How and why do video games increasingly employ the tenets of literature?
By: Sam Bleyle
New studies show that the average human attention span lasts eight seconds. This statistic points out the items accountable for such an unpleasant fact. Online articles, YouTube videos, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and video games are all but just a few. All these competing business survive from grasping our attention, which is why they work so hard to earn it. Businesses of all shapes and sizes can lose a customers attention in the matter of seconds due to other choices we as consumers can make with just a few clicks of a button. This is why video game storylines are growing drastically. As a society, we let ourselves fall in love with books, TV shows and movies, and now even video games because we love a good story. Although video games will never be able to fully satisfy all the aspects of what is accepted literature, game designers have developed such creative storylines with deep meanings that they are starting to sway the minds of many literate scholars towards the idea that video games are a new form of literature.
Notice they showed no game play in this trailer of Mass Effect 3. The whole thing was just like a movie trailer, developing the plot and giving just enough secrets away to draw in consumers. Most video game trailers use the same technique as the creators of Mass Effect. A main reason why video games are gaining respect as pieces of literature is because games today focus more on developing a story with dynamic characters. These stories also follow many of Vogler’s rules to be a story. Another example is Assassins Creed. Watch how the creators use powerful music in the background as the main character goes into an epic battle with enemies, and skims the plot just enough to draw the consumer in without giving away too much information.
The reasons for video games employing elements of literature are a growing list. One reason is the demand for greater game complexity requested by gamers. As the years have past, graphics and story plays have continued to grow and improve, and as more game design companies developed, the greater the competition for the gaming market became. Companies had to start standing out, and one main way in doing so is to develop an emotional, addictive storyline, just as a book does.
Another reason is the highly participatory aspect. When you read a novel, you have to participate in grasping the story and imagining the imagery written on the pages. A video game is not much different. In order to advance the main character throughout the story and watch him overcome his fears and obstacles you must participate in competing in the challenges to reach the next checkpoints. Most games today also make you watch scenes of characters having conversations in order to develop game play. In these situations you do not have the option to skip them, which strengthens the argument video games are literature. When reading a book, you cannot skip a few pages here and there and still fully understand every depth of the story. The same goes for video games; if you skipped all the dialog scenes you could not understand the complexity of the small parts that create the big picture.
“What I don’t understand is why people are so intent on separating art and literature as though they are two distinct things. I have a MA in English Literature. That’s a Master’s of Art. Literature is considered a form of art, often even “fine art.” So I think we can probably all agree that literature, video games, paintings, music, etc. all fall under the extremely broad category of “art.” And the definition of art itself has been debated for literal millennia, so I don’t think we’ll find an adequate agreement to its definition here. The question is, are video games literature. And to know that you have to have a strong understanding of what literature actually is (and, unfortunately, one definition provided by Google isn’t going to give that understanding). Thus the word has several meanings. I personally believe that literature is any type of story being conveyed to an audience. That would include film, video games, comics, etc. Now, whether it’s good, or “high” literature is dependent on general popular consensus.”
-Kristen Rodning M.A. English Literature
Rodning explains well in her quote above how no individual person has the right to define what is to be considered art or literature. Either term’s definitions are so broad and general that a video game being considered as art or literature is up to each individual interpretation. I agree with Rodning’s stance on the matter; although there are different levels of literature, any story told or expressed in some way should be considered literature.
When researching this topic I stumbled upon another article, written by Dr. Alistair Brown, a professor at Durham University. His opinion opposes Rodning’s stance.
“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. 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.”
-Dr. Alistair Brown
I understand Brown’s view, but I do not agree with it. If Brown believes every novel ever written is literature just because it is a book, then he is a hypocrite. Many novels follow the same chapter flows with challenges for the main character and supporting character interactions to guide the protagonist in the same direction. With this being said, how can you expect to have a different set up for every video game that gets made? Music is the same way. According to Brown’s opinion, songwriters should have a completely different design for every song. Take for example 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James. This book follows a basic objective just like Mass Effect, but instead of “zapping bad guys with lasers,” Christian Grey has erotic sex. Although the book has a plot, it is simplicity at its finest. A man and a woman have lustful attractions to each other, leading to… well you know. So what is the difference between Mass Effect and 50 Shades of Grey? Both have their own unique storylines with the usual fantasies, that seem to always occur over and over again, people either want play or read about. Brown and any others with his opinion need to reconsider their clear, cut definition of literature because there are dozens of games with a much more developed plots and stories than some hundreds of books.
Another example to support video games being literature is two of most popular games of all time, Halo and Assassin’s Creed. The plot and stories are so rich, figuratively and literally, that they have been turned into novels and films. Usually we hear about movies being developed from a book, but now we are witnessing something I personally never thought would happen. It is easy to see video games today have grown to a new standard of complexity on all levels, ranging from the storyline to the graphics, supporting the emerging idea that video games are literature, and those storylines are what make the games have the ability to be called literary works.