Friday, 12 December 2014

People who write games should be engaging with literary culture as much as they engage with games culture.

I’ve spoken to a number of game writers and developers who’ve expressed, in one way or another, that games should be treated with the same critical weight as more established cultural-capital-letters like Literature, Art, Cinema. It’s an old and pretty boring argument; games are art, games aren’t art, art is urinals, urinals are games, etc.

I'm on the side of games. I fully believe they are an interesting, important medium. What really frustrates me about this though is that when you ask those game writers to talk to you about literature, they’re pretty unwilling to go outside of their particular niche. Rarely do they stray outside of science fiction and fantasy. They seldom go to live readings and they almost certainly don’t read literary journals.

This is a massive generalisation, both of gaming culture and the routes into literary culture, but I have been struck nevertheless by the gaping hole between the two camps. There wouldn’t necessarily be anything wrong with this if it weren’t for two important things:

1: Gaming culture is going through a seismic shift in identity and the nerdy young male hegemony is being shattered by the inclusion of new audiences. Unless games writers widen their literary nets to engage with a new set of audiences they will lose them.

2: These are writers we’re talking about. It would be pretty unthinkable for a novelist or short story writer not to be engaged with a wide variety of literature, and it is entirely arrogant for a games writer to demand acceptance from a literary culture when they themselves refuse to properly engage with that culture.

Writing has up until now been an ancillary part of game design, normally done by the developers themselves who most likely haven’t had much in the way of writing practice, but a new wave of writers/developers is putting greater importance on quality of writing. Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy from Cardboard Computer and Dan Pinchbeck from The Chinese Room are each pushing the boundaries when it comes to games writing, and all of them have shown an engagement with the wider literary culture, from 20th century avant-garde theatre to 19th century Romantic novels.

Games writers who think they can survive on mediocre writing need to up their game, because developers like these are increasing in number. You need to read wide and read deep. Read outside of your medium and outside of your comfort zone.

You need to get reading now because there are better writers coming your way.  

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