Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Video games: the new literature?

Video games



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?


4 comments on “Video games: the new literature?

  1. pppwritingservices
    August 26, 2013

    I’m still having a hard time with graphic novels.

    • Kevin Brennan
      August 26, 2013

      Ha, same here. I think my brain doesn’t want to work that way…

  2. 1WriteWay
    August 26, 2013

    I think Dr. Brown has a point, and the point is made clearer through comments to the post. It’s not that video games are literature; rather the player/reader may approach the game/novel somewhat the same. It’s difficult for me to conceptualize because I’ve never played video games, but here’s what I imagine as a possibility. A writer could create a video game with a highly complex narrative structure. With novels, the writer would need editors,agents, publishers. So with the video game, she would need programmers, testers, and distributors. Yes, games are interactive and the player can “control” outcomes, but isn’t that control illusory? There are probably a limited number of decision branches in the game, maybe just enough to creat the illusion of control. I can see the narrative part of games, but I can’t see anyone calling it literature. And I really can’t see anyone making a video game of literature such as War and Peace, or at least make any money off it. I think video games are something, a kind of genre, to contend with (and I only say this because of the few bloggers I’ve met who participate in games), but I don’t think even gamers would embrace games as literature.

  3. Kevin Brennan
    August 26, 2013

    Thanks for a very thoughtful comment, Marie. And you’re absolutely right about the technical details and how readers/players might “approach” their chosen “texts.” I wonder, though, if Dr. Brown would be surprised at the answers he’d get if he asked a bunch of gamers if they thought of games as literature.

    Another interesting angle is that literature is made to last, to endure, and to echo through time. Do game designers have any illusion about the shelf-life of their work?

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This entry was posted on August 26, 2013 by in Writing and tagged , , , , , , .
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