One of the things I enjoy most about games is that they can take on any kind of theme or fiction genre. When you look at social deduction games, you’ve got Secret Hitler (WW2) and The Resistance: Avalon (fantasy); with RPGs, you name it, the market probably has it.
A lot of students aren’t familiar with fiction genres beyond a popular few, including: modern, fantasy, WW2 and sci-fi. Even then, they may only have a nodding acquaintance with those genres, recognising only certain cliches from them.
Here’s the underlying issue: because literary exposure is inherently tied to contemporary trends and cultural paradigms, some genres may not be as thoroughly explored or presented as they had been in the past. Fantasy, for instance, continues to be associated with fantastical elements. Even though there’s a growing resurgence in the low-fantasy sub-genre, as is evident from the popularity of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, a lot of newer readers are unfamiliar with the works of preceding authors such as David Gemmell and Robert Ervin Howard.
As the popularity of such genres wanes, so do the philosophies and ideas that can be derived from them. Learners with limited exposure to genres have fewer analogous sources to draw content knowledge from. Case in point: I’ve found non-gamers to be less knowledgeable about genres that are more prevalent with games, such as the post-apocalypse and WW2. While this may sound like an oversimplified stereotype, it’s an actual observation.
Games as a medium for introducing themes and genres
Over the years, through different games and literary works, my students have become more exposed to the different genres out there, either by picking up those that were entirely new to them or by developing a better understanding about those that they already (sort of) knew. I also do post-game discussions to better concretise certain concepts for them.
Indeed, there’s a huge selection of games out there with different themes to choose from. Let’s examine some of the games under specific themes/genres (inclusive of video, board and role-playing games):
Board games: Tide of Iron, Conflict of Heroes, Advanced Squad Leader, Axis and Allies, Dust Tactics (I’m not kidding on this one; more on it later)
Video games: Aces of the Deep, Panzer General, Company of Heroes, Wolfenstein 3D (again hear me out afterwards)
Science-fiction (w/ space elements)
Board games: Twilight Imperium, Xia: Legends of a Drift System, Eclipse, Cosmic Encounter
Video games: System Shock, Freespace, Space Rangers 2, Master of Orion 2, X-COM
RPGs: Traveller, Eclipse Phase, Stars Without Number
Board games: Dead of Winter, Neuroshima HexVideo games: Fallout, Fallout: New Vegas, Wasteland, STALKER: Shadows of Chernobyl
RPGs: Atomic Highway, Gamma World, Mutant Future, The Mutant Epoch
Board games: Android: Netrunner, Shadowrun: Crossfire, Human Interface: Nakamura Tower
Video games: System Shock, Shadowrun Returns, Beneath a Steel Sky, Gemini Rue
RPGs: Shadowrun, Interface Zero, Eclipse Phase
These are just some of the many genres out there, ranked in descending order of popularity. I mentioned a few titles that may raise eyebrows. “Wolfenstein 3D? Dust Tactics? Aren’t they historically inaccurate to begin with?” I heard someone ask.
See, what I’m advocating here isn’t to use games to teach a subject matter. Rather, it’s to help learners understand the possibilities that different genres can offer, to expose them to content knowledge that they can relate real world things to. Most of these games are works of fiction, designed to entertain. You’re not going to learn about computer engineering by playing System Shock, and just because you’ve played Aces of the Deep doesn’t guarantee you’ll know how to operate an actual U-boat. BUT that doesn’t mean one cannot get an experience however superficial out of games, or contemplate the lore behind them.
Again, different genres have different things to offer. The post-apocalyptic genre may focus more on the breakdown of societal structures, while sci-fi may present a dystopian theme. I personally have used Atomic Highway (with a Mad Max-like setting) to deconstruct geopolitical relations, and Interface Zero to illustrate post-human conflicts.
Games paint an effective picture of a genre because they often embody cliches and stereotypes. They’re a fun and engaging way to explore new genres, especially when paired up with appropriate discussions and good reading materials, and can be the first step to discovering new settings and ideas. For this generation of learners where boundaries are constantly being pushed and questioned, familiarising oneself with the multitude of genres can only benefit one’s repertoire of knowledge.