By Dr Alistair Brown, Durham University
To ask “Are video games literature?” seems a pointless kind of question, like pondering whether a film is the same thing as a poem, or whether a Rembrandt painting tastes like cheese. Yet asking this question is a necessary provocation, because it helps us to think about how and why video games and literature might elicit similar reactions in their players or readers, even if they set about this process in quite different ways.
That we even ask the question about whether video games might be “literature” or for that matter any other form of “art” is significant, because it shows that we are at least approaching video games with an open mind. The late, great film critic Roger Ebert got many things right, but when it came to video games, he was notoriously unfair in claiming that “video games can never be art.” Ironically unfair, too, since he seems not to have recognised that in the late nineteenth century his own discipline of film was initially compared unfavourably to the theatre, just as the novel was once seen as subversive compared to religious tracts, or twentieth-century impressionist painting was condemned as a childish daub compared to nineteenth-century realism.
Ebert can be seen as a reactionary, whose instincts will at some point be proved flawed. What these earlier movements suggest is that at a certain point we invariably stop defending our trusted forms against the upstart newcomer, and start using our old critical weaponry to colonise the new ground. So twentieth-century writers such as T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound saw in film not something inferior to literature, but rather something that could inspire innovative writing. The tools of Biblical scholarship turned from studying religious texts to theorising the new and exciting form of the novel. And as video games reach a level of aesthetic, visual and narrative complexity we are just now beginning to see that video games might be interpreted using long-established methods of art and narrative criticism.
Two questions now start to follow, just as they did during earlier epochal shifts. The first is: video games may be art, but art of what kind? Are games more like a movie or more like a novel? Are video games like real-world sports that happen to have stories attached, or are they more like literary stories that happen to be gamified? Once we have decided what traditional forms games are most like, the second question is: how can we apply the same tools that we use to analyse existing art forms to the new ones?
Almost since games came on the scene there has been an ongoing debate within game studies. There are those (the ludologists) who argue that games can best be understood in terms of their unique mechanisms that frame and define their field of play. To a ludologist, even though a game like Mass Effect contains 250 000 words of dialogue, to understand the game we must concentrate on the interaction of variables and the mechanics of shooting, running, jumping and flying. The story is merely the excuse to zap bad guys with lasers; it may have an epic plot written in collaboration with science fiction novelists, but structurally Mass Effect is more like Super Mario than War and Peace. In the opposing camp, there are the narratologists, who contend that we play for the story. If games are simply about underlying mechanisms, which vary little from one game to the next, why are we excited by Mass Effect whereas nobody plays Doom any more? Just as all novels allegedly riff on seven basic plots, so games are always variations on an underlying mechanism. As with novels, then, it can only be the subtle narrative variations that explain what makes one game better or more compelling than another.
My own research seeks to put some colour within this very rudimentary sketch of the critical landscape. I start from the presumption that, although games are not literature in any straightforward sense, with 2000 years of literary criticism behind us there must be something interesting that literary scholars can find to say about the way video game narratives work. Claiming this, though, involves thinking backwards. Much criticism starts by looking at the structure and form of a text, and only then (if at all) wondering what effect it may have on its readers. However, what if we look at games and literature through the other end of the telescope? If we consider the effects of games and literature on players and readers we will notice that there are similar feelings and attitudes involved in both, and we can then search for the common structures and methods that might bring these similar responses about.
Take one example from a forthcoming book chapter: the sense of an ending. The literary critic Frank Kermode observed in a highly influential book that our reading experiences of novels are motivated by our knowledge of an ending to come. Every novel, he points out, actually begins at the end. When Jane Eyre tells us at the start that “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day,” we are not actually learning about an innocuous event before the “real story” gets going; that event actually matters, is the first in a long chain of contingent actions that end up with the marriage of Jane and Rochester. At the same time, although everything that happens turns out retrospectively to have been relevant towards the end, Jane Eyre continually and agreeably surprises us, so that in the moment of reading we are never entirely sure where the narrative will take us next. The only thing we do know is that, like a coin dropped into a spiralling funnel, from a broad and seemingly coincidental beginning we will eventually arrive at a point of definitive conclusion, all the threads resolved – a point of conclusion that is lacking in our actual lives, which neither end nor in some senses begin, only continue from one lived moment to the next in a continual and perplexing stream of perceptions which rarely make logical sense. Literature, meandering through twists and turns of plot and fate, turns the unforeseen, which is so often frustrating in real life, into the enjoyable, because we know that all will be resolved in the end. This is why we read.
And it is also, I would argue, why we play games. Games mimic life: things happen which are unexpected, there are challenges, we make mistakes. At the same time, these mistakes and backward paths are more enjoyable in the context of a game because we know that they must lead somewhere, that as we learn from and overcome those mistakes, we will eventually reach the end that is waiting for us, programmed by a grand designer. Notably, most gamers tell themselves narratives about their own processes of gaming: “I went into the room and shot the baddy by the window but then I got shot by the guy in the dark corner, and so next time I scoped out the room first and got the sneaky guy and then the obvious target.” We rearrange and correct, and the game rewards us eventually with the ending, the completion screen which we strive towards. The often basic structure of games – go here, shoot this, move on – is made out to be a weak point. In fact it can be seen as a generic strength. It enables us to tell ourselves stories which place our actions amid the unexpected threats of a game into a heroic order. The unexpected dangers and frustrating failures along the way are all the more rewarding once we get to the end, and can see how they fitted into the ultimate picture. Thus we game as we read: for the sense of closure.
This is just one of the ways in which we can consider games and literature to produce similar effects, but by somewhat different means. Here are a couple of others.
Aristotle wrote on the central role of catharsis in drama. Even as his maps for what makes a tragic plot and hero have been modified over time, the cathartic response remains crucial in contemporary drama. Is it there in games as well? And if so, is it brought about by plot (crucial to Aristotle’s conception of drama) or characterisation (central in modern drama)?
Or what about the notion of empathy, which has become a dominant theme of literary studies as it engages with the findings of neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary theory. Literature works – and is of social and even biological value – because of the empathy it creates when we see the world from the point of view of another character. Gaming, too, asks us to occupy another, virtual point of view. Do we empathise with characters created out of pixels in the same way as we empathise with those created by printed words?
To end with these open questions suggests that the ultimate question, “Are videogames literature?” remains unanswered. Actually, I think it is pretty clear that video games are not literature. Nevertheless, put the question a slightly different way – “Are players of video games like readers of literature?” – and the two start to move a bit closer together. At the level of how and why we experience and respond to a “text,” literary criticism can help us to understand things about video games. It is not the only way of interpreting games; perhaps it’s not even the best way. However, it is a way which presumes that video games are not an entirely new means of telling stories, which can only be theorised with a blank slate. Like most academic research these days, whether in the sciences or humanities, video games are best understood through an interdisciplinary approach, turning the light of one discipline in an unexpected direction to see what it reveals about another.
Image: from The Great Gatsby video game
Dr Alistair Brown is an Associate Lecturer at the Open University and does postdoctoral work in English at Durham University. Alistair’s blog can be found at The Pequod; he also edits Research English At Durham.