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In the first installment of this feature, best-selling authors Lee Child and Joe Finder engaged in a friendly and fascinating argument about whether novelists should outline their books before they start writing. We liked the concept so much that we’re going to keep it: the next writers to enter the ring are Patrick Somerville and Antoine Wilson. Somerville’s second novel, This Bright River (2012), came out just last month to a rave review from Booklist. And Wilson’s Panorama City will be published in September. While Child and Finder argued about a point of writing craft, Somerville and Wilson take it to the next level, debating the future of literature itself . . .
* * *
Here is my argument, you bespectacled rapscallion: worldwide, video games will be the twenty-first century’s most popular form of storytelling.
Book publishers are already defending their flanks. The movie industry is scrambling for a model that can exist beyond Vampire Mermaid–Batman Sex, Part 43. By 2099, it won’t even be close.
Now I’ve heard some rumblings in various gaming communities and the upper-level World of Warcraft guilds I frequent that you are an outspoken pro-book, high-modernist “anti-gamer” and that your Stegosaurian elitism would prevent you from fully understanding the revolution that has already begun and that “literary fiction” (whatever that is), or even “genre fiction” (whatever that is), or even “talking” (whatever that is) will somehow hold the line in the next 88 years—if those forms of communication can even be considered “popular” today—and remain vibrant enough to outlast the coming revolution. Let me give you four arguments why games will ultimately defeat books, TV, film, singing, tap dancing, theater, puppetry, opera, Teletubbies, mimes, memes, and everything else on the contemporary era’s menu of drama-delivering experiences; why, in short, video games will become the dominant form of storytelling in the twenty-first century.
“Why don’t you just admit it, Antoine? Video games are going to take up the mantle of all our storytelling needs, and fiction—book fiction—will eventually go the way of the dodo.”
To open, I’ll give you the quick version of each, as I know you’re sitting in your rocking chair, wearing your cardigan, thinking about jazz music, just waiting to say something dismissive.
Argument 1: It’s all about the technology.
It’s already happening: ridiculous graphics on handheld devices, kittens using biofeedback, real-time photorealism, Tupac’s rap, Doom’s going 3D VR. And there will surely be unimaginable advances in the technology and sophistication of game play and gamer experience—advances that will open doorways to deeper, more complicated, and more surprising aesthetic experiences that, somewhere around 2050 or so, will border on being indistinguishable from reality. One goal of literary fiction is to manufacture what John Gardner called “profluence,” the ongoing fictive dream. Literature has always been able to use the source code of the brain—language—to create the illusion of a reality within the imagination of the reader. How is it any different to create the illusion of a reality (or just another reality) using the senses themselves? And is it not in fact a deeper, more convincing, and more visceral hallucination when you can feel it, see it, hear it, and be in it? As a writer, wouldn’t you rather be doing that kind of communicating with your reader? Be honest now, Antoine.
Argument 2: Games are popular. Because of that, there is more money in gaming, and because of that, more creative talent will flow toward gaming.
Video games are much more popular than literary fiction (as are Betamax, the Ford Edsel, and North Korea), and they’re approaching TV and film numbers. The much-maligned Mass Effect 3, whose variable endings saddened some longtime fans, shipped 3.5 million copies in its first week. When was the last time a literary novel sold 3.5 million copies? I already know the answer: never. And while each individual young dreamer has her own path toward her own career, and while it’s not an air-tight argument, it’s still pretty compelling: if it’s far more possible to support yourself and make a decent living wage pouring your imaginative time into storytelling through video games than it is to do so through books, and if a lot more of your peers play games than read books, it’s eventually just going to make more sense for young people to eschew the MFA in fiction and go for the MFA in gaming. (Yes, it’s a thing.)
Argument 3. Gaming will get its Defoe, its Cervantes, its Austen, and its Shakespeare.
As beautiful as many games have become, visually, and as exciting, complicated, and engrossing as the storytelling has become—I’m looking at you, Gears of War and Red Dead Redemption—the one-in-a-billion singular-vision talents have yet to arrive on the scene. There are many, many brilliant game makers out there, to be sure, but the industry has yet to evolve into a cultural position that allows the “authors” of games to emerge as distinct identities in the way movies have their directors and books have their scribes. I think it will take members of a generation who have never not known the Internet or the smart phone. Stand by.
Argument 4: The deeply participatory nature of gaming is in lockstep with the movement of human culture.
This is more complicated than an argument stemming from technology—this is about a deeper limitation of oral, textual, and visual storytelling. In these forms and others, the audience’s participation is limited to a deeply subjective psychological experience. Yes, it contains deep feelings and physical reactions and can be unbelievably powerful, but the status quo prohibits the audience from participating in the story—making choices, rising to the occasion, solving problems, impacting the outcome. Literature is authoritarian inasmuch as you have to listen only when you’re reading. And that is antiquated. That is undemocratic. The world, on the other hand, despite the fact that many populations do not live in free societies, is more democratic than it has ever been, and the population’s cultural desires will echo this more and more.
And I’m just scratching the surface! Why don’t you just admit it, Antoine? Video games are going to take up the mantel of all our storytelling needs, and fiction—book fiction—will eventually go the way of the dodo.
* * *
What a pleasure to hear from you and to discover that you’re as polite and accommodating as you’ve always been, in that you’ve helpfully provided giant holes in each of your four points for me to pull my horse cart through.
First things first, though. You conflate “popular” and “dominant.” I don’t doubt that your glorified Pong machines have the potential to outsell books in the twenty-first century (“popular”), but the question of dominance is more nuanced.
I have both Angry Birds and Moby-Dick on my iPhone, and my son has both Monkey Preschool Lunchbox and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land on his iPad. How do we measure dominance? Time spent with each, or depth of experience?
I’m not entirely convinced that the purpose of gaming is to tell stories. I’ve played Red Dead Redemption. I kicked a prostitute and shot a horse, two things I have no desire or inclination to do in real life. I failed to suspend disbelief. I couldn’t commit. Then I played Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. My friend Matt and I busted all kinds of nasty speeders to earn badges for three straight hours. It was great, but it wasn’t storytelling.
“Even the finest VR in the world isn’t going to make it happen, unless my avatar is taking the time out to read a virtual book.”
Television is the most dominant storytelling medium in the world, in terms of time, money, raw numbers, and, for some, depth of commitment. In these terms, I acknowledge that prose fiction’s ship sailed long ago. But lots of people still read, and they typically grade that experience as more profound than what they experience while watching TV.
The reason behind this, and behind fiction’s lasting allure, can be summed up in a single word: participation.
(Don’t get too excited, here, bro. I’m fixing to parse.)
The reading experience is an experience of co-creation. The author writes a text, sends it out into the world, and the reader unpacks said text, bringing to bear their own experiences, their own ideas, their own images, all under the guidance of that text. As a result of this individual, participatory, and idiosyncratic act of co-creation, reading fiction is potentially a highly intimate consciousness-melding experience.
Contrast this with video-game participation, or interactivity, where the medium changes as a result of one’s actions. (The closest book-shaped analogue is the choose-your-own-adventure novel.) Video-game participation typically asks one to act, to respond, rather than to imagine. And one’s responses have effects. Games are a form of structured life. Wait, isn’t “structured life” a definition for storytelling?
Two different kinds of structure are involved. In gaming, the structure is algorithmic. In narrative (and narrative drama), the structure is linear and inevitable. There are exceptions, of course, (Cortázar, B. S. Johnson), but, generally speaking, successful narratives gain their power through their not being subject to input from the end user.
To your points:
1. Your point about literature using “the source code of the brain—language—to create the illusion of reality” is well stated. But the nature of that reality is complicated. If the illusion is one of people attempting to stop a rogue submarine from blowing up the world, then language feels like a dusty medium, something barely approximating what it means to describe. Film, TV, and, yes, games kick ass in these realms. But in portraits of consciousness, in stories that involve a thoughtful observer, there’s no better medium than language, and games are unlikely to make better use of it than books. As a writer, I’m interested in what it feels like to be alive and thinking and in another’s mind. Games might plunge us into virtual experience, but to plunge us into the thoughts of others, words will always be the best medium. Even the finest VR in the world isn’t going to make it happen, unless my avatar is taking the time out to read a virtual book.
2. I agree that games will be more popular than text-based entertainment, and wildly more popular than so-called literary fiction. But I believe that the worry that they will displace fiction among people previously inclined to read it is as wrongheaded as the idea that TV will replace novels. Some TV displaces some novels, but almost everyone I know makes use of both mediums.
3. It will be a long time before technology will allow individual authors to create the complex and sophisticated kind of games you mention in point 1. And even then, what games will they choose to create? You say “in the way movies have their directors and books have their scribes.” I live close enough to the world of big-budget Hollywood to say there’s a vast difference between the way you or I might single-handedly shove our individual visions between covers and the way scores (an old word for 20) of people make movies happen. Naturally, massive group efforts push things in an entertainment direction as opposed to an “art” or “literary” direction.
4. Democracy’s great and all, but individual vision is the cornerstone of great art. And by great art, I mean something that elicits your “deeply subjective psychological experience.” (Art by committee is a very scary thing indeed.)
I’ve never seen a game that can hijack one’s thoughts the way a novel can. Gaming, like the programming underlying games, is built on algorithmic thinking. Every game is a high-end Tetris, and you can play it often enough to bring it down to the level of signing your own name, using your lizard brain to guide you through the patterns.
Even as games become more complex, with various “engines” working interdependently to create nuanced environments and seemingly random developments, they still tend to ask the same things of a player: response to a stimulus. Which leads to a new stimulus. The game “listens” to the player.
A novel, as you rightly point out, does not listen to its reader. It is an authoritative, nondemocratic medium—except that we can put the book down any time we want.
1. The future of gaming is in creating continuous fictional experience with the potential to stimulate our consciousness as vividly as real life does.
2. The present (and future) of literature is to plunge us into someone else’s consciousness, in a piggyback kind of way, through words, without demanding any response from us.
In games, we come up against our own consciousness (even through the distorted lens of an avatar) in various situations, whereas in literature we ride along (happily or not) with “other” consciousness. One is a dance with masks; the other a tale around a fire. One is a game of chance or skill; the other a chronicle of heroic deeds. Neither will ever “dominate” or “go the way of the dodo.” Both are essential.
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