Will games ever become part of Literary canon?
I believe games can aspire to greatness on a planetary, fundamental cultural level. And in doing so, benefit the world with perspectives and technique to inspire more generations to come. There’s a reason why in between making X-men films, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen still perform Waiting for Godot, among other classic works. But for games to attain this stature beyond a sparse few examples, we need to investigate and reshape how we view games, and what makes storytelling special within them.
Critiquing the merits of storytelling and creating meaningful fiction within more traditional mediums as opposed to the relatively recent incarnations of arguably equal storytelling found in videogames, demands a strong and fundamental understanding of audience before any further analysis can be done. Classic western literature like the works of Joyce, Steinbeck, and even Shakespeare have become ingrained within a society of intellectualism accompanied by a close resemblance to textual worship. Educational institutions predominantly carry the torch in the modern day, due to the increasingly superficial nature of popular media and culture consumption (mild generalisation accepted). On the off chance a valued, classic text fosters a spark of inspiration within someone, it’s usually found in a school and student situation.
One of the key qualities of these texts is their ability to tell timeless stories, using techniques and style to create immersive worlds, filled with engaging characters and a sense of deeper meaning that justifies wide use and study in the aforementioned intellectual environments.
The average age of the dedicated gaming audience is around 32, of which nearly half are female; however, this hasn’t always been the case. The lifestyle and values that come from, and go into the act of playing videogames is one hardwired into many internet focused communities. Due to the natural and evolving vocality of some of these current internet communities, mixed with a leftover impression made on the mainstream populace from marketing tropes found in television commercials and gaming culture first seen in the 80s – there has been an association of children’s fun and pettiness relating to videogames. This promoted the idea that they were no better than a box of Legos or a toy truck. There were several intellectual properties mainly belonging to then, warring companies, Sega and Nintendo, which promoted and prolonged this outlook with a strong aim at marketing to fairly young people.
The generalisation that comes up more so today – always being associated and compared against the post-modern experience of living and interacting in a world dominated by the internet and the social media that comes with it – is that classic image of a “gamer”. Here we see a 14 year old boy, pimples, he’s socially reclusive, a “wiz-bang on them computers”, and is potentially dangerous to society, wasting his time – a nerd through and through.
When ignorant values and attitudes permeate through society, it can be incredibly difficult to be taken seriously as both a medium and art form. But as with all societal attitudes, people change, concepts become more incorporated, or more obscure, and the natural flow of consumption reshapes alongside a new generation. In the last ten years these changes have been more prominent than ever, mainly due to the young children that games were marketed to in the 70s and 80s.
“When ignorant values and attitudes permeate through society, it can be incredibly difficult to be taken seriously as both a medium and art form.”
Here in the new millennium, these people have aged, and then either set about creating games with the passion they acquired as children, or primarily with the use of the internet, helping to create a culture surrounding the medium that trumps most others. Whether the toxicity of this culture outweighs the fundamental reasons for its existence is debateable. Though it is certain that it plays a part in the creation of content and story within modern games, as well as the way people view and react to it.
Recently acclaimed television programmes falling under the drama category share certain aspects of their storytelling and production. This includes the use of regular surprises or plot twists, but also the practice of techniques that are generally confined to older texts. The use of soliloquies, motifs, and vague yet powerful scenes of deep meaning are bountiful in popular programs like True Detective, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, and give each of them a sense of connectedness that helps identify them as texts of worth. This adherence to classical techniques can lay the foundation for an argument of equality, and perhaps eventual induction to literary canon.
“This adherence to classical techniques can lay the foundation for an argument of equality, and perhaps eventual induction to literary canon.”
There are games that can make similar claims, but as with any medium, some examples are more important than others. Perhaps they have some enjoyable aspects, yet are focused on simple entertainment or making money. Not every game can be compared to Harper Lee; sometimes a comparison to Peter Jackson or James Cameron may be more appropriate.
While acknowledging obvious limitations, there are qualities of the medium that are simply unable to be replicated by any other, particularly the ideas of interactivity and freedom, producing a sense of connectedness and immersion needed to promote games to and above the value of any other form.
The miracle of modern game design in genres known for non-linearity is the creativity and problem solving that grows the experience without giving in to tropes and previously established limitations of design. Assuming some limits in regards to skill and time, developers have a base of technology, with affordability being acceptable enough to indulge nearly all ideas and concepts. The glass ceiling has been removed, replaced with the need for persistence and aspiration. And this certainly isn’t the first time technology has reached a point of accessibility for creators. In the modern day, editing software and video cameras are more than affordable. The independent film scene has grown tremendously with big events like Tropfest only serving to promote independent endeavours further.
The final piece of the puzzle is to acknowledge these freedoms both in and out of games, and use it to compose texts that tell high quality stories with deeper meanings and importance that encourage the same level of reverence and contemplation as classic literary texts.