There is an ongoing argument about whether games can be considered as literature, and this one presents by far the most compelling case yet for "yes".

A quotation from the Guardian review of Bioshock 2. It’s a cracking example of a style of games writing that I hate.

Why don’t I like this kind of writing? Because it never addresses the gameness of a game; it breaks it down into component parts – story, graphics, sounds – that feel familiar from other disciplines, and are inevitably criticised as such. “Gameplay” – a catch-all term describing rules, mechanics, the systems present in a work that is inherently systematic – is separated out from these other elements. This review simply disguises its formulaic, old-fashioned style with some breathless hyperbole and purple prose – “some of the best combat dynamics in the business” is simply a tarted-up version of the meaningless “the gameplay is really good“. This is usually – I say usually, having dipped into this style myself – an attempt to make the writing seem more “worthwhile” to a mainstream audience, perhaps even a non-games audience. But Nicky Woolf’s writing, despite its ambition, is a far cry from my favourite “mainstream” games writer: John Lanchester in the LRB. Though I don’t always agree with him, Lanchester’s writing is smart, informed, and never once defensive.

But what really, really ticks me off is that this article doesn’t deliver on its message: why is it that ‘story’ is considered the key element of games’ “maturity”? After all, story isn’t the only thing that contributes to game-ness. Bioshock 2 is a shooter – a very good shooter, sure, with some tactical elements harking back to Halo‘s balance of left-hand/right-hand, direct/indirect – but it’s still a game where you spend most of your time shooting monsters in the face.

And it is difficult to explain how such a (relatively) generic style of gameplay contributes to a “compelling case” for this “being literature“. After all, playing – or should be – the majority of what you do in a game.

I am not complaining: “involving shooting” does not make a game bad; it does not even necessarily make it immature – and I’d rather be shooting monsters in the rich, well-realized, faded-deco world of Rapture than as another identikit Space Marine. Rather, there’s a much simpler issue at stake:

I don’t want my games to be literature.

I want them to be games. I want to know why a game is good as a game, not as an alternative to reading a book or watching a movie. When I want to read a book, I will, because I like books and I like them for things only they can do. When I want to watch a movie, I will, because I like movies, and I like them for things only they can do.

When I want to play a game, I will, because I like them for things only they can do. I do not want games to become literature, just as I do not want them to become cinema. I expect Woolf’s use of the word literature was meant to be a statement of quality, rather than of medium – but I think the fact that Woolf uses it qualitatively is telling, and perhaps even defensive. And that’s why I bang on like this: there’s no need to be defensive of a medium in the criticism of an artefact. You won’t have to reach for the thesaurus quite so much, or remind the reader that the medium might be worthwhile, if you celebrate things as themselves, on their own merits. Celebrate game-ness.

8 comments on this entry.

  • Taco | 23 Feb 2010

    Hear hear!

    I think the main reason why there are few (any?) good game critics is that we only get reviewers, who`s income is usually derived from advertisements of game companies and therefor compromised.

    There used to be a Dutch magazine that eschewed that formula, offering real journalism, real opinions. They stopped getting games in advance, which meant that their reporting was always 1 or 2 months behind other magazines. “there used to be” being the operative word.

  • Rossignol | 23 Feb 2010

    Actually I think this is related to a whole big misconception about entertainment/escapism. Ugh, I am totally writing a book about it.

    But in short: no one is doing the big picture of “escapist technologies”. Instead they’re coming at this stuff with a vocabulary derived from film, or from lit crit. We need to understand all that stuff comes under a bigger picture of something like “imaginative escapism”.

    Games are probably older than literature, after all. It’s just that they got their Gutenberg press/mass democratization at a different period in history.

  • Paul Carvill | 24 Feb 2010

    Great post! I wrote one of my own based on the disappointment I would have felt based on the Guardian’s skewed misrepresentations. They seem to be struggling to admit that some of the most popular games out there involve lots of running and shooting.

  • RBY | 24 Feb 2010

    I read an interesting counterpoint to your essay a couple of days ago on Digital Kicks:

    I agree that language like that in the quotation at the beginning of your essay is pretty repellent; sentences like “This game shows that games can be literature” make me cringe. But not for the same reasons as you, perhaps. It’s because it’s cliché, it’s vapid.

    But I don’t agree with you on games as literature in general. You seem to me to claim that games should *not* be literature—all of them, at all. I get that you want to play games for their gameness. More power to you. But when you say that games *should not* focus on being literature, but rather as games, you invalidate the literary merit of every game. *Why* is “being a game” better than “being literature”? It’s not, and the same vice versa.

    Personally, I play games for fun and for any literary value I can get. I don’t like it way people say that something is the one right way, or that games *should* focus on one thing or another.

    What’s wrong with diversity? If every game developer in the world focused on games as “literature” to the detriment of games as “games”, then some people should rebel . But if different people focus on different things, then I call that good.

    (But if I’m misunderstanding you, of course, please clarify for me what you think. :) )

  • TheBlackBandit | 28 Feb 2010

    So… Empirical over Rational?

    Subjective over Objective?

    Ebert over Siskel?

    That’s fine by me. Fantastic, even. I judge games by what I feel. That feeling is… I ‘spose, compounded by their design choices, but if it’s fun but clunky I’ll still love it.

  • bill | 28 Feb 2010

    I play games for an experience. Not always a fun one, but something interesting, fun, new, dramatic, or any other adjective.

    I don’t think games all need a story or to aspire to be literature, but i don’t think all games need to be game-ish either. Some games don’t really need gameplay, some do.
    Limiting interactive entertainment to being just Games seems just as limiting as making them only literature.

  • Tom Camfield | 28 Feb 2010

    You seem to be combining two separate arguments to create an indistinct third.

    First, obviously, the Bioshock 2 reviewer has not explained him(or her)self properly. We (a school) teach kids; opinion, reasons, examples. Give me your opinion, and two reasons why you hold that opinion, and examples to illustrate each reason. Opinions like “it has good gameplay” are fine if they’re developed with reasons and examples, if they’re not then it’s a poor argument; you’ve given no basis for the view you hold.

    Second, slightly bizarrely, you seem to be arguing that “game-ness” is whatever films and books are not (correct me if I’m wrong). That’s like saying acting is not part of “film-ness” since you get acting in the theatre. This is clearly nonsense. You wouldn’t say that “football-ness” is not running, balls, rules, players, tackles, tactics etc because they’re all in other sports. A thing is allowed to be the sum of its parts, it doesn’t have to be reduced to its unique attributes.

    I’m not quite sure how you see these two arguments coming together, since one argument asks for better criticism, while the other expresses disappointment that critics apply knowledge from other fields of criticism.

    If you want better criticism you have a whole range of critical theory from other art forms to help point out the flaws in, for example, the narrative, acting, architecture or even the cutscenes. Throwing away those critical tools because they’re used for other media (books, films) feels like an over-reaction.

    A simple reaction to poor criticism of the “gameplay” element is to ask for a more developed argument, more reasons and examples. Denying that games can and should be criticised for the parts of them that resemble film and books is to rob the critic of a whole raft of tools and understanding that they can apply to the assessment of games.

  • Leeks! | 1 Mar 2010

    A first-rate rant, and a well-aimed one.

    Not to put words in your mouth (or your, er, fingers?), but I think what you’re getting at is the need for games criticism to begin evaluating games as a unique media, using the standards its set for itself. As you say, games communicate primarily using interactivity as their language, and they are the only media to do this. We need to develop new language that accounts for this characteristic.

    I think the tendency to break games into little pieces and evaluate each seperately probably comes from the industry’s origins in the tech sector. But they aren’t just gadgetry anymore, and assigning arbitrary numbers to each “component” without discussing how they fit together as a whole is no longer acceptable.