Next quarter I’ll be teaching English 299, an experimental course at CCC titled “Games and Literature.” Benjamin Ripplinger, a student at the college who is researching gaming culture for an academic paper, interviewed me about the literary function of games and the larger prospects of my class:
Q: In what ways do video games have a literary aspect? Does it differ from the literary aspects of books? If so, in what ways?
I think that depends on how you define literature in the first place. I tend to see literature as reflecting, responding, and retransmitting the important ideas and conversations of its time, and doing so in the idiom and methods that make the most sense. In the 14th century, books were very important instruments in recording these conversations, and became even more so in the 15th century when Gutenberg developed the first printing press. We’re now 550+ years beyond the invention of movable type; to think that literature should be confined to only what can be scribbled or stamped onto dead trees is to largely ignore why Gutenberg built that infernal machine in the first place.
In other words, new technologies afford us new ways to share our experiences, and you need look only to the advents of film, television and computers in the 20th century to see their respective impacts on literature. I very much see video games as emerging and important narrative artforms that are entirely capable of delivering not just an understanding of an idea, but to help us in some way experience it.
I think, though, that an underlying assumption in your question is that somehow books are being displaced by video games, and I simply don’t believe that’s the case. Human beings are incredibly adept creatures, and certainly capable of discerning how a book and a video game are different texts, each demanding us to interact with it in a different way.
In what way do you incorporate the literary aspects of video games into your class?
Well, one of the agendas of my English 299 class next quarter is to make the argument that video games are important narrative devices worthy of serious exploration and study, so you could say the entire course pivots on what defines literature in the first place. More specifically, though, we’ll be looking not only at how video games establish setting, character and plot (not unlike a novel does, in some ways), but how these games invite tangible exploration and sharing of these things through their obvious interactivity. A big part of what we’ll explore is a game’s social function, and probably end up comparing how the process of reading a novel and then discussing it with a group of peers or friends is similar to playing a console or board game within that same social group.
What is the overall educational goal of your class? What are you attempting to teach?
The course has specific outcomes for students that are very specifically tied to academic rigor, but I’d probably say that my overall goal with English 299 is to develop an appreciation and critical awareness for video games that goes above and beyond the Aint It Just Soooo Cool?! factor. I want students to be able to articulate a deeper understanding for games than what’s on the surface; if we spend the time to discuss video games less as consumer products and more as texts, we might come to an important understanding of why human beings feel compelled to create and play them in the first place (and have done so, I might add, for all of history).
Aside from video games, what else does your class include in its syllabus?
Right now, the course has a pretty careful balance between electronic and more traditional forms of literature, as well as some pretty heady cultural criticism and a few films to boot. As this is the first time I’ll be teaching the course, I haven’t completely locked in the reading list; however, I can tell you that it will include written texts by Mary Shelley, Tim O’Brien, H.P. Lovecraft and McKenzie Wark, films by Steven Spielberg and the Wachowski Brothers, and a sampling of electronic texts that includes interactive fictions and a shortlist of the more important blogs and websites in game studies.
How did you come up with the idea to create a college course based on the literary content of games?
The idea certainly isn’t a new one. A good number of colleges and universities have been offering courses in game studies for quite a while now. However, those courses are typically at the graduate-level, and oftentimes are the outcroppings of computer science departments. It’s only in recent years that games have started to make their way into humanities classes, and I believe those of us in that field need to seriously think about the function and purpose of video games in the culture.
Let me turn your question around a bit, Ben: if colleges and universities don’t investigate these issues, who is going to?
Think of this yet another way: World of Warcraft boasts a community of 8 million active players word-wide, and grows larger every month. What does *that* mean?
And yet another way: the Undergraduate Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is building an archive of classic and contemporary video games, and giving its patrons unprecedented access to play them in-house or check them out like any other library book. What does *that* mean?
And even yet another way: later this year, anyone using Microsoft Windows will be able to drag-and-drop together their own video game, share it with their friends, and even sell it to other gamers through the XBox Live framework. What does *that* mean?
Essentially, all of the above makes it clear that video games are here to stay, and ignoring them or (worse yet) scapegoating them for The Tragedy Of The Week is not a particularly healthy or intelligent response, just as it wasn’t particularly healthy or intelligent to do it with radio (Martians!!!), television (More Martians!!!), rock music (Satanists!!!) comic books (Even More Martians!!! Werewolves, Pirates And Vampires Too!!!) or the web (All Of The Above!!! Plus Porn!!!). Before we can truly assess whether something is worthwhile, we must first engage and understand it, and we have to look beyond the reptilian consumerism that wants nothing more from us than to rinse-wash-repeat.
The fine line a course like this one walks at a community college is probably being mistaken as a ringing endorsement of video games at best, and, at worst, an irresponsible waste of time. I, of course, view this class as neither of those things, but I hope I’m not idealistic enough to believe that the students who end up taking the class aren’t in some measure thinking these things going into it. Many within academia are highly skeptical of games studies, and there are probably more than a few people in the community who will see the course listing, roll their eyes, and mutter to themselves, “whatever happened to literature classes that taught *real literature*?!”
My response to those who are dubious would never be to replace their copies of On the Road with Grand Theft Auto, but to tackle that question about “real literature” head-on, and to try and get a better sense of how ideas are communicated and shared in a society like ours, where nearly every action and thought is mediated by a wire of some sort.
Again: if *we* don’t ask these questions, who will?