Lightness of Being (a Gamer)

Lightness of Being (a Gamer)
I'd Rather Game than Read a Book

vincent kang | 10 Apr 2007 08:04
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In a 2002 New Yorker essay titled "Mr. Difficult," author Jonathan Franzen of The Corrections fame argued that in the face of increased competition from movies, videogames and (oddly) extreme sports, fiction should mainstream itself. Fictional literature was under siege by figurative barbarians, and by perpetuating literature's difficult and inaccessible, the literary establishment was alienating potential readers. An intrepid reader might, at the suggestion of the literary establishment, pick up a "lyrical" book, only to trudge through page after page of unnecessary adjectives. For fiction to survive, according to Franzen, it has to cater to readers, the consumers who actually purchase and consume the product.

I'm here as a Visigoth, banging on the gates of a doddering imperial Rome. Videogames have the potential to tell narratives and deliver experiences that fully outstrip those told by film, poetry and, yes, fiction. Yet, in terms of cultural respect, videogames are marginalized. The great film critic Roger Ebert once opined that videogames are not art because they have not produced anything comparable to the works of great artists from other media. Ebert has a vested interest in film's continued success. Older narrative forms film and fiction possess intrinsic virtues, but, in relation to videogames, a large portion of the cultural and critical respect bestowed upon them amounts to little more than inertia.

The cultural perception gap between fiction and videogames begs the question: What is the fundamental purpose of entertainment? Why are books seen as a positive virtue? Are books read in the same way mothers tell their sons to eat broccoli, or are they read to deliver a story? Is it exercise, or is it fun? Can it be both?

Do you go to the supermarket to talk to the clerk and walk the aisles, or do you go to get food?

Literature is equipment for living. The cultural critic Kenneth Burke wrote those words in his 1974 book, The Philosophy of Literary Form. In a utilitarian sense, the stories we tell each other in books, movies and videogames help shape our consciousnesses in a way a straight recitation of facts cannot. Little Red Riding Hood teaches us to not trust strangers in a way that simply saying "don't trust strangers" cannot.

Narratives are the key. The format, be it film or books or videogames, acts as a wrapper by which the substance, the story, is delivered. They help shape the story by setting the boundaries of the playing field in which the story plays itself out.

As of today, fiction has more variety than videogames. It's a matter of simple economics: The high costs of videogame development prevent more niche titles from appearing. On the flip side, anyone can write a book for little or no money. However, in the few areas where videogames and fiction go head-to-head, videogames offer a more compelling, and ultimately, a superior experience.

Science fiction is one such field. For the purpose of argument, let us compare the critically-acclaimed Star Wars videogame, Knights of the Old Republic, to the universally loved Star Wars novel, Heir to the Empire.

Reading Heir to the Empire, I usually sit. My eyes are concentrated intently on the text, and my face deadens as I process the strings of text. The descriptions act as cues for imagination. I have a murky image of spaceships with descriptions juxtaposed onto them. At their best, the descriptor adjectives show an aesthetic relationship between two seemingly disparate entities; "The TIE fighters pulled up like an exotic fountain." I see the inner thoughts of the characters, their musings, their regrets, their joys. I find myself speculating what's going to happen in the later chapters of the novel.

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