Why video games would be the kiss of death for me as a writer

Moderator: Damien G. Walter, a much-published U.K. writer of "weird and speculative fiction," is our latest contributor. Welcome, Damien! - D.R.

imageThe other day my self discipline failed, and after weeks of craving I bought a video game. Addictions are never broken; they are only tamed. Eventually they will escape the leash and savage a passing pedestrian. For weeks I've been browsing the game shops, debating the for and against of giving in to temptation. This time the for side won, but for a very simple reason: giving in to the addiction was also the best way of kicking it.

I avoid video games for many reasons, but primarily because I am a writer. If you want to write professionally, video games are the kiss of death. Writing requires the investment of time, and video games are the world’s greatest time waster. Worse, video games aren't good for the upper brain functions that provide advanced language skills. I'm not saying that video games make you stupid, but they certainly don't make you eloquent.

Functional reading---the Web kind---vs. the advanced variety

image As a writer, I also follow closely the continuing debate about the demise of reading. Not functional reading, which is fine and dandy, what with the Internet bringing people in the billions to text-based Web pages, forums, chat and so forth. But advanced reading, of the kind that will empower a person to access the incredible knowledge and joy of reading a novel or work of creative non-fiction, is rumored to be in sharp decline.

Those are rumors I've seen corroborated first-hand, having spent the last five years working to develop literacy with young people. Teenagers simply do not read for pleasure in the numbers they did even twenty years ago. And the cause of this titanic shift away from reading can be squarely placed at the foot of the digital revolution, of which video games are a leading part.

No matter how beautiful the graphics...

imageMy video game addiction started as a teenager. I was part of the first generation to grow up with video games. When I look back at the Sinclair Spectrum games that got me hooked, followed by the early 16-bit consoles, I'm amazed by how excited I was by games like Manic Miner or Target:Renegade, and how basic they were compared to the spectacular graphical feats of modern gaming. But I also always found gaming frustrating, as though I were aware even then that something was missing from those games, something that is still missing, and something that graphics no matter how beautifully rendered can never provide.

The truth is that as with millions of teenagers before and after me, my addiction is not to video games, but to imagination. I’ve always been a sucker for anything that took my imagination on a journey—TV, film, video games, theater, books. But as I grow older I’ve come to realize that the real work of imagination isn’t made by those things, or even the people who make them, often at the cost of hundreds of millions of pounds. The real imaginative work happens inside my head, inside that mushy old brain all of us have access to that is still a trillion times more sophisticated than a PlayStation 3.

The software of the mind

It’s easy to forget that books are a technology, precisely because they are so old. Books are, for want of a better metaphor, the software of the mind. As such they are running on hardware vastly more powerful than any computer. Our minds have very different capabilities from a Playstation. They can’t compute the trajectories of bullets in real time to facilitate online wargames. But they can comprehend the emotions of violence and conflict, and facilitate empathy with the real humans fighting real wars.

Every few years I need to remind myself how limited and empty even the most graphically advanced video games are compared to the richness of a book. I deleted the game after a few hours, and fingers crossed I won’t be tempted to play one again any time soon.

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About Damien Walter: Damien is "a writer of weird and speculative fiction" and has written for Electric Velocipede, Serendipity, Transmission, Pulp.net and Scifantastic magazines as well as BBC Radio. Bloom: Young Writers and the Route Compendium have anthologized his stories.  Shortlisted in 2005 for the Douglas Coupland short fiction prize, he has received a grant by Arts Council England to work on his first novel. His reviews have appeared in The Fix. This summer Damien will be at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ workshop at UC San Diego. Check out his blog.

imageCoincidence Department:  Damien recently gave Arthur C. Clarke a nice good-bye, and the Guardian published the item with a photo of Clarke at the keyboard of a Kaypro II. While researching the Future Chapter of my book The Silicon Jungle (Ballantine), I helped Clarke and 2010 director Peter Hyams catch up with Kaypros to use in a trans-Pacific connection during the writing of the film. – D.R.

5 Comments on Why video games would be the kiss of death for me as a writer

  1. Think of videogames as a dramatic art form and not a literary art form. I find it easier to compare a game to an episode of Friends than a Dostoevsky novel.

    One problem with video games is that they don’t let the individual have much freedom to create stories within the gaming environment. I assume you are talking about twitchspeed type of games, but many other kinds of games enable dramatic situations and even a sense of community. The problem is that the action isn’t something that exists outside of the videogame environment (except for some notable video captures–such as Machinima shows).

    The other problem is that to create a module requires a bit of technical sophistication. It also makes you very platform dependent. maybe your mod was awesome for Neverwinter Nights, but 10 years from now, who’s going to be able to play it?

    Text on the other hand is a very lightweight medium and well-understood.But time-consuming to construct because it is usually by a single person.

    One answer is to let your adventures in virtual worlds became the basis for novels. On the other hand, I find tabletop role-playing much more effective for that.

    By the way, I’ve been meaning to write a book review on Teleread about Chris Crawford’s book on interactive storytelling. He tries to show how game engines can be used to create satisfying stories. It’s a visionary book, and I have no doubt that some brilliant 14 year old is reading it and trying to implement every single idea in it.

  2. I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw the Manic Miner pic 😉 Big ZX speccy fan here – although I liked the more cerebral games like System 15000, the text adventures, strategy games and so on. (E.g. Lords of Midnight.) Never played the arcade conversions.

    Nowadays I play PC games occasionally, from Half Life to Oblivion, from the GTA series to driving sims/car racing. I prefer them to the idiot box, and a decent force feedback steering wheel can give you quite a workout after three hours lapping a track at high speed.

    Although I play games, I’ve managed to write four novels in the past few years, all of them now published. It’s not either-or … I just see gaming as a nice relaxation & down-time for my brain.

  3. Dan Jackson // June 5, 2008 at 1:49 pm //

    Every few years I need to remind myself how limited and empty even the most graphically advanced video games are compared to the richness of a book. I deleted the game after a few hours, and fingers crossed I won’t be tempted to play one again any time soon.

    I notice that the name of the game being played doesn’t seem to have been mentioned in this article. Also, I feel sad that the writer considers video games to be the Public Enemy No. 1 of books. I am an avid gamer, but I am also an avid reader of books, and I think that the two are not mutually exclusive. As a storytelling form, video games have more in common with movies than with books; in fact the trend these days seems to be to make games into “movies with interactivity”.

    Possibly the problem the writer is running into is the fact that there is a LOT of what’s known in the gaming world as “licensed shovelware” out there. Licensed shovelware is when a movie tie-in game is made specifically to come out around the same time as the movie, and consequently turns out to be less-than-stellar quality. But nobody really seems to care, because the development costs were low and the things (still) sell bucketloads. If the game the writer bought was in this category, I strongly urge him to reconsider his dislike and try something else. For example, the excellent “Mass Effect” is available for the Xbox 360 and has recently come out for the PC as well (and, popular media opinions to the contrary, it isn’t full of pornographic filth or murder simulators or god knows what else they’re claiming these days).

    Also, if the writer is concerned about addictiveness, it might be an idea for him to avoid games that have replay value as their core asset over and above a good storyline and good gameplay.

  4. Thanks for the comments people, interesting stuff.

    I think my chief criticism of video games here is that they are a very poor medium for storytelling, at least the way they are currently crafted. I’d be more forgiving of games that don’t attempt storytelling – simulations, driving games etc etc, but as soon as video games introduce characters my experience is that they fall flat on their face.

    The game in question in this article was Gears of War, but in the last couple years I’ve played the GTA games, the last two Elderscrolls, and even a bit of WoW among others. Half Life 2 probably had the most sophisticated storytelling of any recent game, but even that had the depth of puddle, all things considered.

    For me there are two problems. The first is that computer games need some decent writers. The impression I get is that the techie people don’t like handing over the creative bits of the process to people who actualy know what they are doing.

    But the second problem is the more serious one. Computers, however sophisticated they seem to us now, are incredibly simplistic machines compared to our native imagination. Books work directly with the imagination to produce incredibly intense emotions and expereinces, but computer games try and replace the imagination with a second rate replacement provided by computer graphics.

    I’m sure its possible to balance computer games and books, but I guess my question is, why bother when books are so much more intense and satisfying?

  5. One of the later Elite games came with a book of short stories (Tales from the Frontier) which were pretty good. Shame the game itself was plot-free.

    And Morrowind/Oblivion contained interesting (if brief) snippets in the books within the games. I know my two daughters must have read every story, and they especially liked the way books referenced each other to build up an entire fake history.

    In general, games sell on the Oooh factor, not the Hmmm factor. Witness the death of the traditional adventures ala Monkey Island, Space Quest and so on.

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