Literature's game changers: how the console moulds us and our fiction

html canvas video game
The greatest novel has probably been written, while the greatest computer game is still almost certainly to come. Will the medium change us enough to turn itself into mainstream art, as the novel once did?
James Warner
28 February 2011

Computer gaming is probably now a more mainstream pursuit than reading fiction is. Three recent books-- Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives, Tom Chatfield’s Fun Inc., and Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken – take strikingly different approaches to the topic. Bissell records that he used to read a lot for pleasure, but now rarely does so and instead plays video games a lot -- however some of the things games apparently can’t do that fiction can still trouble him, and his tone throughout is one of guilty fascination. Chatfield’s account is more sober and journalistic. McGonigal is a game designer who takes a line verging on boosterism – not content to echo Ray Kurzweil’s claim that games will ultimately be competitive with real reality, she argues they're superior to reality, and we can use them to improve it.


Multi-player games can provide certain experiences that literature can't – for example, bonding with someone by cooperating with them to achieve a goal. McGonigal reports that playing Super Mario Sunshine can make you a more cooperative person in reality, and that people who play Guitar Hero are more likely as a result to spend time actually practicing the guitar. Generally speaking, virtual successes can boost real-life confidence. As for World of Warcraft developing leadership ability, Chatfield quotes a Harvard Business Review article: “The best sign that someone’s qualified to run an Internet startup may not be an MBA degree, but level 70 guild leader status.”


In McGonigal’s book I encountered the insight that Wikipedia has the essential structure of a massively multi-player on-line role-playing game. Such examples persuade me that, through the culture of the Internet, the culture of gaming has already permeated my life more than I’d realized. An analogous idea, which I found in Wagner James Au’s book The Making of Second Life, is that Facebook can be understood as a fantasy role-playing game in which your online avatar amasses friendships and other tokens of esteem. Also intriguing to me is Chatfield's observation that the virtual currencies of certain on-line simulation worlds like Second Life remained stable during the economic crisis of 2008. Perhaps Friedrich von Hayek’s radical Libertarian proposal that the government monopoly of money should end – that entrepreneurs should be permitted to create their own currencies – has become less implausible now that certain instant messaging platforms and online multi-player role-playing games have their own robust virtual currencies?


Chatfield claims that video games will “remodel the 21st century at least as radically as cinema and television did the 20th,” and notes that, while all major game worlds now in existence belong to private corporations, “there is great scope for research organizations, universities, and even governments to step into this area and begin large-scale gaming ventures.”


He reports that the U.S. military already spends $6 billion a year on various kinds of virtual and simulated training programs, many of which might be broadly classified as video games. This brings us to a dark example of the behavior-modifying power of games, familiar to readers of Dave Grossman’s On Killing: the Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Grossman tells how simulated killing training has made soldiers today much less hesitant to kill enemy soldiers than was the case before the computer age. It’s telling that McGonigal has little to say about shooting games -- her frequently-stated ambition “to see a game developer win a Nobel Peace Prize in the next twenty-five years” sits somewhat uneasily with the evidence that killing someone in virtual reality can make one less inhibited about actual homicide. The following lines, from Bissell’s short story “Death Defier” in the collection God Lives in St. Petersburg, supposedly give us the world view of a war zone photographer, but could also be about gaming --


“For Donk, Human Conflict was curiously life-affirming, based as it was on avoiding death – indeed, on afflicting death pre-emptively on others. He loved Human Conflict not as an ideal but as a milieu, a state of mind one absorbed but was not absorbed by, the crucial difference between combatants and non-. His love of Human Conflict was as unapologetic as it was without nuance. He simply enjoyed it.”


McGonigal has designed games to encourage people to dance, and to get children to talk more to their grandparents -- doubtless she could also design a game that makes men less inclined to shoot at each other, but what organization is going to spend $6 billion a year on it? And since a game only works if it makes you want to keep playing it, can a war game only change your behavior if at some level it makes you enjoy Human Conflict the way Donk does? When Bissell compares video games to cocaine because they “have no edge,” I think uncomfortably of the woman who reportedly shook her daughter to death for interrupting her while she was playing FarmVille.


The games Bissell prefers tend to be “shooters.” One of the most haunting sections of Extra Lives is his exploration of the game “Far Cry 2,” a game designed by Clint Hocking, which Bissell says “explores, in gameplay rather than moral terms, the behavioral and emotional consequences of being exposed to relentless violence.” Bissell suggests that game mechanics can be used to explore ethical dilemmas in a more systematically philosophical way than novels or short stories are capable of, and that a war game can change your emotional outlook on war and teach you about its long-term impacts. Does or should the military spend any money on games like “Far Cry 2?” 


How games effect us ethically is one question, and their aesthetic impact is another. Personally I accept that there are many artistically valuable games on the market, but contend that I myself simply don't have the time to play them -- what bothers me about this is that it’s the same reason a lot of people give for not reading contemporary fiction. A fiction writer who reflects how much computer games have developed in the last twenty years, and how much they are likely to develop in the next twenty, must concede that the novel and the short story as forms has changed relatively little in the last century… and that while the greatest computer games have not yet been written, the greatest novels may have been. Computer gaming today attracts social stigma to perhaps the same extent that reading novels attracted stigma in Jane Austen’s time -- such pejorative status may, creatively speaking, be a healthy sign. Gaming industry conferences actually have forums on how to prevent game addiction – the publishing industry alas has no analogous problem. Is it too much to hope, with game designer Jason Rohrer, that games can be made that make us “more cultured, civilized, empathetic, complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, intelligent, philosophical ... and so on?”


For now, games often just induce frustration. Bissell reports it annoying him while playing “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” that his avatar C.J. had to work out in order to lose weight – “This resulted in a a lot of soul-scouring questions as to why (a) it even mattered to me that C.J. was fat and why (b) C.J. was getting more physical exercise than I was. Because I could not answer either question satisfactorily, I stopped playing.” The McGonigalesque solution here would be to hook the console to an exercise machine, so that the only way to make your avatar fitter was actually to exercise yourself – and sure enough, I have just learned that “exergaming” is an already-existing fitness niche.


While McGonigal makes a compelling case for harnessing the motivational power of games to improve society, to me there seems to be something faintly totalitarian about her vision of a future where so many activities are structured as games. She takes rather a dim view of introverts. But perhaps my reservations about her program just reflect the historical coincidence that I grew up around books rather than a PlayStation?


Extra Lives is in its way as much a manifesto as Reality is Broken is, but while McGonigal wants to make games more socially responsible, Bissell wants to make them more satisfying in literary terms, improving their plotting and characterization. He writes, “Once a game comes along that figures out a way around the technical challenges of allowing a large number of ludonarrative decisions to have framed-narrative-altering consequences – none of which challenges I understand but whose existence several game designers sighingly confirmed for me – an altogether new form of storytelling might be born: stories that, with your help, create themselves.” Although the medium has proved resistant to this sort of improvement in the past, Bissell is now at work writing games – has literature permanently lost him to the field of game design? If so, he is not the first and won't be the last writer to be lured in that direction. Perhaps literature today is like 1840s Boston, a sophisticated and traditional polity, while games are like the Wild West where youngsters head off to quest for gold and pull triggers.


I notice that reading Extra Lives has changed the way I read Bissell’s short stories. God Lives in St. Petersburg portrays jumpy, accident-prone protagonists on doomed quests in exotic locales. They're distracted by random violence, pervasive amorality, and impossible ethical decisions, and their world perhaps owes as much to the kind of game worlds Bissell frequents as it does to his travels in formerly Soviet Central Asia. When I reread these stories now, I feel that the aesthetic of alienation in war games informs Bissell’s fiction, and even find myself visualizing his characters as digitally-rendered -- even though they're also perfectly three-dimensional in the literary sense – and find myself wondering if it isn't more likely that games will wind up transforming literature than the other way around.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData