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Are Video Games the New Novels?

American adults turn to "Grand Theft Auto."

Adult culture is waning in America, and its influence over American life is as visible as appreciation for the literary novel, as accessible as a theater playing an “adult drama”—the Hollywood term for films with coherent storylines and intelligent character development—outside a major metropolitan area. While entertainment for adults, outside of a few popular television shows, descends into the basements of obscurity, the popularity of video games soars.

The industry journal Digital Trends reports that the U.S. is by far the world’s biggest video game market. In 2011, Americans spent more than $25 billion on video games and nearly 70 percent of Americans called themselves “gamers.” According to a Pew study conducted in 2008, there is only a small difference between the amount of time adults and children devote to killing zombies, racing cars, and slaying dragons with remote controllers on electronic screens. Fifty-three percent of American adults play video games, and because they have more money to spend, many video game designers and manufacturers now market their products primarily to grown men and women.

As someone who spends part of his time teaching college courses, I can relate that most of my male students freely admit to spending most of their weekends sitting in a circle, staring at flashing images, and playing out their fantasies of hand-to-hand combat or athletic stardom on the latest Xbox or Playstation gaming console. Considering that I teach English Literature, I was surprised to read that those young men were actually receiving a brilliant and useful education in the arts, and that they might as well be reading Charles Dickens.

At least that is what Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason.com, suggests in his recent article for Time, “Grand Theft Auto is Today’s Great Expectations.” Gillespie, whose otherwise sharp libertarian journalism and advocacy is extremely valuable, attempts to make the argument that the video game is not only “art worth celebrating” but “the defining popular art form of the 21st century.”

The original definition of vulgar was “of or associated with the masses of people,” though it now signifies “unrefined” and “unsophisticated.” Gillespie’s case for the video game as a great art form is crudely vulgar. He relies mainly on statistics proving the popularity of games. If critics used his methods elsewhere, they would have to conclude that pornography is artistically superior to Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Mozart, and Miles Davis.

But Gillespie’s perspective is increasingly common in American culture. Historian Morris Berman argued that “deviancy is defined downward,” and one might say the same for vulgarity. As video games become more popular, and more important in a market-driven culture, profitable, they become more prestigious.

“Grand Theft Auto,” the subject of Gillespie’s essay, is an exploratory game in which players “roam around a fictionalized California, assume a variety of different identities, and engage in sex, drugs, and violent criminal activities rendered in state-of-the-art graphics.” The New York Times called it “beautiful” and “seductive.” A writer at Salon praised the game for its “important critique of America’s consumerist society,” failing to grasp the irony that Rockstar Games, Grand Theft Auto’s developer, rolled out a massive advertisement campaign to make its new release the highest selling video game of all time.

Many other newspapers—most of which have eliminated or reduced their books coverage—have run glowing reviews of Grand Theft Auto.

There is little thoughtful pushback against the mainstreaming and legitimization of the video game as an adult hobby–most opponents rely on foolish moralistic arguments. “Video games cause gun violence,” “video games are the end of civilization”, and other claims stemming from overwrought alarmism, often sliding into censorship, are easy to dismiss. Gillespie has no trouble making MSNBC host Ed Schultz look ignorant and reactionary for his recent conniption connecting the game with mass shootings.

The most troublesome aspect of video game dominance of pop culture and young adults’ leisure is not the likelihood of moral decay, but the accelerating force of juvenilization in American culture. In The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman makes the case that American children and adults no longer exist in separate spaces, and therefore, live together in a permanent state of adolescence. The political theorist, Benjamin Barber, makes a similar argument in his book, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. Barber identifies “three primary pairs of infantilization”—“easy over hard,” “simple over complex”, and “fast over slow.”

The obsession with video games demonstrates this trend. Video games move at a rapid pace, while a novel demands sustained concentration. Novels require the intellect and imagination to unravel complicated characters. Video games reward fast fingers. Video games, even when challenging, tend to value a fun and relatively easy experience, while the novel, even when pandering, often cannot, because of the obvious limitations of the medium.

To argue that the video game could become the novel’s equal, or replace it, is not only to reveal a juvenile engagement with arts and entertainment. It is to disregard the most basic principles of technology and media studies.

Marshall McLuhan declared that the “medium is the message.” The frequently quoted but rarely understood insight suggests that technologies have value, influence, and properties in and of themselves, regardless of the content they deliver. The response that a medium triggers in the brain, the stimulation it gives, and the desires it inculcates are integral to its influence, while content is secondary. Even a lousy novel, for example, is probably better for the attention span than a clever video game.

The novel is an adult medium that is slow moving, not stimulus-intensive, and demanding of contemplative silence and reflection. Video games are overly stimulating—visually, aurally, and physically—and they require frantic interaction.

Gillespie attempts to compare contemporary criticism of video games and historical skepticism of novels. He makes a convincing case that panic-stricken moralists who go into convulsions over the potential for degradation or decay in ethics when teenagers plug in a gaming console are not unlike the agents of repression who fought to keep novels, jazz records, and rock ‘n’ roll albums out of the hands of young consumers.

The Puritanical streak still runs loudly and colorfully through American culture, and it pressures most social critics to frame every question in moral terms. But the legitimate concern raised by America’s fixation with video games is not moral, but one of maturity. For instance, a new study from scholars at the New School for Social Research shows that literary novels help readers more effectively discern the beliefs, motivations, and emotions in the people around them. Literature, the authors of the study conclude, “uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences.”

“Video games” stretch from casual games, such as Farmville and Angry Birds, to lengthy role playing and adventure games. To be sure, it would be foolish to deny that some games in the latter category (including “Grand Theft Auto”) do have smart and complex storylines, while other games—something as simple as the classic Tetris—are useful in building spatial awareness and intellectual problem-solving skills. By their very nature, however, they cannot come close to the salutary effects of reading literature.

Much of the engagement required by literature derives from its minimalism. There are no visual or sound effects in literature. The imagination must work overtime, and the reader must enter a contemplative state in which subtleties become essential to understanding the narrative and the characters’ role in it. Video games might function very well as entertainment, but because of their dependence on sensory overload, they cannot fill the quiet space of the novel, and they cannot inspire the same contemplation.

Novels are best for minds that enjoy quiet, serious, or at least sustained, thought, and the independent exercise of the imagination. Video games are made for those who seek sensory bombardment, moving quickly from one place and action to the next. In other words, the mind of a child.

Americans, especially American men, would do well to grow up, but in the meantime, they should call their teenage fixations what they are—avenues into arrested development, not art.

David Masciotra is a columnist with the Indianapolis Star. He is the author of All That We Learned About Living: The Art and Legacy of John Mellencamp (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky).