Games as a folklore genre: A response to one person’s Google search

After my review of Rosalind Leigh, which I thought was pretty mediocre, readership has exploded. I nearly tripled my daily readership yesterday. The number of people interested in that film is really surprising, especially in light of all the other, bigger-budget, far more mainstream horror films I’ve reviewed. I guess Rosalind Leigh hit a chord with folks.

Er, I guess optimizing the blog for search engines helped, too.

An offshoot of this crazy, wild success–aside from partying with the Biebs and Kanye and all those other people the kids are into these days–has been an increased awareness, on my part, of the search terms people use to get here. And as you’d expect, nearly all of this recent upsurge has been due to people specifically searching for the film Rosalind Leigh. But today, just a few moments ago, I noticed a lone set of search terms entered by one solitary person that piqued my interest: “games as a folklore genre.”

My first response to this was to assume it was a graduate student like myself, or a faculty member somewhere, interested in challenging received notions of genre, bringing folklore scholarship more fully in line with the emerging fields of the digital humanities, and other jargony things that non-specialists have too many real-life concerns to worry about. (Of course I read “games” as “video games,” because what else could they mean? Board games? Fah.) And I still think that’s probably the case. So for the sake of that one person–who has probably already long since moved on and won’t be back, rendering all of this futile–I offer my thoughts on this interesting string of search terms. I hope you’re happy, whoever you are.

(VIDEO) GAMES AS A FOLKLORE GENRE

I’ve written before about the concept of genre as folklorists have conventionally used it. In brief, genres are ways of compartmentalizing different forms of folklore (most commonly narratives, but other stuff too). For a long time, though, scholars have been moving away from rigid ideas about genre, in part because they usually don’t match up with common usage (a scholar may call it a legend, say, but normal people call it a myth or a folktale or an “old wives’ tale,” or they don’t even have a name for it), and in part because expressive culture is too flexible and adaptable to stay totally within the boundaries of a single genre anyway.

Nowhere is this more clear than in contemporary popular culture (which is a difficult category itself, of course). Video games offer especially clear examples of the relationship of “folk” and “popular” cultures and how they influence and interact with each other. Also, games are my favorite freakin’ thing ever.

Tons of video games make use of folklore in some way. They may draw directly on established traditions, or they may invent their own, but folklore (specifically the genres of myth and legend) play a major part in games, especially fantasy RPGs and survival horror. One game on PS3 cut directly to the chase:

You can tell they’re serious folklorists because of all the plaid and moody gazing into the middle distance. (Wikipedia)

I don’t own a PS3, so I haven’t played this one, but the cover tells us a lot: folklore (and Folklore) is about monsters and fairies and stuff. Wicked.

So we have, on the one hand, genre as a largely artificial concept, a way of dividing up stuff so we can think and talk about it a little more easily; and on the other hand, we have video games as a medium through which folklore genres are reimagined, conveyed, and experienced in new ways. But what about the idea of games as a genre of folklore?

Other types of games have been a major interest of folklorists (and still are), children’s games in particular. Alice Gomme, a 19th- and early 20th-century folklorist, was a major figure in this area (though I can’t say I’m really familiar with her work myself). So if the question is simply, have games been considered as a genre of folklore?, then the simple answer is yes.

As far as whether or not mass-produced video games can serve as forms of expressive culture, I can only ask, why not? True, video games tend not to arise within small, traditionally-defined communities (though this too is changing, as indie developer become more and more of a presence in the industry); but who cares? Folklorists no longer limit themselves to conservative models of folk group or antiquarian ideas about primitive culture. More importantly, the way audiences use popular forms like video games–the way they play them, engage with their characters and narratives, and generally incorporate the games into their own cultural practices–is of interest to scholars in all the ethnographic disciplines, not only folklore.

By way of illustration, think of the wildly famous Ouija board. The Ouija board was invented in 1892 by an American named Elijah J. Bond, who sold the patent to a guy named William Fuld. Fuld owned the patent until 1966, when he sold it to Parker Bros. The board was created as a game and didn’t gain its Spiritualist associations until significantly later. [1] Today, however, Ouija is thought of as the spirit-talking demon-summoning device par excellence. What began as a mass-produced commodity is unquestionably a significant part of the lives and expressive culture of many people (and this doesn’t even address, of course, the important issue of belief).

As with all things, though, it’s really just a semantic issue. If you define folklore as expressive culture, as the types of communication people engage in in their daily lives (here are my thoughts on all of this), and genre as the specific forms this communication takes, then it’s easy to find a niche for games. Or you could skip the middleman and remove the concept of genre altogether, because it’s becoming less and less useful (except as an emic concept–that is, as a concept that people actually use in their own lives to think about their own lives). The emic perspective, in fact, is a major research interest of mine. How non-specialists use the term “folklore,” and how it is referenced in games like Folklore, are pretty interesting to me as a folklorist, and as an ordinary person who is also a fan of all of this stuff.


[1] Eliason, Eric. “Ouija.” Edited by Jan Harold Brunvand. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. London; New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.

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10 thoughts on “Games as a folklore genre: A response to one person’s Google search

  1. I should not attempt to read your scholarly musings until after I’ve had a couple cups of coffee. Took me two tries to understand this, and I had to look up “emic”. (Which is one of those exactly perfect words, btw.)

    And, I just realized, I have nothing useful to add. Time for more coffee.

  2. Well, this is interesting. I do not think that I made the original Google search (it is possible, though), but I ended up reading your article by making the exactly same search: “Games as a folklore genre”. I made the search because I will present my dissertation research plan in a local folklore research workshop next month about this exact subject. Greetings from Finland.

  3. I’m writing essays for my folklore class and one of them I’ve decided to do on the arcade game “Polybius”. Glad I stubbled across your article. It’s hard to put a phrase that involves both folklore and video games together that doesn’t just pop up with the video game folklore >.>

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