Video Games as Literature

Ever since the creation of “Pong” in the early 1970s, video games have been becoming increasingly popular and more widely appreciated. As their technology has evolved, video games have been employing literary techniques in their development. These aspects of more modern video games spark interesting debate about whether video games should be considered literature and about the reasons behind and effectiveness of using these literary techniques in the creation of video games. An investigation of the use of literary techniques in specific video games gives people the opportunity to learn and experience ideas through a more unexplored, yet useful, medium.

As video games have evolved and the technology that composes them advances, video games have become more like literature and have begun employing literary techniques. One of these such techniques is the addition and development of more in-depth, creative storylines. Even first-person shooter games such as “Bioshock” have developed stories between the action. So many gamers crave these stories, and they keep the gamers hooked on the game even more. In fact, such storylines have proven successful tools for many games. Some gamers play games for not only the action and the participation but also for the story. These complex stories in which gamers can become engaged and connected with the different characters and the plot of the game enhance the video game and make it more enjoyable for its players.

For example, the computer game series “Civilization,” a series of games in which the user forms a nation and competes with other nations for cultural, technological, or militaristic domination, offers several complex pieces of a story. The gamer must decide which religion, form of government, military, culture, and technologies their nation will adopt, and they must decide which resources, units, and sciences are most valuable to the nation in order to outcompete the other nations in the game.

Map from Sid Meier’s “Civilization Revolution”

With each new release of the game series, the games have become increasingly complex not only in terms of graphics, but also in the number and variety of resources, playable units, cities, technologies, and more. This has only added to the diversity of this particular game series, and other video games employ similar complexities and diverse storylines.

In addition to these more in-depth storylines, video game developers have incorporated more deep and serious themes and messages into their gameplay. These themes can range anywhere from issues involving morality to questions about the environment. Dr. Amy Green explains this idea and gives specific examples of how games handle these themes in her TED talk. The video of Dr. Green’s talk can be found below. She explains that the game “The Last of Us” explores issues of morality regarding the spread of infectious disease. In the game, the user is thrown into a futuristic world in which a fungal disease has jumped species and killed a large percentage of the human population. There is a group trying to find a cure and they want to study a little girl who is immune to the disease in an effort to do so, so they send a man to bring her to them. However, when the man finds out that the girl must die to be examined, he decides to protect her instead. Green notes that this decision, along with those made every time the man stops someone who tries to kidnap the girl, explores questions of morality about the value of one life when compared with the possible salvation of several lives.

This is just one example of more serious themes in video games. Author Maxwell Neely-Cohen further explains the connection between books and video games in terms of serious themes in his article “Appetite for Risk: At the Intersection of Video Games and Literature.” Neely-Cohen spoke with many different video game developers to get their input on connections like this, and one such developer explained that he believed that several books would make incredible video games because of such themes. Video games could introduce new ideas about and exploration of these themes that would not be possible in books. In reference to Cormac McCarthy’s book Bloodlust, this particular developer said, “McCarthy explores the depths of human evil and bloodlust; an interactive version could allow the player to explore their own personal capacity for those same things.” Video games are a media that allow gamers to delve into concepts in a way that other media cannot, so this is yet another useful integration of literary techniques into this newer form of media.

Similarly to literature, video games often attempt to mimic many aspects of human life in their gameplay. Dr. Alistair Brown of Durham University explains this in her guest blog “Are Video Games Literature?” In the story of a game, the gamer will often make mistakes which cause the gamer and the character they are playing as to return to a certain checkpoint and try again. By forcing the gamer to attempt that portion of the game again, the gamer will eventually learn from his or her mistakes and overcome the challenge to proceed further into the game. While not necessarily in the same way, many books also mimic different aspects of life. This valuable technique not only makes books and video games more realistic, but it also makes them more relatable and appealing to the person reading the book or playing the game.

These specific ways in which video games employ literary techniques only scratch the surface of how similar video games are to literature. However, in order to fully understand the practicality behind utilizing literary techniques in video games, one must contemplate why video game writers and developers do so. In doing so, it is necessary to view this motivation through two separate lenses: that of the game developers and that of the gamers.

One of the more obvious and logical reasons that game developers have begun integrating literary aspects into gameplay is for the developers to become more well-known and be taken more seriously and for them to make the maximum profit off of their games as possible. In the same article by author Maxwell Neely-Cohen, he describes that in every conversation he had with video game artists, each artist has expressed that he or she would like to be taken more seriously as a creator. In reality, video game authors are not nearly as celebrated or recognized as authors or film creators are. Because video game developers recognize the success of the literary and film industries, they attempt to use literary techniques to enhance their video games, to make the games more successful on the market, and to help the developers become more known and appreciated as authors and creators.

Video game developers also use literary techniques in their games for the benefit of the gamers who play them. One reason these literary aspects are useful in video games is because of their rising popularity among a diverse group of gamers. Video games are becoming an increasingly popular form of media, and they are therefore perfect opportunities to engage gamers. As stated before, many video games are complex and have serious, thought provoking themes and ideas woven into their storylines. These themes and ideas are great tools to help gamers learn and think about important life questions, and video games’ rising popularity helps more people think about these topics.

Video games are a media unlike any other, and their unique features can utilize literary techniques in ways that books and movies cannot. Video games are participatory; the gamer must choose which actions to perform and which direction to go with the game. Vlogger (video blogger) Ariel Bissett explains this further in one of her video blogs (see below) by offering the idea that gamers are “co-authors.” She explains that unlike the linear progression of books, gamers have more freedom to choose how to play the game and they are almost writing the story along with the game’s authors. This idea of a co-author in video games is certainly unique to this form of media, but it would not have even been possible if video games had not started employing literary techniques similar to those used in books and movies. These similar techniques set the stage for their further evolution in video games.

Video games can also spark interest in many different forms of literature because of the content that comprises them. One teacher, as described in Neely-Cohen’s article, remarked that at one period of time in her classroom many of her students were playing and discussing the video game “Dante’s Inferno.” Not long after she heard the kids discussing the game, she noticed that some of the students had purchased copies of The Divine Comedy and were reading them in school. Apparently, the video game, which is loosely based off of Dante’s work, inspired these students to learn more about the subject matter they were experiencing in the game. They were interested in the game’s content, and its connection to literature incited in these young students a hunger for more knowledge. This is a sample of what even the simplest of literary themes and ideas embedded in video games can provoke in the minds of the gamers who play them.

One question still remains: are video games literature? There is still much debate about the answer to this question, and it may never be fully answered. However, one thing is certain: video games frequently employ various literary aspects into their gameplay. This newer media is rapidly evolving and becoming increasingly popular, and game developers are taking advantage of this fact by making their storylines more in-depth and rich in thought-provoking ideas. This method allows gamers to explore these topics and gives them the potential to become more cultured, independent, and serious thinkers. Video games are becoming more accepted and valued in society, and it will be intriguing to see how this media and its use of literary techniques develops further in the future.


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