Media Elitism: Why Games are Just as Important as Books

Kurt Vonnegut once said that if you want to be a writer, major in engineering. Well, that’s paraphrasing. I’m sure his actual quote involved much more ennui and possibly a crude drawing of a butthole, but the point still stands. If you want to write, do something else.

If you study writing and literature all day, you’re probably not going to want come home to do more of it on your off hours. That’s first hand experience: I’ve never written or read (recreationally) less than when I was an English major. I was a waiter for five years, and when I came home you could not pay me to deal with food. Not to cook it, not to serve it, not even to sit down and eat it – I’d shovel something into my guts as fast as possible, while standing up, in the kitchen, just to get a good solid calorie base to drink away the shame and fury. I worked in IT Support for a few years, and I did not come home to sit on the computer; I shoveled something into my guts as fast as possible to get a good solid calorie base to – you know what? This isn’t about my “drinking problem.”

It’s about distraction, variety, and the importance of diversifying your passions. I’m a professional writer these days, and am lucky enough to make my living solely through the discussion, dissection, modification and creation of writing. And yet here I am, on my off hours, writing a blog about writing while also writing my own book.

Do as I say, not as I do. Actually, you probably shouldn’t even do as I say. Just…maybe take it under advisement and run it by a lawyer before following through on it.

By making writing and reading my day job, night job and hobby, I frequently run the risk of stalling out. I don’t get writer’s block, just because I recognize it for what it is – a form of stage fright that’s only overcome by action – but I do get burnt out. If you’ve read my Cracked columns, you’ll notice I talk about two non-writing related things quite a bit: Video games, and motorcycles. These are the things that get me unstuck. This post is not about my motorcycle, mostly because it’s sunny out and I’m going to ride it just as soon as I finish this post. So that leaves one thing…

Video games engage a different type of thinking. Writing is active, detail-oriented and cerebral. All qualifiers than can arguably be applied to any “good” video game. But the method of interaction couldn’t be more different. In gaming, you’re either engaging in somebody else’s narrative, or creating very crude narratives of your own that usually involve nothing more complex than applying semi-trucks to crowded shopping malls while wearing a clown costume. A common critique of video games is that, like television, they don’t spark your imagination as strongly as books. There are exceptions to the rule of course – I played Scribblenauts recently, and that game’s entire central mechanic is imagination – but I actually agree with the general statement. Video games require less imagination. This is necessary for me. It’s part of their appeal: Games give me a structure — a set of rules, mechanics and controls that can be manipulated toward a purpose. Any creativity lies only in my use of those controls inside of that structure. It’s the opposite of writing, where I invent the structure, create the mechanics and embody the controls.

There’s nothing wrong with passivity.

There’s no offense that need be taken if somebody says that video games require less creativity or imagination than books – your brain works in myriad ways. It has different parts for different things: A part that does books, a part that does games, a part that does period accurate historical slash fiction. It’s a complicated machine. Using only one of those parts atrophies the others. If you constantly and only inhabit worlds that you create with your own mind, you forget what it is to inhabit worlds created by the minds of others. If you only inhabit those other worlds through one medium — writing, film, gaming — you’re neglecting all the other forms of interaction at your own creative peril. Sometimes it’s helpful to experience a different role. Taking control of the hero rather than just watching him might give you insight on motivation; to watch the hero rather than imagine her might give you insight on her sensory experience; to imagine the hero rather than have them drawn out for you by graphics engines or cast by Hollywood producers might allow you to put elements of yourself in them, and help you better empathize with their plight.

Media elitism, like all elitism, hinders you. It pigeon-holes you and narrows your field of view. You’re not better if you’re a reader. You’re not better if you’re a film buff. You’re not better if you’re a gamer. If somebody tells you to pick up a book, suggest they pick up a game. And vice versa. You might both be better for it. Or at least you might come unstuck a bit.

Here’s a butthole and some ennui:

All the great artists are dead.



8 thoughts on “Media Elitism: Why Games are Just as Important as Books

  1. Adam

    I wouldn’t say they are all dead, you’re still hanging around, Just please be careful when you ride your motorcycle, those things are death traps.

  2. SteveySteve

    This is why I still prefer the old Realmz style RPG’s. They were so basic, yet so customisable, that you ended up supplying a lot of the “narrative” yourself. To this day, I love it when a game gives you the option to customise your lead character (or, better, the whole team). I think it’s the happy middle-ground between a reading and a gaming experience.


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