Press Start: Video Games and “Literary” Value

For this post I have decided to try my hand at tackling an issue that has no clear answer and that is often hotly contested. I am going to be discussing whether or not video games have “literary” value in a traditional sense. Now I have a BA in English (aka literature) and an MA in Literature and Rhetoric/Composition. So I will approach this with as much of a litterateur’s standpoint as possible while acknowledging my bias/love for video games while listening to “Empty Garden.” Admittedly, I am a bit eccentric and I do see some video games as having literary value. But you should know that I also have a deep love for literature as that is where my academic studies began.

Before I begin, it is important to define a few terms first. If you were to ask some people, let’s say undergraduate English students, to define literature they would probably respond with something generic like “literature consists of written works that have cultural significance,” “literary texts are superior,” or “literature stands the test of time.” These definitions are fine and follow closely to what many dictionaries and handbooks state, but from my academic experience, I also know that defining literature is often a complicated task, in part, because of academia’s history regarding literary studies. I do not want to get into that history too much, but historically speaking white, male authors were favored when it came to achieving literary status. A lot has been done to diversify the canonical texts as evidenced by literary anthologies published within the past ten years or so.

My point is that the field of literary study, while founded, and sometimes stuck, in tradition has shown some selective leeway over the years while still being closely guarded by its academic legionaries. The funny thing about some academics is that, while they profess open-mindedness and valuing otherness in the classroom, they are rather closed with their own admittance of the other, in this case, video games. It has been my experience that quite a few academics guard their fields closely, often with good reason. However, keeping the door closed to video games might prove a futile venture over time. Such resistance was seen in film studies, which has since bloomed, and, unfortunately, is still an issue with the inclusion of graphic narratives in the classroom (though this is also changing with the use of texts such as Maus in high schools and universities).

I am not trying to say that a bunch of academic old farts are blocking classroom doors and boarding up windows to keep video games in the hallways. Plenty of young academics hold the same sentiments and hesitations toward video games.

But let me transition over to the video game aspect of my argument.

If some literary-minded individuals were to tell you that they read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and it moved them on a personal level you would probably be okay with that statement and you might even begin describing your own experiences with the text (or you would label these hypothetical people “nerds” and/or “geek”). Similarly if someone were to praise The Great Gatsby, I guarantee a hoard of the literary-minded would jump on that opportunity to chat. But if I were to step into that crowd and mention I was moved on a spiritual level by a video game named Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture I might be met with the sound of crickets. And if I was to mention that EGttR had some literary merit? More crickets.

Why is this? You might say that video games just don’t belong in literary circles. Which makes sense on a surface level since video games do not fit neatly into the term of “literature.” You might also say video games are often perceived with a slew of negative connotations. You might even be partly correct with these assumptions.

It is true that some video games are violent, glorify criminal acts, and reinforce deplorable gender stereotypes. Many video games, especially some older titles, are easy pickings for condemnation, and I openly acknowledge this. But just as there are smut novels and literary gems, some video games do little more than offer interactive experiences promoting violence and sexism in the name of “fun” while other video games engage players in stunningly crafted worlds with rich stories and well-developed characters. Video games can challenge players’ cultural expectations, encourage players to experience and adopt different points of view, engage the imagination, provide a virtual outlet for creativity, and encourage logical and critical thinking. Not to mention that many games facilitate an engagement with ideas, settings, and histories.

Anyone who has played The Walking Dead by Telltale Games knows that the game is both fun and offers a deeply human experience. Players often find themselves in troubling moral circumstances brought about by the game’s apocalyptic setting. I have a particular fondness for this franchise because of the tough situations the game forces players into and the emotional connections that can be made with the characters. This is just one example that, with proper literary-style explication, some video games can be seen as having “literary” merit.

If all this is believable, why do some people still reject video games as a serious mode? Why is there seemingly a difference between reading a book for a few hours and playing a video game for the same amount of time? Well, some people are simply stubborn, and I think that many individuals only view video games as base entertainment and as a way to relax and have fun. Video games, at least good ones, are entertaining and usually offer an amount of fun to players. But just because something is “fun” and “entertaining” does not mean that it cannot be taken seriously. After all, many films, novels, and graphic narratives are fun to experience.

There needs to be a change in mindset—we need to see the potential of video games, and part of that potential comes when the textual nature of video games is acknowledged. Consider this definition of text from A Handbook to Literature:
“Traditionally, a text is anything isolated for attention, especially a piece of writing” (549). The definition goes on to say that “a ‘text’ is an open process with which one can interact creatively” (549). Notice that a text is not limited to the written word and that it calls for attention and interaction. I think video games fall into this definition rather nicely because they can be isolated and require interaction.

Why even bother to study video games? Good question, but let me step back to literature for a moment. When it comes to the study of literature the options are endless. Crack open a theory and criticism handbook and you will see what I mean. To name a few ways such analysis can be done, instructors and scholars can approach literature through a primary text reading, semantic/linguistic analysis, various rhetorical approaches, and through any number of theory-driven critiques such as Feminism, Poststructuralism, Formalism, genre studies, etc.

The way literature is studied often leads to new insights and intriguing observations that might otherwise be missed. Such studies often challenge perceptions regarding some pretty heavy life stuff and tend to reveal the true impact of the texts being studied. Literature is valued because it can open the mind and is a gateway to knowledge and understanding. I believe similar approaches, if not the same, can and should be readily applied to video games.

Undeniably, video games are prevalent in our society. The Entertainment Software Association states that “four out of five U.S. households own a device used to play video games” and that “51% of U.S. households own a dedicated game console” (2). This means that millions of individuals are skilled in visual and digital literacy due in large part to video games. As a composition instructor, I believe it is relevant for me to be aware of the literacies of my students whether they be traditional or digital in nature. Video games also have a lot to teach us about rhetoric, the making of meaning, textual design qualities, and our own culture. I care about video games and education because video games are a part of people’s everyday lives.

Where and how should video games be studied? I am not saying that the study of video games should necessarily be included in a contemporary literature class or any literature class for that matter. Perhaps literature and English departments should not be the ones responsible for the inclusion of video games in academia, but it seems like a likely place to start since these departments often house literacy and textual classes and were among the first departments to accept film and graphic narrative studies. Bear in mind that my personal research into the topic is primarily concerned with the place of video games in higher education composition courses. However, video games have been used with much success in K-12 and in multiple subject areas including math and science.

The potential for video games in education is great, but willing souls are needed to help continue forging the path for acceptance. Video games are texts and should be studied for both their rhetorical and literary qualities. I believe some serious efforts towards the literary explication of video games will aid in this effort, and further research will show not only the cultural significance of video games but will reveal their value beyond a form of base entertainment.

Entertainment Software Association. Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry. 2015. PDF file.

“Text.” A Handbook to Literature. 11th ed. 2009. Print.

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