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.
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Intersting article. I would argue that Games, especially Role Playing Games and more specific the Massively Multiplayer Online Games (for instance World of Warcraft) resemble neither literature nor movies but have a lot in common with theater: As a gamer in front of your computer you are the 3 most important parts that are the very make-up of theater at the same time:
1. the actor: you play a role
2. the stage director: you can decide the direction of how you want to play and what you want to achieve: for instance I know some gamer who pretended to be female and flirty just to gain something favoritism from the male gamers.
3. the recipient / the audience: you are your own spectator and watch your intrigues play out.
A big part of the fascination for PLAYING games is interaction with others, of engaging in creating/achieving something as part of a group (look at the raids in WoW or the PvP-Battles). You make your own world, where you can be whatever you want: deceiving or a hero or a princess in distress.
The only thing in which games imho resemble literature (and movies) is that they present the gamer with a fictional world (historic, fantastic, science-fiction). But a gamer is not on the receiving end as are people watching a movie or reading a book. A gamer is always more than a receiver, his is also participant and creator.
Interesting article, Dr. Brown, however, I feel your argument may be somewhat short-sighted. In pondering the question, “Is a film the same thing as a poem,” you imply the obvious answer (“No”) but you seem to ignore the important answer, which is that despite having different structures, we consider both media to be literature.
Are you familiar at all with “The Monsters and the Critics?” Prior to Tolkien’s essay, academics observed Beowulf as a historical document and a source for Anglo-Saxon language. Tolkien argued that since Beowulf was a poem, we ought to study it for its literary value as well. The question we should address, rather than why we play games, is why we study literature; is it because we gain something valuable from the form–in which case, each medium must be thought out on a case-by-case basis–or because we find value in the narrative, in which case it would be difficult to argue that games don’t contain some sort of story, and thus by extending Tolkien’s argument, we should study as stories.
Obviously, I can’t argue that every story has literary value–I don’t think I could write a paper on the moral dilemma of Pong, or carry on an intelligent discussion on why Donkey Kong kidnapped Pauline–but if we consider Foucault’s “What is an Author” essay, we should at least acknowledge that there are varying degrees of art in any medium. Some games truly are merely sports with stories attached, but other games are more like novels that happen to be gamified. You bring up shooter games which, I agree, may not have a high literary quality to them, but we don’t condemn books as a medium because of the formulaic nature of romance or mystery. Instead, I suggest playing through the more literary games like Final Fantasy X, Journey, or Silent Hill 2, which do weave very intricate and meaningful storylines, all the while using their structure–which has been enabled by modern technology–to enhance the narrative capabilities. Interview people who have played Final Fantasy VII and ask them how they felt when Aeris died–she may have been pixilated, but many players recognize it as one of the most emotional moments in all of gaming.
You may also want to consider why people create things–many video game developers are out to make profit, but many of them also consider themselves artists. I found this quote by FFVII’s producer, Yoshinori Kitase, on the scene I mentioned above:
“In the real world things are very different. You just need to look around you. Nobody wants to die that way. People die of disease and accident. Death comes suddenly and there is no notion of good or bad. It leaves, not a dramatic feeling but great emptiness. When you lose someone you loved very much you feel this big empty space and think, ‘If I had known this was coming I would have done things differently.’ These are the feelings I wanted to arouse in the players with Aerith’s death relatively early in the game. Feelings of reality and not Hollywood.”
If people have put the effort into creating their conception of art, I don’t think we should be so quick to dismiss it. Personally, I think the answer to your question is obvious, but I come to the opposite conclusion–that of course it should be considered literature. I even have a class playthrough of Journey scheduled for my Introduction to Literature students two weeks from now, after which we’ll examine how technology changes storytelling, as it did with film.
I think the first paragraph implies that the answer is no, but it does bring to light the fact (among others) that both games and literature can invoke emotional responses from the player/reader.
Literature has to do with writing, as in ink on paper, so in that regard video games aren’t literature, but they most certainly are art. In fact they are probably the most underrated form of narrative there is. Video games have an amazing potential that is only just beginning to develop. Just look at games like ‘The last of us’ and (dare I say) ‘grand theft auto.’ Another important factor is the people who play. I think Dr. Alistair Brown is mistaken; most gamers only play the multiplayer portion of games and honestly don’t care about the narrative.
Video games aren’t literature, by definition. However, they are great works of art. They inspire and stir up a myriad of emotions in the gamer. And the best games have well developed plots and expositions, like great film. Great post, great topic.
Perhaps at some point in the not to distant future we will be asking “is virtual reality literature?”
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Great stuff, but what do we mean by literature today? Do we mean something along the lines of canonicity, and thus institutional conferred? If so, then which institutions? And what are their means of establishing authority? Reading this article, I’m reminded of John Guillory’s remarks in his book “Cultural Capital” about this same question of what constitutes literature in the literary realm. His conclusion seems to circle much the same as this article, that by deferring to and enriching the discourse of aesthetic judgments we might arrive at a more productive understanding of how to establish a “literary” quality of a work. So, with that said, how might we judge art in this arena? Turning to the methodology and rhetoric of literature seems a touch counter-productive if only because the production and mediation of capital in the discourse of videogames are so radically different from that of literary literature, at least as I see it presented in this article, though I may have missed a step. At any rate, where might I read more of your progress on this front?
I love these kinds of questions, in general- question what “art” really “is;” not passively accepting the status quo. Here, though, I think the key definitional component of literature is technically that it’s *written.* (Which would, technically, potentially allow for the old-school text-based games to be considered “literature,” though that’s really kind of splitting hairs.)
However, when you get into more subjective definitions of literature, you may 1) start disincluding written works you don’t think are “worthy” of being called literature and/or 2) become more inclusive, otherwise. You could, for example, question whether the scripts/written components of video games could count as literature.
I’d also bet there’s would (broadly) be a generational effect on who would automatically say “of course not” vs. “well, depending on the specifics, maybe.” Whether or not it’s “literature” now, it’s increasingly a part of how stories are told and heard in our culture, and may come closer and closer to being widely considered “literature” (or, at least, “art”) as time goes on.
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This is a good point.
A subscriber of mine, Dara at http://theclearout.com/, shared your post with me. Timely, as I’m working on my next piece and will be inviting artists, writers, and thinkers to discuss ART with me (don’t want to give it away. I’ll leave it at that). You managed to stay plausible and then really made me willing to lean forward a bit in the last paragraph. I might refer to your thoughts here on my next post…we’ll see. I thoroughly appreciate how you propounded your position. In case you’re interested….my own thoughts on why we read:
Your thoughts here ended up beyond the scope of the post I finally got to, as I was tackling the broad, basic, and unending question of art. You are welcome on the latest post, with your insights.
I accept as factual your posted letters will appeal all and sundry. in the meantime i have read your whole part attentively. it’s a super-duper output. numerous congrats for your large part.
Very interesting post and truly thought-provoking as the comments show.
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Video games are the greatest form of art. Music is art because it speaks to our sense of sound. Paintings, drawings, and photography are art because we enjoy the way they look. Film is art because it combines sight and sound spanned over time.
Video games are like film but unravel much more rhizomatically. Multiple scenarios can unfold, providing multiple storylines. They have stunning visuals and great soundtracks. My question is: how are they not art?
Reblogged this on skatterbOt and commented:
I think we all know my vote on this issue is a huge “yes”. Or at least “they certainly can be”.
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Like film, I tend to be interested in how classic literature is re-imagined in this piece of media.
If the class’s assessment of the said literature is no better than a Cliff’s Notes online quiz, then video games would be “dangerous” to the literary integrity of students who should have read the book (or audio book) already.
But good teachers should not be intimidated by this new development – they should find a way to use it to engage their students into the material.
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Topics Aristotle Books Classics Literary Criticism Literature Narrative Plot Reading Seven Basic Plots Video Games
Guest Blog: Are Video Games Literature?
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. 1,656 more words, 52 comments, and 150 likes
ataugustine reblogged this on Crown Town Scribe and commented:
We’ve been talking about this a lot lately. Thought I’d give you a doctor’s point of view.
5 days, 6 hours ago on Interesting Literature
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Definitely an interesting piece on trying to analyze a contemporary medium with a traditional critical lens.
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My partner is an occasional gamer and for some unexplained reason this gets under my skin. Why not just pick up a book or do something productive? Hmm?! Well, after reading this I may have a new perspective.
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This is a really good post but in order to fully explore this topic you need to consider each game individually and define what makes a game what it is. Not all games have dialogue. In fact a lot of games don’t have dialogue and yet they are brilliant games. Games focus on gameplay and the story drives the gameplay. So if a game is made to enjoy gameplay mechanics and the story is there to drive that and literature is purely story, you can’t say that gaming is literature. Literature is an inferior “part” of gaming and almost a by-product of it.
That’s a good point – there is certainly a wider variety within games than we find within other genres, such as film. I raised this problem in an earlier journal article here if you wanted to read: http://www.alluvium-journal.org/2013/05/13/are-video-game-narratives-postmodern
One point and one question (and sorry for the brevity– I have to run in a few but I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to comment :) )
1.) First off, I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of the distinction between the questions “Are video games literature?” and “Are video games texts?” While the answer to the first one might not be so straightforward, the answer to the second is a definitive yes.
2.) My second question pertains to your point about the end-game:”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.”
Much of the pleasure I’ve derived from playing games stems from the reassuring knowledge that, no matter what, the game will reach its conclusion and my mistakes/questions/ambiguous plot points will inevitably be resolved. At the same time, I’ve poured a great deal of time (more than I would like to admit as an academic) into games like Minecraft, which, for a long time, did not provide the player/reader with any sense of an ending! When the developers finally did provide one, it was a sort of tongue-in-cheek gesture toward players which require a formal conclusion rather than some denouement which was built into the narrative from the beginning. I suppose all of this supports other points about the sort of mini-narratives we construct to supposedly compensate for the “generic strength/storytelling weakpoints” of certain games, but it is worth mentioning again that many games do lack the grand finale and, for many players, this is part of the appeal (“Book of Sand” effect?).
Lastly- Great Gatsby: the videogame?? I must find this…
Great post! I look forward to reading more!
Thanks for taking the time to reply.
On games as “texts,” this is the less controversial term to use, and the one more acceptable in academic parlance. However, I would question how useful this is, if we want to consider the medium more deeply. Literature, film, television adverts, car user manuals – all these are also “texts” which embody cultural and creative values. But to say that games also are texts therefore doesn’t really tell us much about either what makes them unique, or which particular genre they most resemble. Hence why I want to think specifically about games and literature (though equally valid are approaches which consider the similarity of games and film, or games and drama).
That point about open world or sandbox games is a really good one. It’s not something I addressed in my recent chapter where I thought about games and endings, but as I want to explore this idea further this is something I need to consider. Of course, literature has analogies to this, such as the box works of BS Johnson or the cut-up of William Burroughs. However, these are arguably the exceptions which prove the rule about most literature involving the sense of an ending. Sandbox games, on the other hand, are one of the most popular sub-genres. So this is an issue I’m going to have to think about a little more. Thanks for raising it!
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I think if we define literature in the terms usual to academia then video games, per se, would not constitute such; they lack the essential content in the traditional sense. And yet to reduce video games to one-dimensional entertainment is also to do an injustice to them. If we consider ‘literature’ as a broader expression of culture – framed by the values of each society and time in which it is expressed; even mediated by the available technologies – then in many ways video games are literature. There is, of course, a spectrum within the range of video games; and the basic paradigm – interactive – differs from that we associate with classic written literature, which is a more passive exercise.
However, my underlying thesis here is that ‘literature’ in the modern sense is itself a product of technologies (book making) and values (what ‘constitutes’ literature) which are technology and culture-specific; and we fail to adapt our definitions to our peril. The western world in particular is going through a very significant sea-change at the moment, brought about by technology – one, perhaps, as great as that of the industrial revolution over 200 years ago. It will change the way we think, the way we approach things; and we need to adapt our viewpoints and terms of analysis to suit.
I completely agree. There is a difference in the paradigms adopted by the two media (interactive vs. passive) but that in no way means that books are innately superior to games as a form of cultural mediation. This is the view that some conservative commentators want to take – but when a format is worth more annually than all the films to emerge from Hollywood, I think that deserves some investigation from traditional humanities. The things games can tell us about our cultural and values are very significant indeed. I’d argue that very few works of literature or film have better skewered the hypocrisies, opportunities and ironies of the USA as well as Grand Theft Auto has.
What is literature? Everyone has their own self-asserted definition on what literature is, but there’s an universal consensus that a book is literature, however are books the only form of literature and must something follow its format to be considered literature? Contrary to popular connotations literature according to dictionary.com literature is stated as, “Written works, esp. those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit”, or “books and writings published on a particular subject.” Given this definition literature is broader than what most people think, which brings up the important question, are video games literature? By that definition video games have the capacity to be literature as they take a more technological approach to a written work, by not just letting the reader, or player, read the written work but visually and emotionally experience the world as the characters in this game would.
Let’s take one of my favorite games Final Fantasy VII, a game that has stood the test of time and has been referred as one of the greatest games ever made, the basis of the plot in this game is that there’s a spirit energy known as the Lifestream, the soul of planet, which exists underground; the Lifestream is a collection of spirit energy from every entity that have lived and died of the planet. Mako is the name of the Lifestream in its liquid form and contains huge amounts of concentrated energy which a company named Shinra developed a technique that could convert Mako into electricity. Shinra then gained a monopoly and took over the world politically and economically by being the majority providers of the planet’s power. You’ve brought up the fact that video games can mimic reality and this is no different, the Lifestream is an imitation of other energies found underground such as fossil fuels, oil, petroleum, coal and gas which are made from compressed plant matter. Now imagine if a group of oil rich countries banded together to try and monopolize the market and dictate who got the oil: in reality, there is a group that does this by the name of OPEC who only give oil to countries they like and withhold from those dislike or increase prices, such as in 70’s when OPEC was enraged by the US’s helping of Israel they rose the gas prices by roughly seventy percent per gallon which caused a nationwide panic in gas rationing.
I hope you can see where I’m going at this point. Books and video games both imitate life despite the format they’re given to us: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky which is comparable to the video game Assassin’s Creed by Ubisoft in its stance that killing can be morally justified and murder can benefit the whole of society, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling is similar to Kingdom Hearts and most rpg, role play games, in the notion of young people banding together in an interdependent function to change the world for the better against an oppressive force, Hamlet by Shakespeare is comparable to God Of War in how the protagonist dealing with the loss of a love one is trying to rectify their death on a journey of insanity and revenge, and the list goes on. Despite the vast differences in formats books and video games both follow the same guides of literature, they both have settings, introductions, protagonists, antagonists, rising action, character growth, climax, drama, conflict, morals, themes, moods and a resolution. Whether you disagree or not, there is no denying that there are video games who abide by the same guidelines as any book of literature would.
Ultimately, I thought this article was an interesting read, but I was immediately thrown off from the start, because it was made clear from the beginning you don’t believe video games can be literature. When someone starts off on any project or scientific assessment with the belief or conviction that their thoughts are correct then they subconsciously seek out things to reaffirm this and never come to terms with understanding the true depth of the other realm of argument despite their intellectualism. Now do I believe that all video games are literature? No, but I do believe that there are video games who do quality as literature.
Thanks for your thoughts. There is no doubt in my mind (and yours) that visually, emotionally, mimetically, and as metaphors of the world games can produce complex experiences. I think that’s what I’m really interested in, the experience rather than the method. Clearly the methods that games use are very different to those used by static, printed words. Nevertheless, the feelings we as readers or gamers have in response to both media may be quite similar – such as that feeling of achievement and reflection once we reach the end. It’s surely worth investigating why two things which seem so different on the surface can bring about shared responses underneath.
I’m picturing T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound playing a system link Halo match. Imagine the anti-Semitic remarks they’d be screaming through their headsets…
Just imagine – Bloomsbury: The Video Game!
hmm… not so sure . i do find some video games educational not all.
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Interesting article. According to a 2011 ruling of the U.S. Supreme court, video games are art. http://www.cnn.com/2011/TECH/gaming.gadgets/06/27/supreme.court.video.game.art/index.html
… and on a different note, here’s a little something I wrote about the state of online gaming, if anyone is interested:
Entertaining and provocative. Very well written.
Quick question: what about novels which don’t have a conclusive ending which are enjoyable nonetheless? Cormack McCarthy comes to mind, for example. Moreover, when I read McCarthy I do so with the expectation of troublesome non-resolve. I enjoy it because it doesn’t fit the mold, because it isn’t predicable at all.
I also wonder if more video game could become tragedies as gamers become more sophisticated and as programmers continue to reach a wider audience.
Thanks for your remarks. Frank Kermode’s work called The Sense of an Ending, on which I drew for that first analogy, wouldn’t have a problem with inconclusive endings. Indeed, Kermode uses Borges, with his labyrinthine literature, to prove his argument. His point is that all authors start with an end in sight (even if only vaguely, and even if their end aims to have no conclusive end), and that readers in turn come to a book with the expectation that it will finish. So even though an ending may be troubling, it still has one, a cut-off point that was chosen by an author – and that is something we can’t say about real life.
Interestingly, Kermode was writing when printed books were the norm, so the sense of an ending is enforced by our knowledge about how far through we are. But it would be worth thinking about how the sense of an ending alters when we have ebooks with the number of pages invisible or less obvious, or when we have literature published in serial form, or when for that matter we have interactive games; quite how the sense of an ending differs depending on the medium rather than the content is an interesting question.
interesting article. thanks for the share.
Reblogged this on laryter and commented:
As a vivacious reader and video game player, this was a great piece to read. It brings up some interesting questions. Please read and enjoy this reblog:)
I think it depends on the type of video games1 I don’t like the violent ones myself but the family friendly ones!
Certainly not all video games can be considered as great art – but whilst I understand why people may prefer family-friendly games, I don’t think we can say that violent games can’t be artistic. We wouldn’t want to say that, for example, no Quentin Tarantino film can be great simply because there is lots of blood, would we?
That is a good point!
Wow, excellent post! Very thought-provoking topic with a beautiful argumentation string and lots of useful information. Thank you for that!
I would also not say that video games are literature. However, to me, video games become more and more a complex piece of art, consisting of beautiful plots, dialogues and mechanisms that bring the gaming experience and the story as whole into one. That, to me, is art.
Thanks for your generous reply. Yes, games certainly are becoming much more complex, and I look forward to seeing what the next-generation of consoles brings.
Art can be any form. I am reminded of a story concerning Picasso. He was at a isolated beach, took a stick and drew with it a form in the sand right next to the water. He spent quite a lot of time on it. Then he went up from the beach and looked back. He watched as the ocean tide came in and took away his work. A passerby questioned him. He replied that he did the art for himself and it was for his soul and not for anyone else. Is my blogging art? Maybe. What do you think?
There’s certainly a case for saying that art is something highly subjective. If even one person calls or feels something to be “art” then it may be so – as is the case in your Picasso anecdote. On the other hand, is such an approach particularly useful? It hardly helps us to explain why some artists, such as Rembrandt or Shakespeare, have been regarded as great by vast numbers of people across time and culture, whereas the majority of literary or artistic works produced have faded into obscurity, despite the fact that their creators no doubt believed them to be “art” as well. It’s hard not to think that there must be some essence in some works that makes them more “art” than others, that gives them the capacity to survive.
Of course, maybe I’m just biased because without making these sorts of judgements – separating good from bad works, art from non-art, or ordinary games from those which have the status of being “literary” – I would be out of a job!
Great points. What is your take on the art of rappers? Do not worry I am not a rapper. Just curious what you think.
Well given that when I teach poetry I get students to do blind readings of rap and indie lyrics, as well as some canonical poets, and given that most often students rate the former more highly than the latter, I’d have to say “yes” rap certainly can be art. Though personally I’d say that though it may be in principle, a lot of rap is not especially good in practice (for my blind reading exercise, I have to work quite hard to find examples of music lyrics that might potentially match those of conventional poetry).
Reblogged this on Crown Town Scribe and commented:
We’ve been talking about this a lot lately. Thought I’d give you a doctor’s point of view.
I’m glad that you immediately addressed the title’s question, although I will admit it caught my eye, which I’m assuming was the point. ;) Video games aren’t literature, but they don’t need to be. They are a storytelling medium all by themselves, and due to their inherit interactivity,I’m glad that you immediately addressed the title’s question, although I will admit it caught my eye, which I’m assuming was the point. ;) Video games aren’t literature, but they don’t need to be. They are a storytelling medium all by themselves, and due to their inherit interactivity, they can do things for the audience that literature, movies, and theatre cannot. I love that you addressed the ludologist vs. narratologist debate, but I believe that both camps are operating in absolutes when the medium itself serves a grey area. There are gamers who could care less about story. Games like Halo, Call of Duty, and dare I say Mass Effect serve the ludologist argument, simply using storytelling elements to get to the next battle. However, we must not ignore games like Bioshock Infinite, the upcoming Battlefield 4, and almost the entire Final Fantasy series, where the interactivity of the medium is used to tell a story in which all the necessary components of literature are used to great effect.
When the subject of storytelling in video games comes up, most people like Your Friendly Librarian and immediately turn their attention to the possibility of multiple outcomes, and the player’s ability to make his/her own story nearly from scratch, but that is the absolutely worst point to start from. I’ll go as far as to say that if a story in a video game is going to be of good quality, it must avoid this tempting option altogether. Who is better known to you, Laura Croft of the Tomb Raider series, or that nameless night elf you made from scratch for World of Warcraft? In fact the most memorable moments in video game history are when the primary storytelling elements are completely out of the player’s hands. Three examples come to mind: the end of the first Metroid game when we find out that the main character, Samus, is a woman, the beginning of Max Payne during which the player controls the main character but is powerless to stop the murder of his wife and infant daughter, and Final Fantasy VII when Aerith, the potential love interest of the main character, is killed in front of him.
All three of these games, in addition to the previously mentioned Bioshock Infinite and Battlefield 4, give the player little to no choice in the outcome of the story, and yet they are all best sellers (excluding Battlefield since it hasn’t come out yet). The game’s designers can be equated to authors, who have a specific story to tell. There’s a point A, point B, and so on. What is in the player’s hands is exactly how they get from point A to point B in the storyline. This is where the elements unique to video games comes into play (pun completely intended). The player can interact with the world around them, enhancing the world building, they can choose to take on minions using different strategies, and they invest their time, energy, and brain power to getting to the next point. And that’s where the difference lies, the investment. If game designers are creating compelling characters, plot points that raise the stakes, and putting tension in the right places the way good authors or movie makers do, then players will invest a great deal of emotion in a game.
Many people who played Final Fantasy VII, like myself, were brought to tears when Aerith died because she was a playable character who brought value to our gameplay strategies, and this was on top of her potential romance with the main character, Cloud. I was also very young at the time, but despite a player’s age, the sense of loss was very real because of the interactivity of the video game in addition to solid storytelling elements. Through hours of dialogue we got to know her and she was compelling. I’m not trying to shamelessly promote, but I have a blog that explores storytelling in all its different forms, and video games are the subject of my current series. Dr. Brown, I would love to get in touch with you to find more sources of academic research on this subject as every study I’ve found has been on violence and hand-eye coordination.
And perhaps the issue with the title is simply the word ‘literature’ as many who consider themselves a part of the literary community to be separate from other fictional genres. To many of them, Dan Brown, Stephen King, and JK Rowling are not ‘literary’ authors. Maybe ‘Are Video Games Genre Fiction?’ or ‘Are Video Games Commercial Fiction?’ would have yielded better responses. Then the inherit pretension reflex wouldn’t have reared its ugly head.
Thanks for a comprehensive and really helpful reply. Your right that the title was intended to provoke rather than to be serious – but provoke in a way which I hoped might encourage those who rebel instinctively against the idea that games can be good stories to think again, and admit that games have “literary” qualities even if not literature.
You make a really good point with your examples. Some of the most powerful storytelling experiences of games come when the game takes charge and leads us by the hand, rather than when the player him or herself creates the story. To your list, one could add the multiple endings of Mass Effect or Bioshock – these serve to remind the player that the choices he or she has made through the game have had consequences on the story: people have died or lived because of the player-hero’s interactions. This all adds to the investment that you rightly talk about. Feeling that one’s actions have consequences, are more than “just a game,” is really important. We’re back, I guess, to the way in which the best stories require one to suspend one’s disbelief and immerse or project oneself totally into the expereince.
On the flip side, you also make a good point that players are rarely REQUIRED to take notice of the story in order to play successfully. For some players, it is all about getting to the end or proceeding as quickly and efficiently as possible. Whereas I was concerned about what happened to the little sisters in Bioshock, other players will simply have been worried about what rewards they would get by saving/killing them, and skip the cut scenes and dialogue that plays out the moral consequences. This is, of course, a difference to literature, in which skipping portions of narrative will lead to a disruptive encounter with the text; such a degree of disruption is not true of video games, when we skip their narrative components.
If you want to email me to discuss further research, you can reach me via https://www.dur.ac.uk/english.studies/research/researchstudents/?id=4306
Reblogged this on Book and film reviewer. General Critic On Current Affairs..
As I admitted in my first paragraph, the question “Are games literature?” does indeed seem stupid on the face of it. However, I hope I’ve laid out why at least asking such a provocative question in the first place leads us to consider some of the ways in which their paths might cross.
I’m afraid I have to disagree that gaming is a “totally different form” to literature: different, certainly, not least because games are interactive. However, they are not so different that the two media have nothing whatsoever to learn from each other. This is why game designers are working with novelists in building game narratives, and why novelists such as Will Self have been inspired by games in developing new forms of literature.
You’re right that I didn’t mention performance, though I did note at the end that game study requires an approach from multiple angles. I come to game studies thinking primarily about connections to the novel, but that’s not to say that film studies, drama theorists, musicologists and so on don’t have anything to contribute.
The title asks an incredibly stupid question. Games are no more literature than sheep are pigs. They are different in form, they are read/consumed by a largely different group of people. Books are read as a finished art form, whereas the interactivity of gaming makes a totally different form, where the consumer is participating, so limits the amount or at least the type of discussion that fellow rader/consumers can have. Ebert may well have been a reactionary, but he was and continues to be an important commentator on his world. If the world later changes, he cannot be called inaccurate, as he described what he saw at the time. All novels shaped by the endings? What nonsense. Novels are all different; they start at different points. If you want to compare gaming to anything, it should be with performance, which you make no mention of. And you are historically inaccurate claiming that religious discussion led to the novel – it led more into science; the novel was an offshoot of plays, and were often written by the same people. Likewise in Ancient Greece and Shakespeare – the plays were primarily a performance, not a script. The difference is huge.
It’s good to see this being raised, especially by someone coming from inside traditional literary academia. I’ve seen it reflected on by commentators from a pop culture and games industry perspective, but it’s important that this is approached from all angles.
While literary criticism can help us understand video games, I think there’s already an extent to which that relationship cuts both ways. The clearly active experience of gaming, in which the audience becomes an author in their own individual narrative, can help us reflect on how readers relate to literature and the passive way we often still talk about that experience. The immediacy of video games can encourage us to reflect on how we feel in response to texts, as well as what we think. And the work of intelligent, articulate commentators on video games, such as the Extra Credits and Feminist Frequency video series, develop ideas that can be applied to other media, just like good literary or film criticism.
There’s no doubt that as games become more than just a marginal phenomenon played in the bedrooms of teenage boys, and instead become a (perhaps the dominant) mass medium, then academics in the arts and humanities have a duty to engage with them. I doubt this is best done by literature scholars alone – as I say at the end, this requires an interdisciplinary approach.
You’re right that the relationship cuts both ways, and that gaming can teach us about how we relate to literature. However, this approach does have its pitfalls. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when text-based adventure games were emerging, postmodern literary scholars alighted on this as proof that their deconstructionist readings of novels was right. All novels are multiply navigable, have infinite possible meanings, are “interactive.” Jesper Juul (one of the leading game theorists) rightly points out that this metaphor has its limits. A novel may have lots of possible readings, but most readers tend to respond in much the same way. By contrast, games are generally not proscriptive, and there will be lots of genuinely different experiences – not least because, whilst anyone who has the reading skill to start a novel can in principle get to the end, not everyone who plays a game will have the mechanical ability to get to the end of its story.
So yes there is indeed a two way process – but it needs to be considered carefully.
Top marks for writing this. One of the best pieces iIve seen on games, and a good sign for their future : )
Thanks for the feedback! One of the ways I want to take this next is to consider how the “good sign” for the future of games points towards greater narrative complexity. In the current console cycle, graphics, sound, and game mechanics have not changed ever so much. What has changed – and what the audience increasingly demands – is a good narrative. It’s exciting to think of what possibilities the next generation of consoles will bring in this respect.
So how is that hardware and systems based? Are you imagining that with improved performance, cut-scenes can be more justified, or gameplay become more integrated with the inspired over-narration? I would love for a whole crop of unique games to spring up too, but I wasn’t expecting it for ps4. Anyway, love what you’re writing about, I hope you find many complex games to indulge in, I think it deserves justification as an artform.
Hmm, that’s a good question, and I guess one could take this in lots of directions.
The most obvious is that the new gen. console launches have focused a lot on the detailing of characters’ faces, skin, rendering speech so that the interlocutor is more natural-looking. This can only help to create the sense of immersion in narrative. However, the corollary to this is that gamers will start to feel that, “hey, that person looks real, I want him now to say things that sound real” (a kind of “uncanny valley” problem). Skyrim is a classic example of this – dialogue with questline characters is quite realistic, whereas non-playing characters bumble around repeating the same hackneyed lines. For a game world to be totally immersive it needs to present these non-playing characters too in a more realistic way, which involves more natural speech interactions.
Secondly, current generation console engineers spend a great deal of time, money, and resources trying to extract every last drop of potential from the old hardware. With newer hardware, teams need spend less time worrying about how to make graphics and physics more processor efficient, and can dedicate more resources to the narrative aspects of games. I would guess (though I’m not enough of a hardware expert) that AI is quite processor intensive. Narratively complex like Skyrim or Mass Effect need to keep track of thousands of variables in order to figure out how one character later in the game should respond to the player based on something he or she did previously. The new hardware may free up capacity in this area.
Finally, I’ll be frank and say I’m not sure beyond these hints. Just as the greatness of a book doesn’t depend on the size of page it is written on, the greatness of a game is defined less by its hardware and more by the imagination of its designers. That’s why it’s exciting to see what happens next.
I agree with nicwidhalm. Video games aren’t literature – the very nature of choice, branching storylines and fine motor coordination put them in a very different class of their own. However there are many classic games (and many game companies) are known precisely for their stories and beautiful writing – even when there are multiple plot paths and multiple permutations of conversations, all of the storytelling options are eloquent and moving. This certainly doesn’t apply to most games, but the same could be said about books – just a few proud entries that are critically acclaimed and beloved by the more “literary” fans.
Thanks for your comment. I think we’re on the same wavelength here: the interactive aspect of games does make them a markedly different medium to literature. But the risk is that we think games are therefore ALL about interaction and leave it at that, ignoring the possible crossovers. As I suggest in the piece, to define games purely as interactive experiences is a bit of a problem because fundamentally the “interaction” elements of, for example, the first person shooter haven’t changed that much since the days of Wolfenstein 3D. Nevertheless, we’re still keen to buy the latest FPS game. Why? What’s better about these later ones? Well as well as looking for the latest graphics, I’d say we’re also increasingly looking for game stories that involve us, move us, and sweep us along. Mass Effect is a case in point. This is the big difference from early games, which had barely anything in the way of story.
I’d say that the writing in the very best games which are very story driven (e.g. Myst) can hold its own against writings in “popular” fiction – though as a literary critic my own judgement would be that we’ve yet to see a real masterpiece of game writing (though GTA IV comes close as a piece specifically of satire). That’s not, however, to say that the next Ulysses won’t be encoded in a video game at some point in the future.
I agree with nicwidhalm. Video games aren’t literature – the very nature of choice, branching storylines and fine motor coordination put them in a very different class of their own. However there are many classic games (and many game companies) are known precisely for their stories and beautiful writing – even when there are multiple plot paths and multiple permutations of conversations, all of the storytelling options are eloquent and moving. This certainly doesn’t apply to most games, but the same could be said about books – just a few proud entries that are critically acclaimed and beloved by the more “literary” gamers (as a side note I really despise the term “gamer.”)
Great post! I love that you presented both sides of the argument. I’d ultimately agree with your conclusion that they are not literature, but that doesn’t devalue their ability to tell stories. Are they art? I would argue yes. But they occupy their own spectrum of art, much as sculpting is different than painting, and painting is different than literature.
That point about “telling stories” is a good one. I had an interesting discussion with http://twitter.com/CWFredrickson about this on Twitter. “Storytelling” is a good umbrella term because it focuses attention on the effect, not the medium that produces it. So games, drama, novels, the spoken word are all storytelling – and ultimately, if the “story” is the reason why we engage with narrative art, then games can have the potential to be “art” as well.
I started to think about the video games and (visual) art issue in an essay here: http://www.thepequod.org.uk/essays/general/videogamesasart.htm
This isn’t at all where I thought this post was going! The title alone brought me here to discuss npr’s recent story about video games & literacy. I was prepared to argue full on that video games should be considered literature for their literacy building potential. However, in light of your discussion… I veer to your path that they are not. Thanks for the ride :)
Sorry the title misled you, though thanks for pointing out that NPR article which I hadn’t seen. You’re certainly right that some games have the potential to build literacy, as well as to develop cognitive, social, problem-solving and other skills. However, the evidence and experience does seem to show that games which have been purpose designed to be educational work best. Spending all night playing World of Warcraft is not going to see anyone pass their exam the next morning!
Reblogged this on Reading the Century and commented:
Since the promised guest blogger has let me down not once but thrice, I’ll get round to posting something myself soon! In the meantime, this piece from INTERSTING LITERATURE is interesting and slightly provocative.