I’ve long been fascinated by the power of text to transport the mind to a distant place. With the right wording, characters, and dialogue, a storyteller can hold your mind captive within a world of their own creation. The fact that many people regularly suspend their disbelief and allow themselves to be controlled in this way is amazing. They are willing to give up some of their own creative agency for the sake of a good story. Good stories and poems are immersive experiences that momentarily separate the reader from reality in order to push them into a new one.
Interestingly, the same can be said of video games.
While many people are willing to laud the narrative power of a story, video games are often reviled as some form of electronic trickery that holds captive the minds of any gamer. They are decried as violent, overly sexual, mindless forms of entertainment that despoil the development of any healthy human being. Some of this is true: many video games are obscene displays of violence or cruelty. I can tick off the names of dozens of titles that can be aptly described as idiotic and pandering only to the worst parts of human nature. But, I can say the same about many books. I find A Clockwork Orange to be a revolting spectacle that does nothing but make men feel secure in the fact that freedom is more important than moral or governmental control. Vladimir Nabokov is lucky that his magnum opus Lolita has been lauded as a form of dark satire, rather than the sick thought process of a corrupt individual. If he turned his work into a video game, he would be seen as a monster. I could go on, but the point is none of these books are submitted to any form of revision or cultural hatred (besides my own), since to do that would be a form of censorship. While they may not offer anything in form of cultural advancement, our society has decided that they are protected under the idea of free speech, but we don’t seem to hold those same standards for video games.
While there are many crass games, there are many stories that video games tell that are beautiful and thoughtful. For every absurd game, there are games like Portal and Fable 3. Portal allows a player to explore feelings of helplessness and resist the control of a figure who wavers between protective and creepy. Glados is one of the most chilling villains I have ever encountered; the lack of proper emphasis in her voice serves to create an uncanny disconnect that disturbs any human mind. Fable 3, for all of its imperfections, explores the nature of a good government . Do you put your resources into ensuring the happiness of your citizens, or their safety? Game mechanics and rules serve as a form of procedural rhetoric that limit the player in their responses. These rules guide the player, forcing them to face uncomfortable realities in the world they have entered. Even Call of Duty: Modern Warfare offers some depth in the limitations it places on the player. How can a person respond to a nuclear weapon going off? The answer: they can’t. All they can do is wait for death to take over. The questions video games pose are complicated and strange, and although video games may not yet match the complexity of many great novels, they have advanced quickly and used the unique tools at their disposal to expose a player to a new world of questions, problems, and compromises.
All art forms begin as entertainment. The first stories may not have been intended for academics to pore over and extract meaning from but we treat them as though that is true. The same should be said for video games. They should not be dismissed as a form of mindless entertainment but appreciated for what they are exposing many players to. Video games have the ability to turn complicated questions into a form of play, giving them a unique position in the world of storytelling. Let’s not make the same mistake that past generations have made; let’s not obstinately refuse the lessons a new art form has to teach us.