Video games v the novel: which moves you more?

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To view the original article published online in the Telegraph please click here.

I’m a very casual gamer, with a preference for instantly gratifying ‘beat ’em ups’ like the Tekken and Soul Calibur series or first person shooters like Time Crisis, but I love Sackboy, the hero of PS3’s highly successful user generated platform game Little Big Planet.

sackboy‘Sackboy’ from Little Big Planet  Photo:

I’m happy when he’s happy, I’m sad when he’s sad, I flinch when he falls and I’m proud of him when we make it to the next level. Crazy as it sounds, I care for him not just because the longer he ’stays alive’ the more points I earn but because, if I’m honest, I consider him in many ways a mini-being—albeit a virtual one, which I control. In short, I feel emotion towards him.

So if I can feel empathy towards Sackboy, how much more emotionally involved would I be if I was a more committed gamer, totally immersed in the rich and intense fictional world of a RPG like Final Fantasy or the beautiful 3D platform game ICO? Photo

My ruminations conflict with the assertion made by Susan Greenfield that as we play more video games and read fewer novels we will somehow lose the ability to empathise. Greenfield writes:

“Unlike the game to rescue the princess, where the goal is to feel rewarded, the aim of reading a book is, after all, to find out more about the princess herself.”

She further asserts that ”people who spend a lot of time interacting through the screen can become emotionally detached”.

However, there is a compelling argument which opposes Greenfield’s (unproven) claim. It contends that playing video games can evoke a broader and more intense set of emotions than traditional forms of fiction such as literature or film.

According to Grant Tavinor, a reader in Philosophy at Lincoln University in New Zealand:

“Our emotional entwinements with the fictional worlds of video games have the potential to involve us in a much more intimate manner than those we have with traditional fictions.”

Playing an immersive video game, then, can lead to an intensely emotional experience precisely because we, as players, perform an integral role in defining the game-play narrative.

There are also a range of emotions we can experience when playing video games which we cannot experience by reading a book or watching a film.  For example, we might feel guilt when committing a crime in GTA or pride when we commit an act of selflessness in Call of Duty.

These emotions don’t occur when we read a book or watch a film because we are unable to ‘act’ within traditional fictional worlds. According to Tavinor:

“The kinds of emotions we have for video game fictions seem more strongly focussed on our own role in the developing fiction than the emotions appreciators have for traditional fictions that are essentially sympathetic or empathetic in form.”

In a recent study, Bowen Research asked gamers to identify and score the emotions that they most strongly associated with video games. Top of the list, unsurprisingly, were competitiveness, violence, excitement and accomplishment. Next, and perhaps more surprisingly, were honour, loyalty and integrity, followed by awe and wonder, delight, love and compassion for others. One player even confessed to being reduced to tears at the death of Aerith, a character in Final Fantasy.

I’m a big fan of books and would never undervalue the power of the novel or film to stimulate feelings of empathy and emotion. But assuming that books are always better, and that video games will inevitably reduce us to a generation of emotionally stunted individuals, is narrow minded and ill-informed.

And on that note—hand me my controller.

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On 28th May 2009
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