I am a huge supporter of the idea that video games, a media that was created as an electronic toy, is quickly evolving into an artful medium (I'm not going to go down the road of the whole Video games are/aren't art dicussion, because it's done to death.) The focus on atmosphere, story, and other experential elements is increasing greatly this generation of games, and with that arises several problems that have existed since the inception of video games. The problem I am speaking of today is this: Video games aren't defined into genres by the experiences they offer, or the themes that they deal with in the game, they are defined by gameplay mechanics. They aren't categorized by the experience you have with the game, necessarily, they are categorized based upon the vernacular (game mechanics) that game developers use to transfer ideas and stories.
In the early years of video games, the setting up of genres based upon gameplay mechanics made more than enough sense. After all, not only was the technology behind video games extremely primitive, games were toys. Even the people who spent time developing games were keenly aware that what they were making was nothing more than a toy, a piece of entertainment. A basketball isn't advertised as an object that you can create great stories with, because it's just a toy. It has only one intended function; no one promises you anything more than something you can play basketball with. The same principle applies to early games. In Super Mario Bros. you were performing a series of platforming challenges to accomplish a goal. That's all. No doubt, it has fantastic design and is an all-time classic, but it's very apparent that this game exists solely have fun.
And for a while, this idea of defining games based upon their mechanics worked fine. Even very sophisticated games, like Final Fantasy or Deus Ex, still were very refined versions of a basic style of game. The complexity of games until around this generation was still limited to something that could (usually) be comfortably described using this system of genres. However, in many cases, this is no longer true.
I'll do something I'm a big fan of. I'll use BioShock, because it's a very good example of a game that succeeds on a mechanical and artistic level. Now, if you wanted to, you could still identify this game as a first-person-shooter; a game where you use guns to defeat enemies in a first-person perspective. However, defining this game like that does it a huge disservice, one I find almost offensive. Because Call of Duty is a first-person-shooter, as well. Defining Call of Duty and BioShock as "similar" games, is like saying a more recent Stephen King novel and Edgar Allen Poe short stories are similar. Call of Duty is NOTHING like BioShock, beyond the very shallow comparison that both are games that require you to shoot at people in a first-person-perspective. The whole purpose of BioShock is that it's a unique experience in a dark, compelling world. It's an intense, philosophically charged game that has so little in common with COD it's like night and day. So why are they both classified as the same type of game? Because of that old, outdated idea that video games are toys that exist only to provide basic experiences of say, shooting a guy and jumping from one platform to another. It's that mentality that causes games to be looked down upon. How could you accept a medium at all as a form of personal expression (or of, *sigh* aaaarrrt if you must) when it's defined by mechanics, not experiences?
I'm not saying that games need to have higher meaning than being fun just to fit them into a different genre system.I love shallow experiences where I can just shoot bad guys and not worry about heavy-handed experiences as much as the next video game blogger. All I'm saying is that, maybe, it's time for us to look past a game's mechanics alone to determine what kind of experience a game truly is, and put it in a genre accordingly.