Are Video Games Worth Studying? (A Literary Perspective)

Video games are part of a history that roots itself within the mythic tradition of storytelling. This is a tradition shared by genres traditionally thought of as literary, such as novels, poetry, and drama. Yet despite the lineage that video games share with literary fiction, often there is an imaginary distinction made between video games and the traditionally literary genres. Video games are commonly viewed within late 20th century/early 21st century American culture(s) as a medium unworthy of critical study, but this view is not shared by all gamers, nor is it shared by all literary critics. Why is this the case? Are video games actually worth critical study or are those who dismiss video game studies as a legitimate field of research correct when they assert such claims as “You’d be better off putting down the controller and reading a book?”

(Re)Defining Literature

The traditional view of literature, “written work valued for superior and artistic merit” (Oxford Living Dictionary), is a view that prizes books above all other mediums. It is a definition that naturally connotes a power structure and elitism, albeit it does so in a way that is not necessarily apparent. Whenever we propose the idea that literature by definition encompasses all written works, a select few written works, or a select few authors, we perpetuate a power structure that can regulate and relegate media. The traditional definition creates a system that enables a disproportionate number of intellectuals to judge the quality of all other works. That which fits within the canon’s established view of good quality is separated from that which challenges the canon in unconventional ways.

If our definition of literature is all written works, then anything that is not a written work cannot be literary. Within this understanding Othello, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, The Origin of Species, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and Hammer of the Gods: the Unauthorized Biography of Led Zeppelin all share equal literary merit, but other media, such as Hitchcock’s The Birds, Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Tarantino’s Django Unchained are incapable of being literary. Thus, from the perspective of a literary critic who adheres to this definition, written work has a superior literary value, comparatively speaking, because only written works exist as literature.

Examples of canonical authors- all of whom are pictured here ready to defend the world from bad writing. (Source)

Yet there are those who would find this definition still too all-encompassing. For some, to posit that Fifty Shades of Grey can be placed upon on the same literary level occupied by the writings of Shakespeare or Poe is to commit literary blasphemy. Within this definition of literature, a clear hierarchy exists amongst written works. Not everything that is written can be literature. Literature instead is an achievement. For a written work to be literary, it must be superior in its artistic form. It must set a new precedent and build upon the tradition that came before it. This is the view where the canon begins to emerge. Certain voices become privileged. Others become marginalized. (This is largely why there are so many white and male voices within the canon and far fewer female voices and voices belonging to people of color.)

Amongst literary critics, historically, it is not uncommon for this canonized definition too to be too encompassing. One only needs to reference the writings of critics such as F.R. Leavis, e.g. The Critic as Anti-Philosopher, and Harold Bloom, e.g. How to Read and Why, for examples of this perspective. Dorothy Parker, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston may be gifted writers with extraordinary literary talents, but from this perspective, they are not necessarily always considered amongst the Great Authors, the authors from whom the literary standard is drawn and constituted. Instead, this definition subjugates authors to a select few, and even then, this select few is frequently subjugated to a single author, William Shakespeare. This definition utilizes Shakespearean as the literary standard. Anything unlike Shakespeare is not worth reading.

For Harold Bloom, the Bard is not one to be trifled with. Source:
For Harold Bloom, the Bard is not one to be trifled with. (Source)

Each variation of literature, from the most anarchic view (all written works are literature) to the most monarchic interpretation (Shakespeare is literature, you plebeian), provides a different assessment of what physically makes a text literary. Central to all three of these varying definitions, however, is that to be literary, a piece of media must either be a written work or directly connected to a written work. This can be and often is the case, but the connection between media and a written artistic text does not always have to be direct. Instead “literary-ness” can come through other avenues, tie ins to social events, human psychology, history, or even what is called literary theory.

Literary Theory

Whereas a definition of literature aims to regulate what should or should not be read, literary theory aims to regulate how a text can be read. It is from this regulation that a reader is able to determine a work’s possible literary meaning(s). Whether an individual is cognizant when making a judgment about a text, that person is influenced by literary theory when creating that judgement. To quote Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today, “there is no such thing as non-theoretical interpretations” (4).

To be able to interpret a work in any capacity is to attribute a literary quality to that work. Yet not all works are literary in the same way. That is why it is imperative to stress that there is not a singular theory that enables a work to be literary. There is instead a plurality. Each theory provides a way to “see both the value and limitations of every method of viewing the world” (Tyson 3). No theory yet provides all of the answers, but each literary theory highlights aspects that enables a critic to find at least an answer. Some theories are compatible, e.g Marxism and African-American Criticism. Others are opposed to one another, e.g. New Historicism and New Criticism. Each theory calls a different perspective into study. Each theory gives the study of a work purpose. Without theory, the study of any text, written or not, is impossible.

While the majority of literary theories may not originally have been intended for the video game medium, these theories still can be applied to video games, just as they may be applied to music, film, and other forms of visual art. I can play Resident Evil 4, but I can also utilize the game to explore how it reflects Kristeva’s theory of the abject found in her Powers of Horror or Said’s notion of the “Orient” within his Orientalism. It does not matter particularly which theory I choose to evoke, but what does matter is how I choose to utilize any theory to uncover a meaning from the text. I must be aware of what a particular theory allows me to claim, but I also must be able to state why the sort of claim I am making is important and recognize what conversations I am a part of by making this claim. A worthwhile claim does not depend on whether a given medium is written. It depends on the theory being used to analyze that piece of media.

The Curse of New Media and Hyperreality

I could just play Resident Evil 4 and shoot this villagers without thinking, but I also can stop and utilize this scene to reflect upon some aspect of culture. How does this game tell me it is okay to kill some people and not others? Who are these people exactly? What messages about class and humanity does the game convey based on how it is structured? Source:
I could just play Resident Evil 4 and shoot these villagers without thinking, but I also can stop and utilize this scene to reflect upon some aspect of culture. How does this game tell me it is okay to kill these people but not others in this game? Who are these people exactly? What do they represent? What messages about class and humanity does the game convey based on how it is structured? (Source)

There is a reason why video games are not taught in classrooms as frequently as more traditionally “literary” texts like Rome and JulietThe Hobbit, and The Great Gatsby, but this is not because video games cannot be literary and are unworthy of any critical analysis. Rather, the perception that video games are incapable of being either of these things, i.e. literary and worthy of critical analysis, is what informs video game’s relegation to an inferior form of media and storytelling.

Within contemporary American culture, video games are often perceived as mindless entertainment, usually aimed at children and young men. As such, video games share in the struggle faced by most new forms of media. They are judged in relation to those forms which preceded them and are dismissed as a lesser copy. As a result of this perception, video games have yet to achieve the universally recognized literary status that is attributed to other forms of written storytelling. But this perception is slowly changing. Arguably, the medium we call “the video game” not only deserves to be analyzed on the same scale of literature, it deserves recognition as the spiritual successor to the novel, drama, and comic book as narrative forms. Yet if video games are worth studying, as I claim, why would a perception exist within American culture that so largely contradicts my view? How can it be that video games are worthy of literary analysis if there are so many skeptical voices within the culture at large?

In his most famous work, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes the skepticism and harsh, non-literary criticism new storytelling innovations face as “the curse of new media” (151). While McCloud is speaking about the innovation of the comic book and its public reception as a complex literary artifact, the argument remains the same for video games as well. A mass skepticism towards a medium’s literary merits propels an argument that bases itself around the concept that tradition is a measure of quality through which a person may determine a piece of media’s worth. For many, video games do not meet the standards this tradition has set. For these people, video games are seen as an imperfect copy of what came before them, mass market stories and regurgitated board game mechanics without literary merit.

Scott McCloud, explainer of invisible arts. Source:
Scott McCloud, explainer of invisible arts. (Source)

“Ever since the invention of the written word, New Media have been misunderstood,” McCloud writes, “Each new medium begins its life by imitating its predecessors” (151). The attitude that must be taken then is not to view a medium as a lesser and derivative form of mode of story-telling, but to view a medium as unique and capable of accomplishing particular modes of storytelling that other mediums are unable to. The earliest ancestors of video games expressed themselves through oral narratives and artistic images, but video games utilize more than audio-visual storytelling that rely on the ancestral forms. This in part may be a source of anti-video game skepticism.

Video games provide an avenue that no other literary genre has been able to accomplish thus far, a nearly full immersion into another’s reality. When an individual plays a video game, no matter how constricted the confines the game’s design may restrict a player’s range of choices in-game, that individual is granted an ability to actively participate within the story and guide aspects of the story along in ways that go beyond what written literature has been able to accomplish. Not even the genre of the “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” novel has been able to rival the amount of creative control a player is able to partake in shaping the narrative. This creative control that a player has while navigating through a video game’s narrative creates a genre of literature that can be described as what Umberto Eco calls “hyperreality” (8).

Umberto Eco, confounder of reality and literary pioneer. Source:
Umberto Eco, confounder of reality and literary pioneer. (Source)

Eco describes hyperreality as those instances where imagination “demands the real thing, and to attain it” someone “must fabricate” an “absolute fake; where the boundaries between game and illusion are blurred, the art museum is contaminated by the freak show, and falsehood is enjoyed in a situation of ‘fullness,’ of horror vacui,” or the filling of every empty space with detail (8). With the exception of graphic novels, which still face a similar stigma shared with video games, all written literary genres cannot approach the hyperreal. No matter how immersive the genre is, there remains an empty space that separates a reader from the work in question.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Written works can definitely alter a reader’s sense of reality and cause certain perceptions about what is real and fiction to blur, but the medium maintains an empty space over character control that only may be found within video games. More so than any experience lived through another’s writing, and certainly more so than those observed within film, the events within a video game create a hyperreal experience for the player.

People who are too young to enlist can experience hyperreal war throughout titles like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, while law-abiding citizens are able experience hyperreal terrorism through games like Grand Theft AutoWatch_Dogs, and Infamous. Narratives become a lived through experience that players can share as if they lived these lives directly. I have never lived as a Spartan warlord, but I have distinct memories of killing the God of War and usurping his deified throne. I have never woken up in a lab with only a portal gun to make my escape, but I remember doing so and thwarting a homicidal AI named GLaDOS in the process. I can recall times I have raced through fictional lands, made monsters battle each other on my command, fought at Normandy, led a raid on the Dire, and escaped a zombie-infested place called Ravenholm. This is not the experience that I have had with books.

Having read Anna Karenina, I do not have memories of being run over by a train. Fight Club did not lead to me thinking that I have a second personality called Tyler Durden. I remember other characters who have “lived” these lives, but these experiences do no constitute as my own. House of Leaves leaves me memories about a labyrinthine house, a blind scholar named Zampanó, and the hopeless Johnny Truant, but I do not own these memories the way I own those I have acquired through the hyperreal Half Life 2 or God of War. I may bring my own perspectives to written literature, but I do not take my own unique and hyperreal experiences away from the written literature that I read.

Thusly, the study of video games is not only capable of producing worthwhile information the same way other literary studies can, but it is able to investigate a medium unlike any other. Steeped in the hyperreal, new meanings and theories await our discovery. We should not abandon the book as a medium because there are so many things still waiting to be uncovered within the pages of new and established writers. However, we cannot retreat to books and dismiss video games as a legitimate medium of study without doing a disservice to our own understanding of literary theory within the context of hyperreal new media.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. Scribner Book Company, 2000.

Eco, Umberto. “Travels in Hyperreality.” Travels in Hyper Reality, 1967. Translated by William Weaver, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986.

Leavis, F.R. The Critic as Anti-Philosopher. 1983. Ivan R. Dee, 1998.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. William Morrow Paperbacks, 1994.

“Literature.” Oxford Living Dictionaries, Accessed 7 November 2016.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide. 3rd ed., Routledge, 2014.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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I am a Graduate Fellow and Masters student with a focus in both Teaching of Writing and Literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

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  1. Outstanding article. I did a university degree in Games Design. Worked pretty hard, missed a first by 3% (mainly because one module I didn’t agree with and refused to do anything but the bare minimum). Each year we had to create an idea of a game and work towards making that a reality. However we never had any programming courses it was purely design. This lead to the issue of “How do we make a game without programmers”. Which in turn made me part-time learn in the evenings from tutorials etc just to get something functional. As the games became more elaborate I wasn’t able to progress fast enough in my understanding, so I went out and facilitated a programmer outside my course (in another programming course) to come on board. We run our own gaming company nowadays.

    • Matt Sautman

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! That’s fascinating, and somewhat disconcerting, that they didn’t teach you any programming, but I am glad you were able to teach yourself. I hope your company does well in the coming year!

  2. The games and the subtexts they contain is enough to merit study as a form of literature, akin to the study of cinema and television.

  3. Since you seem to know a lot about gaming, and hopefully PC gaming, can I ask you a question? I’ve built a computer over the holiday season and need a keyboard to round it all up. I hate wasting money so I was thinking something cheap like the K552 but I don’t know if it’ll be worth it without all the features of a mechanical keyboard

    What do you think?

    • Matt Sautman

      I am not an expert on hardware, but maybe someone will come across this and be able to better answer your question?

    • Hi Tracy, I’ll jump in here. I assume that you’re talking about the Redragon K552 Mechanical keyboard. If you can, go into a shop where people have some keyboard shops (local computer repair shops are the best) and play around with the feel of the keys. Ask an employee what types of switches the boards you like use (the K552 uses Cherry Green switches for reference) and looks for boards that have the same switch type.

      As far as the K552 goes it’s a solid board but you get what you pay for. Order from a place with a decent return policy in case it just feels “too weird” after a couple of weeks of use.

  4. Bringing games into education won’t do any good unless students know how to play them.

    • Matt Sautman

      Ideally teachers would teach them how to play them. That said, it’s not always the case. I have had my own students analyze Half-Life 2, and I did that through demoing for my students. My supervisor has done similar things also with walkthroughs. Ultimately it depends on what kind of analysis a teacher wants students to practice.

    • I disagree, shell. I’m a teacher who has brought games into the classroom to kids who don’t have much access to gaming (other than mobile) and part of the fun is learning the controls. This is especially true In regards to games with unique control systems.

  5. Nice, this is a very informative piece for what being a gaming journalist really is.

  6. Not directly related… but the gaming business is a bad business as it is so new and it hasn’t had time for people to basically unionize and realize that their dream job is a job and the gaming business is a business and they need to stand up for their rights before they loose them and by the time they do, all the jobs go overseas to a country with smarter, harder working slaves who would face instant dismissal and a beating if they even thought of their rights….as has happened with every major computer based industry in the last 2 decades 😕

    • Matt Sautman

      That’s interesting. It certainly isn’t a universal situation, but fledging gaming companies especially have to contend with that the most. Albeit, that doesn’t stop some of the established companies from treating their workers in a similar fashion.

  7. Lovely article. I’ve been a long term fan of The Artifice and the game related articles are among my favourites.

  8. I used to be of the mind that “games have to mean something important to the world” – that they wouldn’t be important as an artform if we couldn’t reach people in a deep place emotionally. I’m not sure I believe that any more – I think games that entertain are just fine, and games that spur you with more complex emotions are wonderful, too, but both need to co-exist – ideally peaceably.

    • Matt Sautman

      That importance can be subjective as well. I think of Tetris or Candy Crush. Casual games like those don’t have to provide emotional depth, but they can symbolize other kinds of social importance. If I recall correctly, the podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind has an episode on Tetris and its mental health benefits. I would argue that something similarly could be said for Candy Crush. It’s a different kind of art form, but I find it equally interesting.

    • I used to be of the opinion that Games can only exist as an art-form and that casual games wee an abomination. I’ve grown to realize that they both can co-exist as well :). But you’re right; to be recognized as an art-form it has to touch you emotionally, and this is purely subjective. This is a sort of frequency that won’t join hands anytime soon. Common folks are still in the prejudice that Vgames are worthless.

  9. Toothake

    We should be allowed to comment on – and be a critic of – games. And games are a weird medium.

  10. Most people don’t see the value in studying games because they haven’t been taught to look at a game’s “gameplay” as anything other than content.

  11. I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusions. Video games are art and should be explored.

  12. Video games are undeniably pieces of art by virtue of what they are. However, whether they belong in traditional art galleries – is the debate.

    • Matt Sautman

      What even is a “traditional” art gallery? Has those traditions changed over the course of time? These questions are key to that debate.

    • I have a print on my desk from PC gamer from about 10 years ago or more, it’s a shot of city 17 from Half Life from the distance, it’s one of the most enjoyable bits of hanging art in the house, standing on top of towers in ancient Constantinople, crying at the end of Planescape torment, watching space battles in EVE with hundreds of lasers lighting up the darkness…..

      all of these moments stay with me as much as the best arthouse movies or art observed in a gallery, gaming is a sadly unappreciated art form, the story telling is as good as most movies, the art direction and art and music themselves can be stunning, anyone who says gaming isnt art hasnt been playing the right games…

  13. I’ve been a fan of ‘writing about games and not just for review’ for a decade plus now.

  14. Well, this makes me sad. I just finished school and I feel lost. Gaming/entertainment is what I really want to get into.

    • Matt Sautman

      I’m sorry you feel lost. I hope you find a way to get into that field.

    • I completed a game degree about 7 years ago now. I’ve also been in the game industry for 7 years now. You can certainly do it, it’s a matter of drive. The school provides a structure, motivation, and community to work with. It won’t transform you into an amazing artist or programmer by getting all B’s. Once you are applying for a job we’ll only hire the best, so you have to look around and decide if you have the drive to try and be the best. What a company is looking for is an amazing portfolio, and it’s up to you to create that.

  15. I think this was a brilliant and thought out article. Limited series comics like Y: The Last Man, Watchmen, and Sandman are well scripted and novel media that are both academic and entertaining. Just as much as video games like The Last of Us, Journey, and Battlefield 1, which all deal with things that most of us haven’t dealt with brilliantly. I really enjoyed this article, and supports my many college papers wee comics and films are academic sources.

    • Matt Sautman

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! The best thing about recognizing “the curse of new media” is that we can help identify the cultural biases that exist within our culture and analyze these works for what they are, texts that are capable of containing a multitude of meanings that highlight multiple aspects of the human condition.

  16. This was an excellent article, would be nice to have a few more in depth pieces like this exploring similar topics.

  17. Brotha Grim

    If you’re into the art of the industry, you would be best to find an artistic medium: gaming being one of them.

    • Matt Sautman

      It makes me wonder if there is any medium that is truly unartistic, or if it is possible for some mediums to be less artistic than others.

  18. Any piece of visual, or aural or written entertainment media is art. This is not really open to debate.

  19. Zachery Christy

    game criticism is some of the very best and most fun to read

  20. Matt Sautman

    I’m glad you’re a fan! (It’s also fun to write.)

  21. Great, great article.

  22. There are great characters in games as well as great stories being told in them.

  23. We need a games study course at my university. When players approach their games on their own merits, issues like genre and familiarity begin to fall away. You don’t need those things if you can engage with art on a direct basis.

    • Matt Sautman

      It could be a fun course. I can also envision people getting angry at video games in it the way that they sometimes may get with books in literature courses.

  24. In total agreement, and I think the writing in games keeps getting better. With the stellar writing we see in Grand Theft Auto 5 for example, the fully fleshed out worlds, we can look at social topics that are difficult to deal with in any other medium, in an emotionally engaging and connective way. I was amazed at how many people (myself included) sobbed and agonized over every decision to keep a video game character (Clementine) alive in Telltale’s The Walking Dead. And this type of art reaches an audience that normally wouldn’t be seeing many other forms of art, engaging more of the world in critical thinking about our environments around us and how we can survive in them. As the writing gets better we’ll be able to glean even more details and lessons on life from video games. Great article!

    • Matt Sautman

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! There is certainly lots of depth within story but also story structure. Who knows what masterpieces will be released in the coming years?

  25. Loved the article, I couldn’t agree more with the points you brought up. It was really great to see Scott McCloud’s work used for video games, there are a lot of connections to be made! Are there any “further readings” you would recommend with regards to your article? I’d love to know!

  26. bshoalz

    Interesting to think how video games are used in the classroom besides as literature. Beyond simple spelling and math games, there was a CD-Rom game called “Hollywood” in my elementary classrooms where a kid could create a simple scene from a selected batch of characters. That might have been one of my earliest encounters with a simple form of storytelling.

    On the topic of video games in the classroom – besides the stigma, we also must consider that if we consider video games “Art” then it is an art form that is very much in infancy. It is important to remember that we still have many teachers who were teaching before video games even really existed. To delve into the deeper meanings, we need teachers steeped in the medium in the first place. The novel took decades to be considered fine art, I don’t see why video games as an art form wouldn’t also need some time to mature. Not to mention that video games as an artistic medium have had little to no time to exist outside of their commodification. We are only beginning what seems to be a golden age of independent game developers.

    • Munjeera

      Agreed! There could be some research potential here to study the educational value of gaming. Perhaps in the area of developing empathy and inclusion. I think the applications for gaming are largely ignored due to as against seeing games as an art form. Articles like these will help break down that mind set, hopefully.

  27. I think the main point is summarised well with “video games share in the struggle faced by most new forms of media.”
    I expect that video games, similar to books, comics, film and etc. will capture audiences and inspire stories that would not have been shared or considered without the medium being taken every more seriously.
    I see video games as an evolutionary stage in our ability to share information and entertain an audience and expect they will soon join novels as legitimate in comparison to the storytelling devices of the future that we have yet to experience.

    • Matt Sautman

      And sadly, I imagine because of “the curse of new media,” we may have to rediscover a lot of the old games that we could have appreciated in more detail had we realized the depth in games decades sooner.

  28. I really like the point you made in your second to last paragraph. Video games truly do give us a hyperreal experience. The Lone Wanderer didn’t explore the Wasteland in Fallout 3; I did.

  29. Fantastic article. For me, the beauty of gaming is that hyperreality, that immersion that elevates games, in my opinion, past books and cinema, allowing for the person playing to involve themselves rather than imagine the scenario mentally or watching people on a screen.

    Video games are becoming more and more artistic in narrative design, and hopefully one day the medium becomes widely accepted as a viable form of art.

  30. I greatly enjoyed your article, as both a recently graduated English major and a video gamer. As you say, there is the unwarranted stigma against video games in our American culture, one major issue being, as you say, that “video games are often perceived as mindless entertainment.” Much of your article looks at the important differences between commonly understood “literature” and video games, specifically the level of immersive experience offered by video games that literature does not offer. But I think it is important to look at a way in which they are quite similar.

    Just as I have certain novels I read and re-read periodically, I also follow suit with certain video games. I revisit the commonly recognized member of the literary canon (albeit more on the modern-end of the spectrum) Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, as well as the non-canon, but increasingly recognized feminist work Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldua. With video games, I replay, among others, Persona 3 and 4. The appeal and motivation is the same: the books and the video games impact you on an emotional, psychological and philosophical level, while having killer story lines and compelling character development. They all provide a story to be enjoyed time and again, with new things to pick up on with each new play-through.

    As the video game gains its rightfully acknowledged worth on a broader scale, it will be crucial to look at its unique merits in contrast to other media—but the similarities are important as well.

    • Matt Sautman

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’m curious if at video game studies become more legitimized as a media of study if there will be particular games that will be canonized and if this canonization will differ at all from the games we sometimes consider “classic” now.

  31. Autumn Edwards

    Wow, awesome article! I am recently new to the gaming world but I can already see the unique perspective and appeal to them. The first game I ever played was Super Smash Bros with my friends. At first the content seemed strange, to fight with so many characters at once was a bit overwhelming. However after leaving that game alone and switching to Mario Cart, Street Fighter, and Batman; I can say with assurance that you really find a game that fits your personality and creative mind.

    The one game I am obsessed with (mostly because I’m a Disney fan) is Epic Mickey. The appeal of painting, bright colors and deep story line captures my attention. I do believe video games are worth studying, like everything thing we do there is always something new to learn about ourselves as well as those who make the art.

    • Matt Sautman

      I’m glad you liked it. Have you considered writing an analytical essay for the Artifice about Epic Mickey? I’m sure there are some deep things worth exploring within it.

      • Autumn Edwards

        Yes, I have actually. I’m currently in the process of joining the Artifice and right now trying to find a good balance to write and work lol. So I hope within the next week to actually get started like I want to.

  32. minylee

    Perhaps the most insightful idea of this piece is what interactive digital art allows that other mediums can’t: a greater immersive interface of the audience. Novels transport one through a moving mental voyage, but much of video games are such a visceral experience. In the author’s very words, the player is “granted an ability to actively participate within the story and guide aspects of story.” While limited, the player is nevertheless navigating the thread of the storyline. No doubt that video games by nature allows such capacity, but therein lies how its audience are marked by different labels. It’s a “player,” rather than a “reader.” The former connotes a participant of an entertainment, while the latter a more serious intellectual endeavor. One is high and the other low-brow, which is aptly broached by the article. While postmodern theory argues that contemporary art erases the border between low-brow and high-brow works of art; perhaps old habits die hard.

    A rearguard action is inevitable by any tradition that sees its influence infringed. Old fogies like Leavis must have been viewed as a suspicious rival by the philology folks as a young Turk reading English at Cambridge’s newly established department. While I enjoy literature with a capital “L,,” I’m also awed by the visual aesthetics of video game design. Equally relevant is to compare and contrast how traditional schools of visual arts, like painting and photography, regard the graphic representation of video games. For instance, Da Vinci and Michelangelo were only exploiting the technology of the Early Modern period to create their works. How different is that with the game designers today working with the available technology? Should the canvas be weary of a possibly emerging digital screen? I agree with the author that eventually, video games will not only be elegantly dissected by literary criticism, but as an ivory-tower topic intersecting with art, computer science, and communications

    • Matt Sautman

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. I have noticed some visual artists have begun to embrace digital screens into their works, albeit I feel that it is still somewhat a novelty to find a museum. The St. Louis Art Museum, for example, has a piece in their modern art exhibit that features an extreme close-up of Heineken bottle label on film that plays on a continuous loop. I wouldn’t be surprised if there won’t be artists who will create artistic games on a small scale that only can be accessed in a museum. That, of course, is pure speculation on my part.

  33. My background is in communication theory, so I would have like some mention of specific literary theories early in the essay. I totally agree with the points made. We must become media literate, not just print literate. That mean we understand the mechanisms of creation, composition and production and how they convey meaning. Traditional literary training forms a foundation for that, but true literacy includes film, television, video games and digital and mobile media. Most people are woefully under-educated regarding the art and persuasive ability of these media.

    • Matt Sautman

      I touched on some literary theories specifically, i.e. the abject and post-colonialism, but I think it would be useful to apply specific theories as accompanying case studies to further develop this. It would also be interesting investigating literacy theories in regard to video games- something that Shanon Carter does within The Way Literacy Lives, but could be investigated even further.

  34. DKWeber

    I’m a Teaching Associate at Coastal Carolina University and teach mainly freshman English courses. I try to take the preconceived notions of students (literature is boring and needs to be updated) and turn them on their heads by comparing the classics to modern stories. The joy of this essay for me is how you showcase the evolution of story-telling. While we may consider the written word the basic definition for literature, video games (like movies and TV shows) have scripts. These scripts need writers the same as literature. We may not look at video games as a premiere source of strong literature, but many thought the same of comic books until we were graced with writers such as Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison. The point is, when writers take a material seriously, any form of entertainment can be turned into a written masterpiece. The purpose of writing (in any form or genre) is to express an idea. In regards to video games, those ideas are expansive stories pulling from medieval lore, sci-fi futurism, modern realism, etc to infer such universal themes as love, revenge, and justice. The ability for a writer to see the evolution is happening to the art and not the practice will assist them in opening an entirely new world of story-telling.

    • Matt Sautman

      It’s powerful whenever students are able to connect their other literacies (such as video game literacy) with new “boring” information. I have brought video games (and board games) into my first year writing classes at various times in order to help explain a concept or to perform a meta-lesson that teaches multiple things at once. One of my favorites involved me performing a walkthrough of Half-Life 2’s City 17 while my students were practicing spatial analysis and asking questions about the things they observed.

  35. Thank you for this article! I frequently find that video games are ignored or treated as lesser than novels or films, although they can contain complex plots and characters that rise above some other forms of media. It frustrates me when people think games cannot be analyzed because they are not an an adequate form of art.

    • Matt Sautman

      You’re welcome! To people who think that, I’d like to ask them what makes a form of art “adequate” to begin with?

  36. It’s refreshing to find this subject poised in the light, enough to (hopefully) open some eyes. I’ve played video games for the majority of my life, and, as an avid gamer, it can sometimes be frustrating to find people responding to games like “The Last of Us” and “Until Dawn” as they would a relatively mindless shooter or multiplayer game. The Last of Us, especially, is an exemplar of excellent storytelling and realistic characterization, more so than more lauded novels, T.V. shows, and movies. Of course, I did like that game and I do look forward to the sequel, and some may find it unpleasant, but it’s the first example to come to mind.

    There’s an odd balance between story-driven games and multiplayer-based titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield. Those games may have story modes or campaign modes, but they’re often brief and relatively rudimentary. It seems games, as a whole, are shrinking in an effort to streamline players into multiplayer content, paid expansions, and DLC content. But, on occasion, we’re given a game that exhibits exactly what can be accomplished with quality writing and storytelling. The shrinking of quality and playtime may be detrimental to these more literary titles, as, whenever someone discounts video games as childish and toy-like, they often use brainless shooters and the like to support their argument.

    I appreciate the content and quality of your article, especially in noting the ridiculousness of discounting the literary value of video game content as opposed to other mediums. I’m currently an undergraduate, though it’s my last semester, and I could only imagine the stares and incredulity with which I’d be met if I tried to use a video game as an example in an essay or during class. This skepticism will hopefully dissipate as older generations shift out of the classroom, and other such positions of power/literary finality, and video games advance.

    • Matt Sautman

      Here is to hoping that skepticism goes away within the coming years. Best of luck with your last semester of undergrad!

  37. The part of the article that stuck with me the most was how video games get players to participate in the story, even if choices can be restricted. That restriction has its positives and its negatives.

    One way I see it as a positive is how dialogue choices are handled in Persona 4. The story will usually move along no matter what choice you make, but the responses and reactions from other characters keeps the player engaged. If you make the right dialogue choice, stats can even be raised to make conversation with people that are smarter or more stubborn possible.

    Dialogue is unfortunately a negative in Fallout 4 when compared to the previous Fallout games, where a range of dialogue options — some of which can only be done if you have a high enough stat needed to complete the action — present in the earlier games is now down to only 4 options.

    • Matt Sautman

      I think that you could possibly develop that analysis into a larger article. What do the dialogue choices within Fallout 4 communicate about language? What do the changes in options reveal about the game? Maybe it’s do to limited funding or space on the hardware, but I’m sure there is a deeper argument to be made from this observation.

  38. MarkMatinson

    Most people don’t see the value in studying games because they haven’t been taught to look at a game’s “gameplay”.

  39. Richard Krauss


    This is a well articulated article. For me, in order to look at video games as a form of literature, it isn’t even necessary to look at game-play, artistic design, or anything else pertaining to the actual video game itself. I think all you have to do is look how integrated they are in terms of popular culture and its impact on daily life to make an argument that it is a form of literature. Great Job.

  40. t.

    Thanks for this – I often find myself in a position where I feel as though I have to defend games as an object of study, even with the rise of game studies and a newer research and works in new media doing much of the work of validating games as it is. Mostly because the image of games as being still immature is still so pervasive, despite the wonderfully intellectual and engaging stuff coming out of games research (though I do admit, sometimes the industry does not do a whole lot to dissuade this image).

    I haven’t given much thought to games and literary theory, so this was an interesting read and a good peak into how other discipline than mine (communications and new media) are engaging with games as text. Thanks!!

  41. Literary Theory is a fairly vague topic to me, but applying video games to them helps the concept sink in a bit easier for me grasp. I wish higher education platforms would embrace Video Games a bit more as a text to be studied and after reading your article I see that there is yet hope in that wish. Thank you for an enlightening read!

  42. Awesome article! I agree that video games should be taken more seriously as a literary text. I still read a lot, but I am more likely to read non-fiction nowadays, getting my fix of fiction in video games and movies. It would be interesting to see in schools. It would also be interesting to see if games could be utilised to be educational in curriculum. I understand educational games already exist, but they’re quite basic games that don’t have much to them. Imagine a game set in World War II that a student could play for homework, that took them into the horrors while allowing them to understand the contexts and events more actively. There is so much potential.

  43. nice post thanks for sharing

  44. Game is a new form of literature. For sure.

  45. Check for basic grammar. Last sentence in the introduction needs to be broken up. Very long to read.

    Third Paragraph under (Re-Defining Literature)
    Repetitious use of the word “Literature”.
    Good technique of the short sentences in this paragraph, but be careful not to overuse this, as it starts to lose its original effectiveness.

    Otherwise, a really interesting article to read. I especially enjoyed the section on ‘The Curse of New Media and Hyperreality’. I would definitely love to learn more about this subject area.

  46. BreannaWaldrop

    I feel like video games have become as much of an art as animation and comics. Its developing through the years and its reflection of current interests is certainly something we should study, especially in context of society.

  47. The other important part in all this is that just playing video games doesn’t supplement academic study. As much as you may enjoy playing video games all day, if you don’t keep up with your studies then you won’t see the benefit they have to offer.

  48. This was very insightful as someone who Enjoys both literature and Video games. Great Article!

  49. Joseph Cernik

    A good essay. Interesting, essential you’re proposing a new area of academic study–imagine a professional journal devoted to this topic.

  50. Sunni Rashad

    Your mention of Call of Duty got me thinking of the various messages being sent in the campaigns of the game and how with no analysis, no critical eye we end up with Call of Duty blaming other countries for American war crimes. Not to say the fanbase necessarily believes the game, but it definitely merits more attention being paid to what exactly is being said in the games we play.

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