For children, everything, even work, is play. For adults, everything, even play, is work. So instead of just jumping in like a kid at Christmas armed only with boundless enthusiasm, for us old tired grown-ups, maybe it would be a good idea to first study the lay of the land. After all, video gaming is not just an entertainment industry, it’s a mind-blowingly huge multi-universe with an ever-expanding range of activities and a vibrant fan culture. Before committing to a hobby (and especially before sinking money into it), as an adult, one should first check it out. So let’s get our homework out of the way.

At first glance, the video gaming universe is indeed quite daunting. First of all, it is immense and constantly growing: the US video game market was worth over 78.6 billion dollars in 2017. That’s still a lot smaller than the American home video industry worth 107.9 billion, but with 2.5 billion players around the world, it’s nothing to sneeze at.

What to play

The variety and immersive power of video games today is amazing. They have evolved into a jungle of fantastic forms, wildly different kinds and formats. Wikipedia lists at least at least 7 major categories with no less than 55 distinct genres.

Literary genres are distinguished by the content, tone, techniques used, and even the length of the story. For instance, there can be both fantasy novels and short stories. The fantasy could be a noble epic quest, like Lord of the Rings, or a dark grim tale of magic and politics like A Game of Thrones, a rollicking short sword and sorcery action story like a Conan the Barbarian yarn, or even a eldritch tale of ancient unspeakable horrors, like just about anything by Lovecraft. All reside in the general category of fantasy, but each is a very different genre. This is because it’s all about the story: the reader is not a participant but simply an observer of the action.

Not so with gaming. In the video game world, the player is the main actor that moves the story, central to the action. Therefore genre in games denotes the type of challenge presented and how it’s handled. Exact content, mood, or length doesn’t count. A first-person shooter is just that whether set on Mars in the far future or back in the Old West.

So for games in the adventure category, the play proceeds as a series of puzzles to be solved, often non-confrontationally, not as incidents demanding instant reactions – like automatically blasting away at zombies who shamble into view. There can be text-based adventures, which were the first, with written on-screen descriptions requiring simple commands to be typed in. Graphics were added to add visual appeal to adventures which used a mouse instead to select rather than entering in commands. These evolved into visual novels which resembled comic books but with limited motions. With laserdiscs and later CDs, these begat interactive movie games where players have to decide what action the situation requires. Eventually, these gave birth to 3D fully-interactive real-time adventures.

So unlike literary genres, video game genres are driven largely by technical evolution. New genres are bound to be invented or mashed together all the time. Some games in older genres reached peaks of popularity and perfection that are still the acme of their genre. The most popular video adventure game of all time, for instance, was 1993’s gentle, immersive Myst, where the action solely consisted of exploring a deserted island and clicking on the various things encountered to discover what had happened.

Here are the 7 main video game categories today:

Action – these are what most people think of when thinking of video games: loud, splashy, and violent. These include fight contests, first-person shooters, races, etc. The player must manipulate his single character to avoid obstacles, battle enemies, and collect objects. These games are all about physical challenges, quick reaction times, and hand-eye coordination. As we have seen previously, interest in these activities tends to decline in older players even quicker than physical abilities do. Nonetheless, games like these might keep those old reflexes from getting too dull. These games can sometime include more than one player.

Adventure – here, the player’s character is immersed in an interactive story that requires exploration and puzzle solving. The need to engage the character in the story allows them to be narratively richer and the game universe larger, often with recorded dialog interactions with other characters setting the stage. There’s often a lot of looking around for and collecting objects. Due to the narrative structure, they usually only allow single players, but are popular among the older crowd.

Role-Playing (also known as RPG) – takes immersion even deeper into a more elaborate world. The player’s character (or parties of characters) often has a unique set of abilities and deficits and can grow more in the course of play, and usually involve multiple players. Coming from tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons (which begat a host of video games) gameplay consists of pursuing a series of tasks through a quest dealing with scripted-in characters and situations, sometimes in concert, other times opposed to other players.

Simulations – as the name suggests, these mimic real-life activities, often without any explicit goal other than training and experience. Players are set in a particular highly-structured situation and allowed to freely explore the environment, such as a World War I fighter cockpit. These range from flight simulators to construction, sports, and even dating and custom agent games. Key differences from the action category are mainly in realism and the freedom and options given the character. Serious simulators can require specialized equipment, though.

Strategy – these games require careful planning in order to solve situational problems with tactical thinking to achieve victory over foes. Usually these foes are evenly matched in terms of resources and goals. So strategic games are concerned with out-thinking the opponent rather than dealing with physical challenges. Many of these involve empire or world-building. Technological and economic growth may be emphasized over conflict. Massive multiplayer online real-time strategy games (MMORTS) are played out in persistent online universes in real-time with hundreds or thousands of players. Some games reenact campaigns from the World War II or are set in elaborate fantasy or sci-fi universes.

Traditional – these are digital versions of good old favorites, like Solitaire, crossword puzzles, and just about every board game ever. For seniors, these offer familiarity and ease of play with a minimal learning curve. Many of them can be found free online, too, and can be played by several players.

Casual – like traditional games, these are comfort food: simple, easy to play time-fillers for single players. Many offer the ability to easily jump in and out of gameplay and can be enjoyed on smartphones or tablets, making them perfect for waiting rooms and similar situations. Many of the games advertised on TV for phones fall into this category.

In our next article, we’ll finish up the preliminaries with a discussion of gaming equipment and the social aspects of video games.