There are many different types of video games, and typically, they're categorized by their characteristics or underlying objectives—not by the type of gameplay they contain.
Game categories or genres, then, can also have subgenres, and many games fit into multiple genres!
Sure, it can be confusing, but by breaking down the game mechanics, we can start to understand how developers and publishers categorize their titles.
For example, if you’re an instant gratification type of gamer, action games are probably best. Do you like to solve puzzles or micro-manage resources? Real-time strategy games (RTSs) or role-playing games (RPGs) might be better suited for you.
But no matter what your interest, there is definitely a game genre that will appeal to your taste.
First, a little history.
The first video games
Physicist William Higinbotham created the first video game in October 1958. It was the highlight of Brookhaven National Laboratory Visitor Open House that year.
Higinbotham, who worked at the laboratory, wanted to create an interactive experience for visitors; quoted in an interview years later, Higinbotham wanted to, “... liven up the place. To have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society.”
The game, Tennis for Two, was played on an oscilloscope, and the miniature, five-inch screen only displayed thin blue lines that looked a lot like PONG. Visitors lined up to play, and Higinbotham’s experiment soon became the most popular exhibit in the lab.
In those early days, computer processing power limited the types of games programmers could create. Fast-forward to today, and technology allows game developers to create anything they can dream up. To that point, in the last few years, new game categories and genres have been created to accommodate games that have fallen outside of traditional game classifications.
Here’s a complete list of all the different types of video games.
Types of video games
- Action games
- Action-adventure games
- Adventure games
- Role-playing games
- Simulation games
- Strategy games
- Sports games
- Puzzle games
- Idle games
1. Action Games
Action games are just that—games where the player is in control of and at the center of the action, which is mainly comprised of physical challenges players must overcome. Most early video games like Donkey Kong and Galaga fall into the action category.
Because action games are usually easy to get into and start playing, they still, by most accounts, make up the most popular video games.
Platformer games get their name from the fact that the game’s character interacts with platforms (usually running, jumping, or falling) throughout the gameplay. There are many types of platform games; Super Mario Bros. is probably the best known, and Donkey Kong was one of the earliest.
Fun Fact: Jumping Flash! on the original Sony PlayStation was the first 3D console platformer game. Up until that point, every platformer game was played “side-on,” and characters usually ran from left to right, in 2D.
Shooters let players use weapons to engage in the action, with the goal usually being to take out enemies or opposing players.
Shooters are categorized by the player perspective:
First-person shooters (FPS) are played from the main character’s viewpoint; Call of Duty, Half-Life, and Halo are good examples.
With third-person shooters like Fortnite and Splatoon, the action takes place from a viewpoint where the player can see the main character, usually from slightly above and behind.
Top-down shooters, like Galaga, Space Invaders, and Raiden V: Director’s Cut feature a complete overhead experience. Where third-person shooters might usually display health bars or meters that get worse or better depending on the character's health or condition, top-down shooters are typically based on sets of lives, with players reaching a "game over" when that stash of lives runs out.
Fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II focus the action on combat, and in most cases, hand-to-hand combat. Most fighting games feature a stable of playable characters, each one specializing in their own unique abilities or fighting style. In most traditional fighting games, players fight their way to the top, taking on more and more difficult opponents as they progress.
Fun Fact: Street Fighter II introduced one of video gaming’s first playable female characters, Chun-Li. (The very first playable female video game character was found in the 1985 Taito arcade game Typhoon Gal. )
Beat-em up games, or brawlers, also focus on combat, but instead of facing a single opponent, players face wave after wave of enemies. Double Dragon was one of the earliest beat-em ups, while God of War, Castle Crashers, and Bayonetta are more recent ones.
Stealth games stress cunning and precision to resolve game challenges, and while other action or combat may help players accomplish the goal, like in Dishonored, stealth games usually encourage players to engage in the action covertly. Metal Gear built a franchise name on this subcategory.
A subgenre of action games, survival action games have really come into their own over the past few years. The survival horror game Resident Evil was one of the earliest (though a linear game), while more modern survival games like Fortnite take place in open-world game environments and give players access to resources to craft tools, weapons, and shelter to survive as long as possible.
Rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero are music-based games that challenge players to keep in step with the rhythm of a song or soundtrack in the game by pressing a corresponding button on the controller at a precise time to accumulate points.
Fun Fact: PaRappa the Rapper, released in 1997 for the original PlayStation, is considered the original rhythm game.
2. Action-Adventure Games
Action-adventure games most frequently incorporate two game mechanics—game-long quests or obstacles that must be conquered using a tool or item collected, as well as an action element where the item(s) are used.
For example, in The Legend of Zelda, Link must find his way through eight dungeons to gather the scattered pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom. Once he’s collected all eight pieces and assembled the artifact, Link can enter the ninth and final dungeon to rescue Princess Zelda. Link uses a boomerang to collect distant items and attack enemies.
Action-adventure games like The Legend of Zelda focus more on exploration, solving puzzles, and discovering loot, while basic combat is more of a supporting activity to the overall experience.
Fun Fact: Games that don’t fit well into other game genres are often tagged as action-adventure games. The Atari 2600 game Adventure (1979) is considered to be first action-adventure game.
Survival horror games like Resident Evil use mature themes and subject matter to portray grisly and gruesome settings (many of these games use blood and gore and are intended only for mature audiences). Such titles deliver nail-biting excitement amplified by a key game mechanic: limited resources like ammunition or finite weapons.
Fun Fact: Resident Evil is one of the most successful video game franchises in history, having spawned dozens of sequels, movies, toys, books, and board games. The original Resident Evil PlayStation game holds the record for worst video game dialog, according to Guinness World Records Gamer’s Edition.
The game genre whose name is based on the games that inspired it, Metroid and Castlevania. Metroidvania-type games are like basic action-adventure games, but aren't linear, and often require that the player backtrack, or is kept from progressing, until they find a specific item or special tool. “Upgrading” your character with new weapons, abilities, and other power-ups allows them to access “special” areas of the game—but not before a bossfight, which is also a major characteristic of Metroidvania-type games.
3. Adventure Games
Adventure games are categorized by the style of gameplay, not the story or content. And while technology has given developers new options to explore storytelling in the genre, at a basic level, adventure games haven’t evolved much from their text-based origins.
In adventure games, players usually interact with their environment and other characters to solve puzzles with clues to progress the story or gameplay. Aside from an occasional mini-game, adventure games rarely involve any traditional video game action elements. Thus, the genre isn’t very popular with mainstream gamers.
Fun Fact: Myst is considered the most successful adventure game of all time. The game was released at a time many consider the height of the genre—in 1993—and became the best-selling PC game of all time. The game also introduced consumers to the era of CD-ROM gaming.
Early text adventure games were called "interactive fiction." And just as the name implies, the gameplay is text-based, meaning players use their keyboard to input commands in response to the game-programmed story arch or situation, such as “get shovel,” “grab sword,” or “go North.” With text adventures, programmers spend quite a bit of development time working out various responses to the players’ inputs.
As computers became more capable of creating graphics to support text, games evolved as well. For instance, early graphic adventure games used simple images to support the still text-based adventure. Later, as the mouse evolved into a game controller, games started to replace written text commands, and players began to “point-and-click” to interact with an on-screen object.
Extremely popular in Japan, most visual novels require players to build up character traits or statistics to advance the gameplay. The games often have multiple endings which are determined by how the player responds to specific points in the plot. Dating and legal simulations (Ace Attorney for the Nintendo DS, for example) are popular themes for many visual novels.
Fun Fact: Nearly 70% of the PC games released in Japan are visual novels.
Laserdisc and CD-ROM technology allowed for the introduction of the interactive movie. Interactive movies contain pre-filmed live-action or animation sequences. The adventure is played out typically from a third-person perspective and the player controls the action during pivotal points in the story, like pushing a joystick right or pressing a button to “jump” out of the way as a boulder rushes toward them.
Fun Fact: Dragon’s Lair is considered to be a prime example of an interactive movie and a video game classic. It was animated by former Disney animator Don Bluth. (It took Bluth’s studio seven months to complete the game.)
The latest evolution of adventure games is real-time 3D. Instead of pre-rendered scenes, players interact in a real-time 3D video game world. Shenmue and Heavy Rain are good examples of these types of games.
4. Role-Playing Games
Probably the second-most popular game genre, role-playing games, or RPGs, mostly feature medieval or fantasy settings. This is due mainly to the origin of the genre, which can be traced back to Dungeons & Dragons and other pen and paper role-playing games. Still, hardcore RPGers don’t discount sci-fi fantasy-themed RPGs like Mass Effect, Fallout, and Final Fantasy, which have helped put unique spins on the genre.
Cultural differences have also had a bearing on this genre, as many gamers categorize RPGs as either WRPGs (Western-influenced) or JPRGs (Japanese-influenced). Finally, gamers are often given choices in this genre that influence the final outcome of the game, which means many RPGs have alternate endings.
Types of RPG Games:
Action role-playing games take game elements of both action games and action-adventure games. A defining characteristic of action RPGs is that the combat takes place in real-time and depends on a player’s speed and accuracy to best foes, versus depending on high character attributes like charisma and dexterity.
Fun Fact: You can still play Diablo online. 20 years after its debut, Diablo is the longest supported online game ever.
Massive multiplayer online role-playing games (or MMORPGs) evolved as graphical variations of text-based multi-user dungeons (MUDs), which were developed in the late 1970s.
MMORPGs involve hundreds of players actively interacting with each other in the same world, and typically, all players share the same or a similar objective.
The only other game genre based on the name of the game that inspired it, Rogue was a 2D computer game and dungeon crawler from 1980. The game featured a text interface and random level generation. Players overcame enemies and obstacles to increase their player stats.
Considering their origins in tabletop gaming, tactical role-playing games play more like traditional board games, wherein the turn-based game action plays out over an isometric grid. Players use almost chess-like strategy and a finite numbers of resources (armies, weapons, etc.) to conquer battles and enemies.
Sandbox, or open-world, role-playing games allow players to freely roam their game environments in search of adventure. These are some of the most immersive and engaging video game experiences available, because the massive amount of game characters and situations required to populate side quests and supporting storylines enable game developers to create almost lifelike virtual worlds.
First-person party-based RPG
“Blobbers” as they’re known to hardcore gamers, are dungeon role-playing games (dungeon RPGs) where a player leads a party of adventurers in first-person perspective. Games like Might and Magic and Bard’s Tale fall into this category because the player moves the entire party as a single unit or “blob” around the gaming area. Most “blobbers” are turn-based but some games can be played in real time.
5. Simulation Games
Games in the simulation genre have one thing in common—they're all designed to emulate real or fictional reality, to simulate a real situation or event.
Construction and management simulation
SimCity is the most popular construction and management simulation of all time. The game simulates the building and management of a city, including street planning, zoning, and taxing city residents.
The Sims is the most popular life simulation game and one of the best-selling video games of all time. Like SimCity (which was also created by Will Wright), in The Sims, players control the individual aspects of artificial life. Simulations may allow players to manipulate a character’s genetics or their ecosystem. Even the character’s reaction to a certain situation may be under the player’s control.
Virtual pet games like Nintendogs and Tamagotchi are considered part of the subgenre of this category as pet-raising simulations. Thus, The Sims is considered a social simulation. Both types of subgenres fall into the life simulation category.
Finally, because of the control these games give to players over the characters and their surroundings, life simulations are sometimes called “god games.”
It’s difficult to rank the most popular vehicle simulation games because sales are equally split between flight simulations and racing simulations. Vehicle simulations aim to recreate the experience of flying an airplane, driving a race car, and in some cases, driving a tractor on a farm.
Vehicular simulations can incorporate combat, in the case of flight sims. This category includes space flight simulators and train simulators.
6. Strategy Games
With gameplay is based on traditional strategy board games, strategy games give players a godlike access to the world and its resources. These games require players to use carefully developed strategy and tactics to overcome challenges. More recently, these type of games have moved from turn-based systems to real-time gameplay in response to player feedback.
A 4x is any genre of strategy video game whose four primary goals check these boxes: explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. Sid Meier’s Civilization series is probably the best-known strategy game in this category. Because of the underlying goals, most of these games have historical settings and span eons of a civilization’s (human or extraterrestrial) history.
A general name given to two- or three-player turn-based games featuring tanks or other soldiers engaged in combat.
Fun Fact: Some of the earliest computer games were artillery games developed for the military to train soldiers how to plot rocket trajectories.
Real-time strategy (RTS)
Real-time strategy games require the player to collect and maintain resources, like bases, while advancing and developing both resources and combat units. Starcraft is the most popular RTS, while The Age of Empires series and Command and Conquer are also well-known game franchises in this category.
Real-time tactics (RTT)
Sometimes considered a subgenre of real-time strategy, real-time tactics games focus on battlefield tactics and operational warfare versus the micromanagement of resources or individual units.
Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA)
This category combines action games, role-playing games, and real-time strategy games. In this subgenre of strategy games, players usually don't build resources such as bases or combat units. Instead, players control a single character in one of two teams, working together to try and destroy the other team’s base (they are often aided in the task by the help of computer-controlled units that attack on a set path).
In tower defense games, players must fend off computer-controlled enemies (often referred to as “creeps”) to win. Tower abilities and creep movements vary from game to game, but usually tower defense games give different towers different abilities, such as the ability to slow down creeps or poison them. When a player kills enough creeps, they're awarded credits to purchase more towers or buy upgrades to increase something like weapon power or range.
Turn-based strategy (TBS)
This category is used to differentiate turn-based strategy games from real-time strategy ones. A turn-based strategy game gives players a length of time (or turn) in which to take action. But like an RTS game, the genre can include games that are not exclusively turn-based.
Another subgenre is developing from this category: simultaneous turn-based strategy (STBS) games are just that—games that let players and opponents interrupt actions and change the gameplay, simultaneously.
Turn-based tactics (TBT)
Based on and mostly using realistic military tactics, turn-based tactics games pit combat forces against each other in volley-like gameplay. Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics are two of the more well-known games in this category.
A subgenre of strategy video games, a wargame focuses gameplay on map-based tactical or strategic warfare. Games like Real War can be played out as turn-based events or in real-time.
Grand strategy wargame
This is a wargame that focuses on a grand strategy, which typically involves placing a nation or empire’s army and resources into action to achieve a goal.
7. Sports Games
Sports games simulate sports like golf, football, basketball, baseball, and soccer. They can also include Olympic sports like skiing, and even pub sports like darts and pool. Opposing players in these games are often computer-controlled but can also take the form of live opponents. (And since we are on the topic of sports, video games should be considered sports themselves!)
Racing simulator series like Forza and Gran Turismo are some of the most popular games in this category, but arcade classics like Pole Position are included here too. In these games, players race against another opponent or the clock.
One of the earliest types of video games genres, team sports games simulate playing a sport. Some games, like Arch Rivals and NBA Jam, satirize the genre, while others like Madden NFL and FIFA look to recreate the realism and capture the feeling of playing a live sport.
Fun Fact: Madden NFL as a franchise is older than half the players currently playing in the NFL. “It’s in the game!” and on your system of choice—Madden NFL has appeared on 33 different video game platforms and consoles, including Windows, iOS, the Sega Genesis and Sega Saturn; Nintendo SNES, N64, GameCube, Wii, and Wii U; Turbo Duo; 3DO; PlayStation, PlayStation 2, 3, and 4; Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.
Fictional sport or competitive games fall into this category. eSport games like Overwatch and Team Fortress have also been assigned to this subgenre.
Rooted firmly in the fighting game and sports genre, these games include boxing games like Fight Night and wrestling video games. In these games, the fighting is more realistic and can feature real-world fighters.
8. Puzzle Games
Puzzle or logic games usually take place on a single screen or playfield and require the player to solve a problem to advance the action.
A logic game requires players to solve a logic puzzle or navigate a challenge like a maze. These games include brain games like Brain Age, but also include such casual puzzle games as Tetris.
Fun Fact: The first version of Tetris was text-based. Its creator Alexey Pajitnov used brackets [ ] to create different sized blocks, and players had to rearrange the blocks as they fell into a glass to complete and clear rows.
Like real trivia games, video trivia game players must answer a question before a timer runs out (or before another player answers) to score points. Since trivia games are especially well suited to casual play, they are increasingly growing in popularity, especially on mobile phones.
9. Idle Games
As technology continues to push the confines of what’s possible in video gaming—and as players and developers push the confines of game genres—new genres are created all the time.
Not to be confused with casual gaming, idle games are simplified games that involve minimal player involvement, such as clicking on an icon over and over. Idle games keep players engaged by rewarding those who complete simple objectives.
Fun Fact: You can make your own simple idle game without any coding knowledge using the Idle Game Maker.
Casual games exhibit basic game mechanics and are perfect for short, casual sessions. This genre has exploded in popularity in the last few years thanks to mobile gaming. Developers often use rewards and carefully designed levels to keep players striving to get further, because gameplay in this genre is usually quite repetitive.
Designed for multiple (four or more) players, party games like Mario Party usually feature mini game competitions with participants competing against each other to finish a challenge before other players.
A programming game usually has players using code to complete a challenge or overcome an obstacle. Codehunt for example, is a game played using either Java or C# where players write code to learn computer languages and programming elements like loops, strings, and ciphers. (Learn more about coding apps with Java or C++.)
Board game/card game
Traditional games like chess, checkers, and backgammon are still popular the world over, and as the world becomes increasingly digital, so do those traditional games. Card games like Magic: The Gathering and the Pokémon Card Game are at home here too.
Massive multiplayer online (MMO)
These games are played almost exclusively on the internet or network-enabled platforms. MMOs also include a variety of game modes, where players can cooperate or compete against one another. Minecraft, for example, can be played both as a single-player game experience or as an MMO.
Advergames are typically created to help sell a product or brand, with the brand or advertiser directing the game developer to create an interactive experience based around a product.
Fun Fact: Based on the Doom game engine, Chex Quest is a non-violent first person shooter that was released in 1996 as a Chex cereal promotion. It's the first video game ever included as a cereal box prize.
An art game showcases art or a structure, and like art, is meant to incite an emotional feeling with its audience. Typically these games don’t feature gameplay but instead are more like “interactive experiences.”
Used mainly as a learning tool, educational games are used to teach subjects like math or typing using basic game mechanics, and thus stand out on most lists of best video games for kids. Don't be fooled, though, (and not to confuse) but technically non-educational games like Minecraft can be educational as well.
The bane of the video game world, exergames are specifically designed to work with a peripheral or controller that allows the player to simulate an exercise or activity. Games like Wii Fit track the number of repetitions and user progress much like a fitness watch.
Fun Fact: The Nintendo Entertainment Systems Power Pad, which was released in 1988 along with the game World Class Track Meet, launched the exergame genre. And while it’s now considered a rhythm game, Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution was considered the most successful exergame ever when it was released in 1998.
Creating your style of game
With all these genres, your video gaming options are plentiful. Not only are there a number of different types of video games to play, but each has spawned its own set of successful subgenres as well.
Toss in the fact that technology is constantly evolving, and you’ve got a fertile interactive landscape! For your imagination and anyone wanting to learn the ins and outs of game development (in hopes of creating the next big hit) exploring video game genres can be the start of something big.
With over 20 video game camp and online courses dedicated to helping students create such experiences, iD Tech gives kids and teens the ability to take these genres and make them uniquely their own... and then some.