Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
When a scholar asks, “Are video games literature?” — you know you’re being drawn into a trap.
But in a recent guest post at Interesting Literature, Alistair Brown, of Durham University, asks the provocative question and lays out some comparisons that made me give the proposition some thought. Before concluding that, no, video games are not literature. That’s Brown’s conclusion too, by the way.
It’s the sort of question we’re inclined to ask in an era when “literature” — however you wish to define it — seems to be fading away in favor of narratives and experiences that are more interactive and realistic. Let’s face it, literature, or for my purposes literary fiction, is demonstrably unpopular compared with video games. A literary novel will sell in the thousands, while a hot video game moves millions of copies. As communal experiences go, you’ll probably have an easier time finding players of “Metro: Last Light” than readers of The Flamethrowers to share your enthusiasm with.
As a novelist, though, I tend to bristle at the idea that video games can be thought of in the same realm of craft and creativity as novels. For one thing, at least as I view games (non-player, by the way), the movement or plot is guided mainly by the player’s decision-making. The game designers may have created the imagery and characters, even a loose storyline, but the player is the one who causes a series of actions/reactions that become the experience. Usually it involves first-person survival and achievement of a number of goals, but it doesn’t have much in common with the structure of a novel.
Brown speaks of elements like empathy and the sense of ending to tie the two forms together. I don’t see the connection, though. The empathy of a game player for the first-person shooter he’s inhabiting is completely different, it seems to me, than the empathy a reader might have for Holden Caulfield or Oliver Twist. The author is creating that sensation in the reader, directing it, sculpting it; the game designers are making it possible for a player to experience, in a virtual sense, the things that character experiences in real-time. It’s physical and fleeting.
I see art as the product of a single imagination. “Art by committee” seems like a different thing, though, of course, movies can be art, as can stage plays, music, and dance — all of which might involve large groups of creators. Literature, though, is conceived by the writer, produced by the writer, revised by the writer, and forever associated with the writer. It represents her and she represents it, and there is no separating the two.
A video game might achieve striking visual effects, stirring experiences, strong physical reactions in the players, and even a certain level of creative innovation, but the fact that it is the product of a corporate mind (in several meanings of the word) makes it, to me, less than literature.
What do you think? Does Dr. Brown have a point, or did he build us a straw man to chop away at?