Where Do Genres Come From?

That’s the question I’ve been puzzling over this weekend. Why do we accept the genre taxonomies of our entertainment providers? Here are the genres according to HBO Go: Series, Movies, Kids, Comedy, Sports, Documentaries. When you drill down to Movies on HBO Go, you get to choose Action, Comedy, Drama, Horror/SciFi, Suspense, Romance, Family, or Latino.

Weirdly, while we’ve become so adept at micro-targeting and receiving our personalized recommendations via collaborative filtering algorithms, when we approach films categorically, we still allow ourselves to get funneled down into a handful of broad genre categories.

This makes sense to me just from a cognitive perspective. When I was an ice cream man in the early nineties, I observed that kids took a shorter amount of time to decide which items to buy when there were fewer choices. I worked for two ice cream companies–Joe’s Ice Cream in north Seattle, and a sketchy, backwoods sort of operation based outside Olympia. Joe’s offered nine items, and the sketchy operation offered over twenty. I made sales much faster driving for Joe’s because my customers weren’t as paralyzed by choice. This is a common phenomenon extensively studied by people more informed than me about psychology.

And I’m just as guilty of choice paralysis as anyone. I’m writing this post at Victrola, a cafe on 15th street across from a building that used to be home to On 15th Video, a business whose closing I still lament. I can’t tell you how many times I stood in that store, walking slowly down the New Releases shelves, numbed by choice. And when I’m visiting my parents and indulging in their Netflix, I often find it takes me half an hour to settle on a movie to watch.

Genre is a helpful tool that helps us decide what entertainment we want to choose. But the trade-off is that it forces works of art to conform to narrower definitions than they’re often inclined to conform to.

One way around this is to categorize films via the auteur theory. Scarecrow Video organizes their vast collection in this manner, and it’s an incredibly gratifying experience to browse by director if that’s your orientation to movies. But if you enter Scarecrow with no idea of what it is you might want to end up watching, you run the risk of spending an hour or more wandering. Or you might miss a science fiction film by a particular director if that film is filed by director rather than genre.

Genre classification, whether we’re talking about books, movies, or TV shows, is something we just can’t seem to quit, a seemingly necessary set of restrictions that allows us to make choices.

How’s all this relate to VR?

One of the things that’s fascinating about VR is how it weds two art forms that have up to now only flirted with each other, games and movies.

The big question is how much interactivity users are going to want from their VR. VR allows for the creation of explorable 3D spaces. Is watching a VR movie like watching a play, where I can choose to direct my attention to various actors on a stage? Or is it like a video game, where I can actually climb up on that stage and interact with the actors? Am I going to want some experiences to be fully navigable, and want to play more of a spectator role in others? I just don’t know, but I want to figure this out.

One prediction I think that’s safe to make is that in the early days, media companies will simply import the genres we’ve grown accustomed to in movies into VR. There will be sci-fi, action, drama, and (if HBO has any say in this), Latino VR experiences. (And of course there is/will be porn, which is a whole other discussion I don’t have the bandwidth to get into at the moment.)

But there’s another way to approach genre in VR. Genre can be based on the level of interactivity and the sense of presence rather than the categories we’ve inherited from movies, which in turn inherited them from books. I think we’ll come to our genre classifications through how we choose to use VR, not just via the tropes of the content we expect to encounter with it.

I’ve written about stereoscopes in this blog, and I think they’re actually an interesting way to think about what genres might emerge in VR. During the Victorian stereoscope boom, I’d posit that the most of them were of the Exotic Lands genre. People liked to look at 3D images of far-away places. Looking at these sorts of stereoscope cards now, it still feels like you’re “there” in a way that you can’t get from looking at an old 2D photograph.

I think we’re going to want this again, but with a poignant twist. I think we’ll use VR to “preserve” parts of the world that are vanishing due to climate change. I think human beings will be hungry to “visit” the island nations that will soon be subsumed by rising sea levels. We’ll create a virtual archive of earth’s dying places in order to remember them, and hopefully one day we’ll use this archive as our species’ collective memory so that we can bring these kinds of places back.

I believe that the power of presence can be a tool toward ensuring the continued existence of life on earth. It represents an opportunity for the earth to become more fully aware of itself via human perception, and maybe it’ll whip off the flat screen-induced blinders we’ve all been wearing.

On a far more trivial note, I was thinking recently about how I’d use a 360 camera rig to film my apartment on Capitol Hill. I often feel like I hit the apartment jackpot. I live in a vibrant, incredibly walkable neighborhood. I’m across the street from a grocery store, within a couple blocks of light rail, Elliott Bay Book Company, parks, and one of Seattle’s very best bakeries. I also recognize that I won’t live here forever. So I’ve been thinking that some day I’d like to just make a VR recording of my apartment. I’d set up the camera so I could revisit what it was like to sit in my writing chair in my living room, or gaze out my bedroom window when the dogwood is in bloom.

We’ll get to the point where home VR recording will be a thing. I’ve already seen a incredibly sleek 360 camera about the size of a smart phone. As we get into whatever ends up being the VR version of FaceTime, we’ll hit record so that years later we can relive those conversations we had with our geographically separated relatives. Increasingly, VR will become a medium we use not only to travel to various places in space, but back in time.