This past Saturday, Tyler Cowen published an article, “How Gaming Will Change Humanity as We Know It,” in which he claimed that video games are “culture-weakening” and break the continuity of canonical works for which other media are known. One day later, a group of gamers came together at one of the most renowned international gaming conventions, as they have many times before, to do something Cowen seems to think impossible: they spent an hour discussing the value of a video game canon and debating whether or not a particular popular game deserved admission into that canon.
In the course of his article about video games, Cowen refers by name to one religious text, one opera composer, one playwright, one director, one novel series, and no video games or video-game creators. This, combined with his comments about video games’ relationship to culture, leads me to believe that Cowen may simply not be especially familiar with the cultural landscape of video games. In that spirit, as someone who has spent almost a decade analyzing the storytelling of video games and the last four years overseeing a publication developing the kind of canon whose existence Cowen seems to deny, I would like to offer to Cowen and his readership a good-natured overview of the cultural value of video games. Ultimately, we’ll see that gaming indeed already has changed humanity, as Cowen knows it, in positive and exciting ways.
Cowen’s argument regarding the culture-weakening dimension of video games (what he calls, variously, “computer gaming” or “gaming”) hinges on articulating a certain understanding of culture, a certain understanding of video games, and showing that video games so understood are, in his words, “largely separate” from that conception of culture. While one could challenge Cowen’s stated model of culture, I want to grant him as charitable reading as possible of his preferred understanding of “culture” and show that video games obviously satisfy the desiderata for admission into that pantheon of cultural works.
Cowen’s view of culture is that it is interrelational: “Great Books” courses and the notion of a “Western literary canon” exist because artwork that has had the good fortune of achieving popularity is oftentimes in conversation with other popular works that came before it, the current moment in the history of the relevant society, and the broader trajectory of cultural development. Cowen uses the example of Shakepseare’s plays influencing both the operas of Verdi and the films of Orson Welles; in my lectures on the value that canonization can bring to video-game storytelling, I prefer the example of Ulysses, by James Joyce: not only was Joyce influenced by works such as The Odyssey and Hamlet, but those other works are also so thoroughly woven into Ulysses that a reader really can’t understand Ulysses without prior understanding of those other works. Cowen raises the specter of an “intellectual elite” being educated by such a literary canon, but we can make canons do even better work for us by seeing them as a tool to get everyone engaged with cultural literacy: there’s nothing elite or exclusive about being able to see, appreciate, and discuss the robust relationships between various works of art.
Cowen thinks that video games disqualify themselves from this kind of interrelational, canon-apt culture because a video game is typically what he calls a “closed system,” more focused on functional mastery of a singular game rather than on relationships between that game and other works of art. It’s worth noting that in so characterizing games, Cowen leans on the concept of “immersion” to claim that “gaming is more like participating in an event than watching an event.”
I worry that part of the difficulty Cowen’s argument makes for itself is too capacious an understanding of what a “game” is (Cowen never defines the term), so let me be precise about the variety of game I’m inviting Cowen and his readers to consider. It turns out that there is a rich, multi-decade history of single-player video games that tell complete, audiovisual stories through a combination of programmed content and external input from the player. This may distinguish many of the video games whose literary value I have in mind from the games Cowen has in his mind, particularly when he goes on to discuss the relationship between gaming and marketplaces—though, by virtue of his comparisons between games and various modes of literature, I think he’s committed to considering at least the variety of video game described in my definition. Once we hold this definition in mind, it becomes clear that video games simply don’t face the cultural problems Cowen speculates they might.
Video games are in constant conversation with classic works from other modes of storytelling. If the challenge is to see how Shakespeare can influence a video game, look no further than the elaborate, Shakespearean theatricality of Final Fantasy IX; if the challenge is to see how a great director can influence a video game, look no further than Spec Ops: The Line, which takes inspiration from Apocalypse Now (and Heart of Darkness, a novel, before it) to tell a war-horror story all its own in a way that could only succeed as a video game; if the challenge is to see how a renowned author can influence a video game, look no further than Bloodborne, which takes the oeuvre of Lovecraft as its source code and elaborates upon it through video-game aesthetics; if the challenge is to see how classical philosophers can influence a video game, look no further than Xenoblade Chronicles, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, or BioShock Infinite, whose stories use the unique tools of the medium to represent metaphorically the worldviews of Leibniz, Plato, and philosophers of quantum mechanics, respectively.
Video games are in constant conversation with their own history. Cowen seems more focused on culture as a means of different artistic media (e.g., novels vs. films) “talking to each other,” but I think there’s a similar concern that an artistic medium intrinsically needs a robust, interrelational history of development and style before it constitutes “culture” in Cowen’s sense.
Good news: video games have that, in spades.
The modern focus of many non-gamers on the rise of esports and streaming belies the fact that video games have been telling sophisticated stories and building a stylistic repertoire for decades, with some of the most highly regarded games—like Final Fantasy VII, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or EarthBound—emerging in the 1990s, almost 30 years ago. In those decades, as is the case with any other culturally significant storytelling medium, various genres, schools of thought, and modes of critique have emerged—such that, to quote Cowen, “knowing one part of that canon usually helps you master the other parts.”
Understanding the conventions of battle-based progression systems, as well as the history of EarthBound, helps you master Undertale, a game that is one part homage to EarthBound and one part a subversion of normalized violence, telling a nuanced story of the power of pacifism against the allure of aggression. Ambitious “remakes” like Final Fantasy VII Remake are only possible, I’ve argued, by recognizing the success and style of the original work and challenging a player’s expectations of what it means to revisit that work, not unlike The Odyssey does with The Iliad. Video-game auteurs like Hidetaka Miyazaki, the father of Dark Souls, are so constantly in dialogue with their own corpus that, as with a great film auteur, exploring their overall oeuvre (as we’ve done) yields great insight about both the auteur and his native medium.
With all that said, what about Cowen’s claim that video games just aren’t the right kind of object to convey cultural value? Cowen claims that video games’ “immersive” and “closed” nature makes it hard to reach beyond any given game to a larger context—a comment that puts one in mind of Wagner’s philosophy of Gesamtkunstwerk, according to which the entire theater in which an opera takes place ought to be designed in such a way that the audience experiences the work of art as total, unencumbered by elements of theater or glances of other audience members that could distract from the immediate experience of contemplating the artwork. To the extent that this kind of experience, engaging with art as distantly from reality as possible, is consistent with Cowen’s notion of “immersion,” his view here would disqualify the cultural value of this mode of opera—and, indeed, of cinema, which was in many ways modeled off of Gesamtkunstwerk. That seems like it would be a bad result for Cowen, based on his earlier appeal to opera composers and filmmakers as “canon-worthy.”
The underlying problem here is that “immersion” is a vague descriptor even within the domain of video-game analysis proper. It gestures at a general sense in which a player feels that she is “inside” a game, but that can mean materially different things depending on how you parse it: it can refer to tight alignment of epistemic states between player and avatar, the character that directly responds to the player’s input; it can refer to high fidelity between player input and the actions of an avatar; it can refer to a feeling that a game’s fiction is authentic rather than manufactured. (And that’s the tip of the iceberg.)
These differences may seem subtle from outside the mindset of a gamer, but they make a material difference in understanding why it’s a mistake to describe games as “more like participating in an event than watching an event,” as Cowen does. If you focus on video games merely as vehicles for generating the feeling in the player that she is “inside” the game, then it makes sense to suppose that video games are mere playgrounds for action rather than representation of robust stories. But that’s not essential to the nature of video games, and many of the best video-game stories actually end up being intellectually salient and “canon-worthy” by virtue of recognizing the difference between player and avatar and telling a story that essentially depends on that difference. (I’ve written more about the ontology of this difference elsewhere.)
Spec Ops: The Line’s war-horror story asks the question of how horrible it is that the player can watch as their avatar, a Delta Force captain in Dubai, goes insane from the sights of the battlefield and commits countless atrocities as a result, only for the player to continue soberly driving the avatar and the story forward: the avatar is an insane, tortured soul, and the player is the cold, sane agent who moves him forward simply for the sake of entertainment. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, brought to life with help from Studio Ghibli, tells a beautiful and challenging story of a jaded adult confronting her inner child precisely by creating an artwork in which an adult player controls a gleefully unjaded avatar on a fantastical journey, ultimately discovering that the final antagonist is a mirror of the player’s jaded nature, which she must overcome in order to finish the story. Okami calls on traditional Shinto folklore and mythology to put the player in the role of the most powerful goddess, imposing her avatar (a white wolf) and will upon the world of the game in a beautifully rendered contemplation of how religious and narrative hegemony, imposed through the medium of a video game, can be an awe-inspiring force to triumph over impossible evils.
No doubt, these stories are interactive and involve the player doing things, but they are equally apt for the application of literary meaning to the role of the player and the content of her actions, making her experiences something that can be analyzed as any literary content can. That is why, contra Cowen, it’s more accurate (if still reductive) to say that a player is simultaneously participating in and watching video-game events, with the interesting substance of video-game storytelling directly emanating from this special hybrid mode of engagement.
To be sure, there exist video games that don’t tell stories in such rich and sophisticated ways, but there are also films that exist for mere entertainment with as many action scenes as possible, as well as romance novels that exist merely to engage the passions (not to belittle any of these categories). One would be forgiven, at this point, for even glossing what Cowen calls “immersion” as “intense sympathy with a protagonist” and wondering how video games’ approach in this way differs at all from novels, films, and plays in which one “loses oneself,” caught up in the story unfolding on the page, screen, or stage.
This is exactly why it’s a mistake to claim that “the fundamental appeal of gaming has more to do with performance and focus” than with video games’ literary, culturally salient content: all of these cultural objects under consideration have the capacity to be used with a variety of focuses. Novels, films, operas, and video games alike can be approached as cultural objects, stories, distraction, entertainment, a pastime with friends, or any number of other functions; to single video games out as somehow being “fundamentally” about non-cultural focuses in a way that the other listed media are not is to beg the question.
What is this felt impulse to at once acknowledge, as Cowen does, the “interesting music and visual effects” of video games as culturally valuable, yet deny that video games per se can make a cultural contribution? (Video games’ “interesting music,” for the record, routinely features everything from fully fledged leitmotifs to Proustian phenomenology.) At the risk of putting words in Cowen’s mouth, I have a hypothesis here. A full 11 years ago, film critic Roger Ebert infamously claimed that “video games can never be art.” In the intervening decade, it’s become more obvious in the mainstream—even to people who don’t play video games—that the medium is, incontrovertibly, an artistic one. With Ebert’s stance rendered untenable, the next natural place for those who doubt the value of video games to go is to the matter of a literary canon: “No doubt, video games can express value on their own terms,” our imagined interlocutor might say, “but they’re too insulated and self-involved to contribute to a broader discourse about the evolution and nature of literature.” Thus the interlocutor avoids the clearly wrong view while maintaining a view that, while still wrong, is less clearly so—particularly to those who are not experiencing the medium and understanding firsthand what involvement in their interactive stories consists in.
I still get outreach from prospective WaTF analysts who feel they have to justify the artistic value of video games before they can talk about games.
The war is over! Video games tell stories, and video games are art. Let's focus on the real work of getting literate in them.
— Aaron Suduiko (@agsuduiko) August 18, 2021
This is why we at With a Terrible Fate feel it’s especially important to do the work of developing a canon of video-game storytelling and develop a more robust language to explain how and why this medium and its stories are so groundbreaking. It’s what inspired Dan Hughes to found a series of analysis with that express mission within the publication four years ago, and it’s why we love going out to conventions like PAX West, as we did last weekend, for open discussions with like-minded, thoroughly literate gamers on the value of their favorite games.
Within the span of 30 minutes debating whether or not Final Fantasy IX belonged in the video game canon, the gamers of PAX West did everything Cowen seems to believe is intractable within the world of video games: they related the game’s content and value to those of other landmark video-game works like Final Fantasy VI and Dark Souls; they discussed the value of classic literary mechanisms such as extended metaphor and layers of philosophical content within the work; they analyzed the literary function of the player’s role in the game beyond the lens of their own experience, while still honoring those personal experiences; they called on Shakespeare to inform their understanding of the game, and vice versa.
Perhaps most meaningful to me: even some audience members who had never played the game, by virtue of their literacy with gaming as a broader cultural medium, were able to join in the conversation and raise compelling points about the merits and demerits of this game from a canon perspective, underscoring how powerful canons can be when they jettison the facade of the “elite” in favor of becoming a robust method with which everyone can engage in the culture and literature they so love—truly changing humanity as we know it, as more and more gamers become literate in what makes their favorite cultural artifacts so special.
Our series, Now Loading the Video Game Canon, is designed with that same ethos: Dan has set forth the rubric to make it very easy for newcomers to evaluate the lasting legacy of their favorite games through a cultural and literary lens. So, for those now excited to engage with the canonical content of video-game literature, I encourage you to dive in and submit your own analysis of a video game to With a Terrible Fate. Perhaps we might even hope for a submission from Cowen in the future.