When I first made the mistake of bringing up the relationship between literature and video games in a room full of Interactive Media undergraduates, I was bombarded with questions. Are literature and games comparable? What are the differences in literature and game production? At the heart, however, remained the question of whether video games can really be considered a form of literature – have we simply moved from pen and paper to screen and controller?
In“Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology” Gonzalo Frasca suggests the main difference is that literature is representational whilst video games are simulations. To demonstrate this, Frasca compares a film of a plane to a flight simulator. The film of the plane is representative, as the observer cannot manipulate the plane, whilst the flight simulator is simulative, as there are multiple actions the user can take affecting the plane’s course.
In this case, video games are seen as user-driven rather than narrative-driven. The exploration game Dear Esther, for example, is propelled by the spoken interjections of its troubled narrator, who relates the story of the island the player explores. However, the player moulds their own journey through the choices they make whilst exploring the island. The ability to choose means the player essentially writes their own story. The narrative merely adds context to the simulation whilst the player’s choices, as Frasca notes, structure the simulation. Literature seems to differ in this respect as, generally, there is little choice available. The reader is a slave to the author’s words and plan.
In “What is An Author?” Michel Foucault notes that ‘there are a certain number of discourses endowed with the “author function” whilst others are deprived of it’. Literature, of course, retains this “author function”. The books we see on shelves across the world are a result of the work of editors, literary agents, marketing departments but we regard the book as the work of a single author. J.K. Rowling is the one who ends up being most associated with the Harry Potter series, for example. Rowling, as Foucault writes, becomes “characteristic of the [book’s] mode of existence, circulation”.
Video games, on the other hand, are shaped by a plethora of people, from writers to graphic designers, programmers to composers. Therefore, whilst the author shapes the original concept for a literary work and trusts the publishing process for refinement, a game is developed, from the beginning, by an institution. No single person is generally credited with the entire game, with the exception perhaps of some smaller indie titles (think the original Minecraft!). Consequently games, overall, do not seem to have the specific “author function” mentioned by Foucault.
So, from paper to screen and author to designer, can games be considered a form of literature? Although they share some qualities, they seem distinct art forms. Instead of being a subset of literature video games therefore stand as a unique art in their own right.
Micah Mackay is a third year undergraduate reading English and Related Literature at the University of York.