Video Games and Literature: Producers of Social Dysfunction?

In the December 20th 2010 issue of The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten wrote a profile of the video-game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of, according to Wikipedia–“some of the most successful video game franchises of all time, including MarioDonkey KongThe Legend of ZeldaStar FoxF-ZeroPikmin, and the Wii series“). In the course of that article, Paumgarten wrote that games, regardless of how much we may love them, are by definition trivial and superfluous,” and that they are  a “structured, commodified, and stationary technological simulation.” This latter remark inspired reader David O’ Grady to write,

Such adjectives could also be used to describe most literature, but we would hardly argue that reading prevents us from living out our own stories.

While I am not a video-game player and still find the sight of many of my friends’ teen-aged sons sitting in basements or bedrooms, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, glued to their consoles, off-putting, I have slowly moved past the stage where I might have considered this attachment the harbinger of a social dysfunctionality.

For Grady is right. At a superficial level, those reading books also indulge in similar anti-social behavior – they demand to be left alone with their precious tomes, immersed in their pages, lost in their characters and ‘make-believe situations’, fantasizing sometimes about lands and peoples far away, sometimes reading about violence, sex, extreme dysfunctionality (and that’s just some of the milder stuff that you can find in our great literary canon). But this ‘extreme engagement’ with the textual culture of the book has not prevented readers’ engagement with the world. Indeed, as a culture that a valorizes the book, we see these acts of reading and imaginative flight as crucial to the reader’s ability to engage with the world in a richer, more linguistically informed manner. To read is not only to educate oneself, it is to indulge in one of the most richly textured acts of self-creation.

As a quick thought experiment, consider the following reaction that participants in a culture of oral transmission of literature might had to the printed book:

We used to get together and swap tales. Now people just want to be by themselves, curled up with this accursed new invention, the book! Where’s the interaction with the ‘author’ gone? All people do these days is engage with these clumsy artefacts, rather than participating in the rich, one-on-one, face-to-face interactions with story-tellers.

 The confusion that Paumgarten displayed in his response to video-games is a common one: it is borne out of unease with the coupling of technological artefacts with fantasizing; it imagines that this builds a royal road to anti-social withdrawal.  Many video-game players display all the hallmarks of the clichéd, pathologically disengaged recluse, but many others are their perfect antitheses. There is a similar variance in book-readers if anyone would care to notice. The reasons for the recluse’s disengagement–sometimes chosen, sometimes forced–require a deeper, richer diagnosis than the all-too-quick indictment of the latest technological ‘intruder’ into our idealized vision of ourselves.

Note: The response that video-games are inherently superficial because they are ‘visual’ while books are ‘textual’ requires  a much longer post than I can provide at the moment. Suffice it to say that that distinction is a little tenuous at best, and, moreover, movies anyone?

4 thoughts on “Video Games and Literature: Producers of Social Dysfunction?

  1. I think most people do not distinguish the medium from the content. Video games can be smart or dumb, inspiring and antisocial, as much as books can be. “Mein kampf” is a book as much as Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” but when talking about the merits of books as a medium we focus on works like the latter rather than the former. I guess the same is true for video games. Perhaps, being inherently more stimulating than the printed word, video games have a higher potential of being both very good and very bad for one’s development.

    1. Stefano,

      Thanks for your comment – and good to see you here! You are right, of course, and moreover, people indulge in the common fallacy of comparing the worst of one class with the best of another (i.e., comparing mediocre video games to great literature or great video games to trash novels!).

  2. Grady is right about reading being a “structured, commodified, and stationary technological simulation” if he means mass-market entertainment, whether it is a book or a movie or television show. He’s spectacularly wrong if he means to include more serious non-fiction, which requires a deep engagement with a single person’s mind, or more serious fiction, which requires readers to project themselves into the thoughts, emotions, situations, and experiences of characters who may be technical constructs, but who often have the surprising quality of feeling like real people. And this kind of reading is not an isolating activity — it’s the opposite. First, reading is like heavy-duty practice for having live conversations with real people, like taking batting practice and fielding grounders before a baseball game. Second, reading allows us to engage with people who we will never meet, often because they are dead. Jane Austen is gone, but the conversations she has with her readers are still ongoing. Not bad for paper and ink. Or an E Ink display.

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