I’ve seen this trend on social media, and in real life, with writers (particularly those who are older than their 30s) denegrating video games as a waste of time. They talk about how they pull people away from books and make it difficult for the writing industry because people just want the shiny beep boop noises.
This is untrue.
While we use different mediums to accomplish it, we have a fair amount in common with all other forms of story-based media. Whether it’s serial-style podcasts (shout-out to my friend JD at Haunted House Flippers, a ridiculous, “spooky” podcast), video games, television shows, movies, novels, short stories, or stage plays, we are all writing stories. Which means we are more or less doing the same thing in a lot of ways, despite the differences in medium.
I have been an avid gamer since I was old enough to type “LOAD” and “RUN” on our Windows 3.1 or DOS machine back in the early 1990s when I was in elementary school. My mother put me in her lap and played Monkey Island and Quest for Glory games with me as a little kid. I have been a gamer all my life, and I show no signs of stopping. I also am an avid reader and spent most of my time not playing video games with my nose buried in a book. I still balance between the two, though these days my reading is more for work than pleasure, so video games have become my downtime.
This notion that video games are somehow lesser is a rather disappointing evolution of snobby writer culture because video games provide some of the best storytelling I’ve had the opportunity to experience.E. Prybylski
This notion that video games are somehow lesser is a rather disappointing evolution of snobby writer culture because video games provide some of the best storytelling I’ve had the opportunity to experience. This is, of course, referring to the video games that are more story-driven. I’m not going to be calling Mortal Kombat fine storytelling here. However, games like Red Dead Redemption (one and two) and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons are really wonderful storytelling that have deep emotional impact and share a narrative with the player. Other games, like Ori and the Blind Forest or Subnautica are more environmental storytelling than you’d find in other games. But they still tell a story.
This isn’t to say that video games can replace books. They can’t. There’s no way they do. However, they do provide valuable, rich, and deep entertainment value on a multitude of levels depending on the kind of game you play.
It won’t surprise you to learn, then, that I tend to prefer RPGs (Role Playing Games). RPGs give you a character whose story and life and experience you delve into. The world tends to be rich, and you have many NPC (non-player characters) to interact with. To some extent, this allows you to build the narrative in your head. Who is your character? What are their motivations? Some games give you all of that information up front, while others let you choose how to play the story which determines a number of various elements of the plot.
In all reality, writers are not in competition with game developers for people’s time. As much as it might feel like it sometimes. Books fill a different role in our lives than video games do, and many of the gamers I know love reading. They read before bed (since video games are too stimulating close to sleep) or during breakfast or during their morning commute (audiobooks, anyone?) So the reality is that it’s not one or the other. They both fulfill needs for narrative and story without clashing.
In all reality, writers are not in competition with game developers for people’s time.E. Prybylski
Video games are here to stay. They’re not going anywhere, and we may as well embrace them as valid forms of narrative because railing against them makes us luddites. That doesn’t mean you have to personally enjoy them–it’s okay not to be into every art form. Stage plays aren’t really my bag, but I respect the art.
However, with that acceptance that we aren’t going to ditch video games anytime soon, what does that mean for writers? Well, I’ll be honest. Nothing really changes unless you want to start using video games to explore narrative. That is (le gasp) something I talk to my writers about. We do, in fact, talk about the way video games use story and how we can learn from them. They often are prime examples of powerful world-building and also are a good way to learn how much a player/reader needs to know about a thing in order to enjoy it.
Let’s take a look at Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, arguably one of the top-selling and highest-performing games I have ever seen. Even if you have never played it, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the name. If you haven’t, it is a massive game where you can go anywhere at any time. The setting is high-magic Medieval fantasy with multiple fantasy races (some playable, some not) and an extremely rich and deep history and culture. However, all that richness isn’t something the player interacts with very much, necessarily. You don’t need to be an expert on Elder Scrolls lore to enjoy running around and slaying dragons.
This is a prime example of something many people whose settings aren’t modern Earth struggle with: how much information is enough? How much is too much? We can get into the details of that in another blog, but in the case of Skyrim, the answer is pretty simple: less can be more. The player doesn’t get told much beyond the basics of the story: civil war rages, dragons attack the land. From there, they’re turned out into the world to go deal with the problems. Much of the deeper world building is done through books you can pick up in various places. These books can offer insights into the history of various cultures or important figures. They can be treatises on which side of the civil war is “better” (spoiler alert–they both suck). Or they can be naughty fiction (there’s a whole series of sly, tongue-in-cheek stories in the game).
However, the player doesn’t get all this information dumped on them at once. The only things they’re told outright at the beginning are what they need to know to progress the story. Which is more or less how we should look at novel writing. This is just one of the many lessons we can learn from games. While, of course, writers don’t have the option of sticking books around their book with information the reader might want to know, there are ways of tucking that information into asides, other books, or even atlases as I’ve seen some authors do (though the atlas is typically something that comes out FAR after the series is a huge success).
While novels and video games have different requirements (gameplay is a huge one for video games), the storytelling aspects of them are still typically based on the three-act structure, often even employing the beat sheet! This is also just as true of indie games as it is triple A titles. Then there’s an entire genre of “Visual Novel” games which are essentially choose-your-own-adventure books with comic-like images and music.
Much like books, video games can very wildly between genres and styles, so the assumption that gamers are just in it for the bright, flashing colors is a misnomer. While the flashing lights do give us a nice hit of dopamine, for me it’s always been about the story. Whether I was playing an old Sierra game or now playing Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, I’m playing for the story. I might load up a Super Mario game for fun once in awhile, but generally speaking I want games that are narrative-heavy.
It may be tempting to call my gaming hobby a waste of time as a writer, but in all fairness, hobbies are meant to be things we do for fun at the outset.E. Prybylski
It may be tempting to call my gaming hobby a waste of time as a writer, but in all fairness, hobbies are meant to be things we do for fun at the outset. Not everything we do has to be a hustle or has to be specifically geared toward writing, so anyone who shames you like that needs to come down a few pegs. My cross stitch isn’t going to get me a Hugo and Nebula award either, but I’m not giving that up. However, my gaming? I’m steeping myself in storytelling, in pacing, in dialogue that sounds more or less natural. I’m following the beats and considering the story structure. I’m exploring the world building. All of that is valuable.
The problem with gaming only shows up when it takes over and becomes unhealthy. Like any addiction or obsession, if you game too much it’ll cause problems for you, and there’s no getting around that. However, let me be specific about that: if you game too much it’ll cause problems. You’re allowed to have downtime. And whether you’re reading a book, watching a TV show, enjoying a movie, or any other number of pursuits, you’re still exploring narratives. And that exposure to different ideas nd narratives is going to impact your writing.