9.10.08

Videogames, Comic Books, Literature, and American Mythology

My buddy, Michael Highland, has a great videogame blog that should be checked out. Michael made a movie a while back called "As Real As Your Life" about his addiction to videogames that's very insightful and you can check out on the site. Recently, there was some activity on a comment board talking about his movie and Michael got into a good discussion of videogames as a form of mythology and hero-worship. Below, reposted, is my response to his comments and here is the link to the post on his blog with the aformentioned comments. D-bow, when you get your head outta the Honeyplex and finish designing your follow up on "Mail Goggles," I expect to hear from you on this...

Hey man,

Couple thoughts on this post... First, I want to look at this statement: "A book never asks you, the reader, to participate; video games demand action and establish a direct causal link between the player and the virtual world." Though I understand what you're saying to an extent, I disagree with you on this. A writer has already written the book I'm reading. My picking it up and reading it does not change the symbols on the page. In a videogame, though, my input dictates the activities of my avatar. Fair enough.

My first response to your statement is, on a very basic level, a videogame will not really play itself, nor will a book read itself. Both require some basic level of participation.To go a little deeper, I think sophisticated books - like sophisticated videogames - demand (but do not require) a deep level of participation. In fact, I think you could argue the relationship is causal.

To explain this, let me start by addressing participation in videogames. In a videogame, the player does not really "create" each set of actions. The possibilities of what one can do are defined by the game's code. Someone before you has defined the parameters of your action, and you function within those parameters. The possibilities are, to some extent, prescripted.In a book, I think there is an analogous situation. While James Joyce has put the symbols on the pages of "Ulysses" what you make of the meanings of the symbols requires your participation. The reader has the ability to create and define meaning.

Now, one can read "Ulysses" as just a good beach read if you care to try, just as one can approach MGS4:GOP as an FPS and run around mindlessly blasting everything in sight like it was a Resident Evil arcade game at a movie theatre with the red plastic shotgun. But both the sophisticated book and the sophisticated videogame demand participation in order to "get the most out of" the game or book.

But this analysis is structural. The more important point addresses the "value" of videogames versus books.

David McCullough put this point succinctly and I sort of agree with him. "Learning is not to be found on a printout. It's not on call at the touch of a finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books."

Now, I agree with McCullough in the sense that there is something that great books offer that nothing else ever will in the same way. There are simply essential truths that the written word can convey and I think a videogame cannot. The medium for the videogame does not allow for it. It clouds out the message of the game.

However. Your really great point is about the mythology of videogames and in that context I think it may be unfair to discuss videogames alongside great books or novels. I think the more appropriate analogue is comic books.

I have a friend whose father has a giant comic book collection that's like the third largest in the country or something. I remember him saying a couple years ago that when you read comic books you're reading "American mythology." Maybe that wasn't an original thought, but it was the first time I'd heard it and it stuck.

I would adjust his statement, perhaps, by saying that comic books were the 20th century's incarnation of American mythology. I expect videogames will be the 21st century's.Now, if we think about videogames from that perspective, maybe we can engage them alongside books and literature.

Are 20th century American comic books and 20th century American literature "equals"? Is that not a fair question? My feeling is they are not equals, that the 20th century tradition of American literature far surpasses in scope, seriousness, depth, and effect, that of comic books. I don't like this comparison, and don't mean to diminish comic books' importance. But the question may be valuable. Literature will not die off in the 21st century, but I would think that there will be far more serious "gamers" in the 21st century than serious "readers." If this is so, then can videogames rise to the occasion? Can they take the mantle that 20th century American literature held? I would seem to have already answered my own question with a "no," but maybe I'm wrong.

My issue with videogames is their medium - the television (or computer) screen. But Greek mythology, The Odyssey, say, began as a strictly oral tradition and was later written down and is now read in book form. The message adapted to a new medium. Was something lost in that transition? Probably. But I think we're better off for having The Odyssey in a book than having lost it in the ephemerality of speech. Likewise, can videogames take part in literary tradition? I don't mean by simply putting symbols and words on the screen, something else would have to happen.

That, I think, is the real challenge of videogames in the 21st century. To go from oral to written tradition seems a fairly obvious step, perhaps: Hear the word, write it down. But how to go from literary to videogame? It cannot simply adopt the tenets of moviemaking, or it will simply parrot another artistic tradition. Videogames have to create a unique language. That hasn't happened yet. But that's the fundamental question to me; will videogames be the next iteration of comic books and the American (or global) mythology of the 21st century? Or can videogames expand the territory of comic books and find someway to combine and expand the literary tradition as well?

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