Is Gaming Bad for Fiction Writers?
The other day, I was reading an undergraduate student’s novel in progress, and a thought occurred to me. As I often do, I shared that thought on Facebook:
I’ve never played a video game, but I recognize that it’s a narrative experience that lots and lots of people value. No judgement. But in my fiction-writing classes, I often read stories and novels that read as if I’m watching someone else play a video game. There’s plot, action, scene, all great, but virtually no interiority, which for me is *absolutely necessary* in fiction. My students have always used films and TV shows to talk about fiction, but now they also reference video games. “This is like Bioshock,” for example, and I have no idea what that even means. I wonder if other creative writing teachers have noticed this quality in student fiction or these references? I wonder if people who play video games could give me some tips about how to help my students make the transition from gaming to writing narrative. P.S. Over the last few years, I’ve read lot more genre fiction (George R.R. Martin, Suzanne Collins, etc.) so that I could at least be familiar with the kinds of stories students borrow from, but I really don’t want to start playing games.
I made the comment public and a great conversation ensued. As of right now, there are 80 comments–from gamers and non-gamers, from creative writing professors and students, from friends and strangers. The conversation was passionate. I invite you to read the comments here.
I encourage you to add to the conversation in a number of ways:
- in the Facebook thread
- on your own blog, and link back to my post so I’ll get a pingback
- in this Google Doc, “Advice on Gaming vs. Fiction,” which I will share with future fiction writing students
- write an article or essay for online magazine, say, The Millions or Fiction Writer’s Review (see “further reading” below!)
I spent a lot of time in that thread over the last few days! One of my last comments was this:
What matters to me is the fiction that my gaming students write. What matters to me is whether or not what’s on the page can be published as fiction. Many people who responded in this thread ARE gamers and they know exactly what you mean about the cathartic experience of games. I am not denying that it exists! What I’m saying is that the way a fiction writer achieves that cathartic experience is different from the way its achieved in a game. I think that gamers create or recreate scenarios on the page that–were they in the game, would be cathartic. But on the page, their stories do not produce the effect they want to achieve.
My Two Cents
I don’t play games and have probably missed the boat on this narrative experience. The ship has sailed.
I have taught myself many other things in the last few years, but this is not an area I’m particularly interested in exploring.
I’m also not interested in become a writer of flash fiction, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not a valid mode of expression. I have a colleagues at Ball State who practice both these modes, and I’m happy to point students in those directions.
The crux of my initial question was not about the validity of games as narrative experience but about whether I needed to understand that experience in order to be a good teacher of fiction writing.
And I still say: No. I don’t.
And I’m saying: Yay for those who can!
What do you think? And please, for the love of god, if you’re going to respond, take some time to read my comments in the FB thread. Do not assume I’m against gaming.
Let’s also remember that this is an unusual situation in which students and faculty, people inside university creative writing programs and people outside those programs are all in the same “room” talking. That doesn’t happen very often. Let’s all play nice.
Here are some interesting articles on this subject for further reading.
Writing the Great American
Novel Video Game at the Fiction Writer’s Review site.
Writing and Gaming: an interview with James Sutter at the SFWA site.
Gaming and Fiction: Telling the Story to a Whole New Audience at The Guardian.
I’d say gaming is working out well for Ernest Cline and Douglas Copeland. If writers are absorbing structural notions from poor or superficially constructed game narratives, like Battlefield or Assassin’s Creed, then that could certainly be harmful. But I’d actually recommend many genre writers play Gone Home.
I don’t use Facebook so my apologies if I’m repeating points. I am a gamer and writer/writing teaching. A few points:
1. You don’t need to play video games to teach fiction, but gamers are going to be suspicious of anyone who wants to have a broad discussion about the effect of video games but refuses to play one. I believe you that you aren’t “against gaming,” but this does not feel like a conversation in good faith. How would you feel if someone wanted to talk to you about the effect of fiction on [X] but had never read a story and refused to try?
2. I don’t see any bad habits in my students’ fiction that seems distinctly related to video games and not to TV, movies, etc. (And I’m not sure I blame those things, either.)
3. What does “interiority” actually mean? The thoughts/feelings of characters? Does “Hills Like White Elephants” have interiority, or does it merely *suggest* interiority through what you call “plot, action, scene”? Video games often do the same; in fact, almost all of them do, even the ones that are the least concerned with character building. But I don’t think you’d call Hemingway’s work too video game-y. The issue, of course, isn’t at all about relying only plot, action, scene but about creating plots, actions, and scenes that allow for characters to express rich inner lives. There’s nothing inherent in video games that prevents this from happening. As you seem to allow, there are many games that do exactly that in deeply moving ways.
Thanks Conrad. Yes, that’s what I mean by interiority. I agree that Hills Like White Elephants (which I teach) doesn’t provide interiority, but does suggest it. I find, however, that when I ask students, “What’s going on inside your character? Who is your character?” they often don’t know because they’ve been so focused on “moving their characters through the narrative.”
The whole debate reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” which is some of the best writing about writing that I have ever found. It’s hard to pick a single passage to apply here, but maybe this will encourage some (perhaps your students?) to read the whole thing (in full here: http://jsomers.net/DFW_TV.pdf).
“We [U.S. fiction writers under forty] are not different from our fathers insofar as television presents and defines the contemporary world. Be we are different in that we have no memory of a world without such electric definition. This is why the derision so many older fictionists heap on a ‘Brat Pack’ generation they see as insufficiently critical of mass culture is simultaneously apt and misguided. It’s true that there’s something sad about the fact that young lion David Leavitt’s sole descriptions of certain story characters is that their T-shirts have certain brand names on them. But the fact is that, for most of the educated young readership for whom Leavitt writes, members of a generation raised and nourished on messages equating what one consumes with who one is, Leavitt’s descriptions do the job. In our post-’50, inseparable-from-TV association pool, brand loyalty is synecdochic of identity, character.”
This is an issue I started thinking about as a writing undergrad at Pitt. I missed the Facebook discussion, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts here:
First, so far as our interests as writers relate to understanding our audience (or potential audience) and what shapes their expectations of narrative, it can’t be dismissed that there’s a generation (and more coming) whose earliest experience with narrative is through video games. Good or bad, it’s happening and it makes sense to recognize that it’s happening. Second, video game writing–what that involves, within and outside of the game–seems relevant as a professional concern tied to the business of writing (career opportunities). And, third, while we can argue how video games might or might not influence fiction, any understanding of video game narrative begins with an exploration of its influences, which IMO primarily concerns the speculative genres (as a matter of presentation, film is the obvious primary influence on how narratives are conveyed). For every genre of video game (survival horror, sf-themed military shooter, RPG), we could trace those narrative conventions to genre fiction and mediums like comic books (horror, military/future war sf, sword & sorcery). It could be argued, too, that as a cultural product video games are worthy of exploring (something like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One).
As a matter of writing, to me it’s the same problem when visual mediums are used as a model for a story. But I was more interested in how it works the other way, how fiction might shape video game narratives, creating a sense of what we might think of as literary or “novel-like” depth in a game and what that might mean. If I had to identify early examples of something like this, I’d probably point to games like Shenmue and Mass Effect, especially the latter for it’s branching narratives and choice-based morality systems. A more recent game, The Last of Us, is one of the better game narratives, but it’s much, much closer to something like an interactive movie than fiction. Right now, what we see in a Mass Effect is still fairly primitive, but it seems like there’s a possibility for something similar to what Janet Murray talks about in Hamlet on the Holodeck.
Does a person need to understand video games to be a good writer of teaching? I don’t think so, although knowing what’s shaping the formative narrative experiences of students isn’t a bad idea. I don’t think a deep understanding is required to address a lack of an “inner life” in their fiction however. If it were me, I’d probably tell them a) there’s nothing wrong with something that inspires you to write, b) read the fiction that influenced/shaped your favorite game narratives (those books and stories exist), and c) strive to understand how and why the two mediums differ in expressing character, evoking reader/player response, narrative structure, agency, etc. I’d guess that the lack of depth arises from a mistranslation of the player/game relationship to writer/text, excluding consideration for the reader, who must experience, in a sense, that emotional interaction the player experiences through controlling a game’s avatar.
I wrote an entire blog post in response to this one, but in case you don’t feel like reading it (which I totally get, it’s long), my response is this:
No. Gaming isn’t bad for fiction writers. Not reading is what’s bad for fiction writers, because they won’t know how to express themselves in ‘literature’, thinking instead in ‘game scenes’. Every artistic medium has its own ways of getting stories across and one way you can fail as a storyteller is to not know how to use the tools and techniques of the medium you work with.
I recommend playing games, but not for the sake of your students. For the sake of an interesting experience (stories are told differently there). Amensia is scary as hell, Monkey Island has fun characters and plots and requires virtually no ability with a keyboard and mouse (“The Curse of Monkey Island” is my favorite of the series), Portal is notorious for its AI character, Tomb Raider (the recent one) lacks a bit in story-telling coherence, but its atmosphere is engaging (but it’s difficult if you haven’t played anything before). I haven’t played Bioshock, so yeah… no opinions there.
Thanks Roxana and Jason! So many people have responded to this issue so thoughtfully. I really appreciate it.