Published: Sunday, October 14, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
We’ve all heard how the bangs, flashes, blood, guts, etc.—the sensory stuff—of video games are purportedly shrinking the attention spans and increasing violent tendencies of the world’s youth. That’s old hat to us children of the 2000s. I will debate until I’m very old and no longer have an attention span that video games do not shrink the attention spans of young people, but I cannot deny that our generation loves this type of chest-thumping, sensory-overload entertainment. Just look at the best-selling Xbox 360 games of all time – Kinect Adventures, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Halo 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Gears of War.
Yet if that was really the major reason why we play games—for the spectacle and adrenaline rush of it—video games wouldn’t need to be more than sounds and moving splotches on screens like Pong and Pac-man of yesteryear to be popular. If this were true, big-time developers like EA Games or Activision wouldn’t spend the astronomical amount of time and money they do on developing newer, more modern games. They would simply update the sensorial aspects (graphics, soundtracks, controllers) of these older games and tweak gameplay mechanics. But judging by the existence of really complex, bildungsroman-esque games like World of Warcraft, it is evident that there is more to it.
So let’s look at World of Warcraft. It’s possibly the most pop-culturally significant, controversial, and beloved video game of our generation. It isn’t uncommon to hear about players spending 730-plus hours in-game (an entire month of gameplay), or that some have developed carpal tunnel syndrome, a nervous disorder that usually requires surgery to completely heal, while playing. In a few completely real cases, players have stopped interacting in the real world because the world of Warcraft was simply more engrossing.
What’s frighteningly fun about the game is that you essentially get to live your own fantasy adventure story. You start by picking a character like orcs, night elves, and humans, and the “class” you want your character to be (a mage for instance). Then, starting at a puny level of one, you journey through a massive world with thousands of potential interactions with other players, monsters, and game characters gaining experience, collecting better gear and “leveling up,” as it’s called. Eventually—a long eventually—you reach the highest level, your gear is the best, and neither monsters nor other players stand a chance of defeating you. Who doesn’t dream of becoming powerful beyond your wildest dreams like this? Who doesn’t occasionally wish they lived in some other land, not necessarily this universe, where magic, monsters, and adventure are as common as orc invasions, but still, somewhere completely fantastic and personal to you?
What I’m suggesting is that World of Warcraft is so popular because it allows me, the player, to create the entirety of the narrative structure that I will take part in. Not only do I write the story, but I’m also the main character. I have absolute authority over everything. I decide what sort of warrior I am, how I fight, who I fight, where I fight, when I fight, if I fight. I can walk around and do nothing at all. I can fish, cook, swim, or kill boar for hours. I can do anything, but whatever it is or isn’t, it is I forging the path by myself and for myself—and I’m completely free to do so. This iron fist over the narrative of a life, regardless of its grounding in reality, is to be blunt and mentally stimulating.
In the post-WoW years, some form of character/gamer development has become nearly ubiquitous in games. Xbox 360 introduced a system of “achievements” with which gamers get “points” for doing certain things in games. These points can sometimes be traded in for stuff from the Xbox marketplace, but mostly they show how many games and how much of these games a gamer has conquered. The higher the score is, the “better” a gamer appears to others. Thus, completing games has, aside from the in-game narrative one, a meta-narrative incentive, the meta in this case referring to real life. Even supposedly “stupid” shoot-em-up games like Halo or Call of Duty have deep personalization and character development. And in games like Wii Sports or Kinect Adventures, your physical movements generate the movements of a virtual you whose particular movements, if performed well by the virtual you, and therefore the real you, result in virtual you character development happiness which in turn gives real you character development happiness too. In short, it is specifically completely egocentric, freeform narrative development that makes these games so damn popular.
If I’ve done my job correctly, it should be clearer now how video games might inadvertently attack literature—the narrative space that literature occupies is growing smaller as the highly rewarding and addicting narrative space of video games gets more popular and thus larger. But I believe that literature is an impenetrable fortress, and video games are just going to have to deal with that.
It all comes down to point of view. Games succeed because it is I, the player, controlling everything about myself. Literature is the he, she, you creating his, her, your world that I am detachedly experiencing. The central character of a novel is never the person reading the novel, which is another way to put it. Video games cannot possibly have this type of relationship with a player, for if ever a video game was to become beyond the control of I, the player, it would cease to be a video game and would become an animated film.
And that is the separate and unique joy of reading literature. It is not just your mind in your world. It is your mind briefly mingling in the mind of another wonderful mind, your mind entering the wacky world of someone else’s imagination, and while it is fun to do things how the self would like it, there is a limit to what the self can imagine. What about Tolkien’s orcs? Poe’s ticking heart or Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby? A video game cannot possibly transfer to us an emotion, story, or experience that we ourselves could not possibly have formulated. As it turns out, these emotions, stories, and experiences from others are often the most pleasurable emotions, stories, and experiences of all.