% score to be not worth playing for some reason!)
  • Keywords: a choice of categories of response such as 'Favourite', 'Like', 'Okay', 'Dislike', 'Hate'... immediately this looks like the simple scale converted into words. For this to be worthwhile there would have to be some advantage over the simple scale.

I favour the simple scale, but I welcome other perspectives.

Genre Categories

The goal in defining genres is not to produce a taxonomy but  to ensure that the genres listed are understandable to the broadest range of people and, ideally, that some pattern of play style or skill set could be connected to the genre. Therefore, the more formulaic the genre category, the more useful it is.

Here are some possiblities:

  • Turn-based Strategy: this seems like a shoe in for a Strategic skill set indicator, although Tactical skill set may also apply. I suspect that you must have some Stategic skill set tendencies to enjoy these games though.
  • Real Time Strategy: this is a tricky one. The key pattern of play in most of these games is Logistical, but there are exceptions - and some Strategic or Tactical players might enjoy only the Real Time Strategy games which don't require Logistical mechanisms, making it an unlikely indicator.
  • Simulation: just no hope at all, as its too diverse a genre.
  • Sports: again, not much help. Could be used to distinguish between Hardcore and Casual with a mid to low degree of reliability.
  • Driving Simulation (e.g. Gran Turismo): this is probably a reasonable indication of Tactical skill set in men, but less so in women. Also, learning the tracks can be very Logistical. The cultural aspect of cars skews its usefulness.
  • Racing: could split out kart racers specifically to cut down the cultural effect of cars. Again, Tactical and Logistical play are both possible.
  • Puzzle: another genre with such diversity it's questionable we could use it.  However, certain games like Tetris and Bust a Move are so widely known that it might be possible to use individual titles as reference points. Because these are the most common non-violent games, the most likely pattern we'd see might be gender based.
  • First Person Shooter: highly formulised, I expect it supports both Logistical and Tactical play.
  • Squad Based FPS: I suspect we would lose some of the Logistical play of a typical FPS and lean closer to Tactical and Strategic.
  • Survival Horror: this is made tricky by Resident Evil 4 taking such a shift in its play away from focus on the experience (Diplomatic?) and towards gunplay, and Logistial/Tactical play a la FPS (a conscious effort by Capcom to regenerate the brand, no doubt). Silent Hill equally shows different patterns of play with each instance. Plus, people have different attitudes to horror which have nothing to do with how and why they play games.
  • Life Sims: might as well just ask people their opinion on The Sims. It would be interesting to test if this is a chiefly Logistical play experience as we suspect.
  • Dancing Games: I presume it is people with well developed Tactical skills (and a bias towards Extroversion) who prefer these games. It could be an excellent reference point.
  • Eyetoy:  probably no  skill set implications, but probably a good test for extroverted play style (like the Type 4 Participant) - could potentially ask 'Eyetoy: played alone' and 'Eyetoy: played with friends' for more of a clear indication.
  • Adventure:  the term has become so devalued and vague that I don't think  it offers anything useful any more. Could ask about classic text adventures - but then any young respondants would be largely excluded. We suspect these relate to Strategic skill set, and also potentially Diplomatic.
  • CRPG: another tricky one. Hack/Diablo-like games are very Logistical, but the core market for CRPGs appears to be Strategic. There is probably some Tactical appeal in games with sufficiently expressive control mechanics. And the story could support Diplomatic play as well. The diversity of the genre may limit its usefulness.
  • Arcade Adventure: suffers from the fact that very few people know what the term refers to!
  • Platformer: probably Tactical, maybe with some Diplomatic (they have more co-operative settings than other games).

Having listed a few possible genres, one has to wonder whether it would be more useful to choose a set of 20-50 individual games and use those as the basis for data gathering. There would be less diversity of interpretation. Games within the last ten years should perhaps be chosen to minimise the effect of age on the responses.

If we used individual games, 'Not Played' would have to be added as a response, of course.

Flash Tests

It still seems like a vital step in gathering data about skill sets would be to build archetypal games in a simple platform (like Flash) to test how well developed people's Tactical, Strategic, Logistical or Diplomatic skill sets might be. The games would have to be of a style that did not automatically get easier with repeat exposure - although it would be acceptible for the test to only be applicable once, I suppose. Individual variance should disappear once the sample size gets large enough. 

I imagine we'd build about 16 micro-games which the player could choose to play for as long as it was enjoyable - then their scoring rates and time spent playing would give us two dimensions of data for each game.

This problem is too big to be covered now; it warrants a seperate post.


The problem with trying to use game genres as a skeleton key for play styles is that each genre groups together instances which may be superficially similar but which may differ considerably on analysis. For instance, the RTS genre largely consists of highly Logistical type games - but a Strategic or Tactical type player could have found several games in the genre that they love causing them to ignore the majority of the titles when assessing at a genre level.

Instead of a genre skeleton key, we might actually do better with a game skeleton key - identifying a set of titles with the maximum chance that the player would have played the game. That some people will like or dislike individual games for purely personal reasons shouldn't matter if the sample size is large enough - the goal is to produce a statistical model, after all.

If we came up with a list of 50-100 archetypal games that are all still in play circulation this might in itself give us a new way of looking at what is stereotyped by the Hardcore/Casual split as we would have in effect a 'game index' - an analogue to stock market indices such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the FTSE 100 or the Nikkei 225. The more games the player has played from the 'game index'  - the ihobo100  if you will - the further towards the Hardcore stereotype they would be. It could be a useful tool in and of itself; would probably need a wiki to develop it on, but that could be acquired relatively easily.

Whatever we do, we can't rely on our subjective assessment of the games to relate to skill sets or play styles - it is likely we are going to need the simple Flash games I've proposed to test which skill set people use or prefer. It's not a very appealing task to work on this problem when we don't have anyone available with the skills to program the test games. Perhaps the next time we have some spare capital we could hire someone to do it - it shouldn't cost much. Alternatively, maybe there's a partner company out there who would be willing to participate in return for the free publicity it will generate.

The bottom line is that we are still in the early days of developing DGD2. We need protocols for data gathering, and until we know what data we can get it is premature to formulate a hypothesis - although another alternative would be to look at the skill sets and see if a testable hypothesis can be created for each. It won't matter whether the hypothesis is eventually disproved - DGD1 was very different from the hypothesis we set off to prove. Being wrong is just as useful as being right when you're building statistical models.

That's roughly where my thoughts on DGD2 lie this month. Thanks in advance for your feedback and opinions!


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I'd have to think more about this to construct a better post, but the first few things I noticed is that (as you mentioned) many of those genre definitions are worthless, especially in light of the genre-hybridization trend. Think of "Rise of Nations" - an "Age of Empires" style game by a Firaxis old hand, with a seperate TBS and RTS game modes.

RPGs are also impossible to pin down, I think - they range from highly strategic, turn-based D&D style games, to highly freeform narrative games, to faster action/RPGs, with splits between highly linear Japanese RPGs and more freeform Western (or at least US) RPGs. The name isn't much help either - all we can determine is that it is a game, which may or may not involve playing a role of some kind.

With Gran Turismo, you mentioned the neccessity of divorcing the game play from the external cultural significance; which although I hadn't first considered, is now quite blindingly obvious. A preference for fantasy RPGs may not indicate the individuals taste in gameplay elements, but rather reflect an upbringing around Tolkien/Jordan/whomever. Similarily, fascinations with a particular historical element can be equally knotty - I for one am fascinated by World War II history, and will play games centered in that time period from any genre - this covers a fairly diverse range of genres, including strategy titles, shooters, and vehicle simulations. A forthcoming RPG in the "Shadow Hearts" franchise takes place just prior to that time, which further broadens that category.

Of course, perhaps the mini-game litmus tests could be designed as very abstract and formless to remove any context and external stimuli; but then, of course, the test is skewed towards those with a strong taste for the abstract and unusual.

Also, I think it's important to settle on a concrete definition of hardcore, since naturally that term is claimed by many. I consider myself a hardcore gamer, playing many types of games and spending a (too) large amount of my money on them. However, I've got a friend who plays fighting games intensely, and has competed on a national level. Certainly, I'd classify him as a hardcore "Capcom vs. SNK 2" player, but would that make him an overall hardcore gamer (since his newest console is a Sega Dreamcast, with no obvious intentions of buying the current gen or next gen of consoles)? While no one definition will be correct for everyone (naturally), the definition will need to be hammered out early.

By the time I'd got to the end of the post, like you I had decided that using genre as a skeleton key simply won't work - but the idea of a game index is a new possibility worth exploring, though.

Right now, I think the micro-games will have to be abstract and simple. This might skew player tastes response slightly, but if all are presented in the same style we should be okay. I will post on the broad plan for these in a month or so, I should think. It'll be interesting to get an external perspective.

Regarding a definition of Hardcore, for DGD2 I want to phase out the term. For DGD1, we used a system of self-definition: if a player chooses to identify themselves as a Hardcore player, we consider them a Hardcore player. Otherwise, we consider them a Casual player. Since Hardcore seems to be a more sensitive word than Casual, this seemed like a resonable approach.

However, we also gathered data on frequency of purchase and number of games played per month etc. Nicole Lazzaro's research used frequency of play as her criteria for identifying Hardcore players and analysing our data we had an excellent correlation between self-assessment of Hardcore status and play frequency, suggesting that either method is sufficient for statistical studies.

What I'd like to do is have new categories reflecting frequency of play et al, and I am wondering if a 'game index' could be a useful measure for this. This might warrant a separate investigation. I'll have a think and post some ideas at a later date.

Thanks for the feedback!

I too feel that I can't do my reaciton justice with a mere comment. I've thought it over a bit, though, and I think this approach of using genre to categorize players won't work. Rather than genre 'keys', I feel genre needs to be viewed as 'buckets'. Perhaps I'll post a response on MBB exploring that further.

I like the idea of using gamelets to explore user categorization, if for no other reason than to explore creating stand alone game elements. Would you be interested in workshopping the design of those gamelets?

Well, we seem to be in agreement about the inapplicability of using genre in this way. :) But what about an index of individual titles? I think this could have some value, although coming up with a criteria for constructing the index is tough.

I'd hypothesise that what we currently call a 'Hardcore' player will correlate with a high score on the game index, and a 'Casual' player with a low score - but with the index as a point of reference we have the option to build new categories based upon any clustering we observe. We could distinguish, for instance, between a "Hardcore" player who plays a wide range of games and a "Hardcore" player who has a very narrow and specific field of interest.

Regarding the micro-games/gamelets, I'm not sure what you mean by 'workshopping' in this context, but I plan to let the designs develop on the blog so I can get some feedback. Should be putting up the first post on this in the next few weeks.

I may need to follow up with a post about how I picture using genre as a development tool. The way I'm picturing it would make a nice game-side component that would plug into the type of research you're talking about.

An index of individual titles may be useful, but it won't necessarily tell you _why_ the player played the game. I typically don't care for strategy games, but I rank X-COM as one of my favorite games. I imagine that sort of scenario is why you're labeled the task of creating the index as 'tough.'

That's pretty much what I meant by "workshop." I'm willing to bet there will be lots of interesting ideas about how to best component-ize elements of gameplay.

It's true that the index wouldn't tell us why, but it's a statistical data device so unique personal reasons are less relevant than any overall patterns that emerge. Any signficant patterns could be followed up via case studies.

The ultimate purpose of the index would be to provide context data to accompany any other data gathered. One of our recurring issues is what extra data do we take from people surveyed, in order to have data to cross-refer.

I'm still not convinced the index would be worth the development effort, but it could be - especially if it allowed us a deeper model of play frequency than just the basic Hardcore-Casual split. Also, the need to update the index regularly doesn't thrill me. :)

I have to say, though, that asking for 'favourite games' in some of our earlier surveys was a fairly useful approach. Asking for 'least favourite' was more choppy - as people's reasons for really disliking games are more commonly personal and partisan. Sadly, the 'favourite games' data can't be automatically tabulated because (a) it's generally entered as a single field and (b) people's spelling/typing isn't perfect. The index, if it were sufficiently broad, could provide a more formal basis.

Hi! Posted a couple of times the other day; back again now. Seeing as your site appears to have a small circle of regular posters I probably should introduce myself and say that I'm an Australian with a heavy interest in game design; my interest falls at a level significantly higher than most of the people I game with, so I'm unable to get much good game discussion there, but I'm not in the industry as I'm unaware of significant opportunities for employment in games design that aren't tied to programming, graphic art, or business skills. I've found your site to be well written, your information and thoughts to be well presented, and on the whole it's a great game design and theory site.

On the topic of this thread (noting it's about six months old with no DGD2 model in site)... is it missing the point to simply ask survey respondents how they feel about particular game mechanics?

Ie: Please rate the following statements on a range of "Strongly agree" to "Strongly disagree"

1) I like games that encourage me to react quickly.

2) I like games that encourage me to repeat the same task many times.

3) I like games where there is a lot of text to read.

If you ask my girlfriend, for example, to name her three favourite computer games, she'd say "Nintendogs", "Animal Crossing: Wild World", and "Rise of Nations". Does she enjoy the cut and thrust of a well-engineered RTS? No. She plays Rise of Nations on "sandbox" mode with no opponents so she can build huge cities taking up the entire map with no time pressures.

Greg: Thanks for introducing yourself, and also thanks for the kind words!

Let me start by saying it is possible to work as a game designer without programming, art or business skills, but it can be hard to get your foot in the door. Being in Australia isn't going to help, although there are developers on the East coast.

As I frequently recommend, you can get some practical game design experience working on card and boardgames which will allow you to practice some basic game design skills without having to find a videogame project to work on. You'll find some pointers for this in our book (21st Century Game Design) - don't feel obligated to buy it, though. ;)

However, although experience of this kind is useful, it won't necessarily help you get a job as a game designer. :(

Regarding DGD2, work has been so unbelievably busy right now that I haven't had time to lead this research forward. I'm hopeful that I might find some time soon!

Regarding your idea to ask directly about game mechanics, experience has shown me that the majority of people do not possess the ability to think abstractly about game mechanics. This makes it hard to approach these sort of issues head on; it is better to interview people and observe patterns in their play, or even better to watch people play and then interview them - but these things take time. On the other hand, if you look at our DGD1 test (you can find it via the sidebar here) you'll see an attempt to ask about people's play in a form that we hope is easy enough for most people to connect to.

We have data from the DGD1 test which needs sorting; I plan to look for patterns of response in connection with specific games. I'll post this data as soon as I have time to have it processed. It's all rather time consuming!

Anyway, welcome to the site! :)

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)