The Case for Video Games

I wrote a post a while back in which I cited video games as one of my distractions. My friend and colleague Keld Bangsberg didn’t take it well. He thought I was someone who regarded video games as a legitimate narrative media and not just a time suck. I felt bad. It’s totally true, I do regard many games to be a great storytelling medium. It was wrong to demonize them as a distraction while claiming that reading and watching movies are not. On the other hand, I have rules and restrictions when it comes to playing video games so I stay creatively minded and don’t slip into the mindless, time-killing trap.

Rule one: Single player mode only! Yes, there’s a lot of strategy and social engagement involved in team play or multiplayer fps or mmo’s, but when in the midst of a writing project, multiplayer is the video game equivalent of having beers with friends. You enjoy your time, but you’re not working on your craft. Not thinking in terms of structure, narrative, character, or resolution. It’s key to keep the brain tuned for story!

Rule two: Stick to RPG or on rails FPS. Mass Effect, Skyrim, Bioshock, Half Life 2, FEAR, and Dead Space are all good examples of story-based gaming where scripted moments affect the outcomes. Mass Effect and Bioware games in general use morality and consequences to great effect. You’re writing your story as you go. On the other end of the spectrum, Bioshock and HL2 lead you along a very specific path (they’re referred to in the biz as “on rails shooters” since your road never forks), but that path is well-constructed and the story has twists like a movie or graphic novel. The Uncharted series combines great story with platforming as well as shooting, but it’s still on rails. RTS like StarCraft II and action FPS like Call of Duty will drape a story over intense battles, but the narrative is not the focus and the cut scenes are just filler.

Rule three: Recognize and acknowledge when you are addicted! I love playing Mass Effect or HL2 style games, but sometimes a game will take over my idle thought more than any movie or book ever has. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the spoon-feeding of achievements or the satisfaction of completing stages interactively. I’ve had a one-man 17 hour marathon “The Wire,” but even though it was awesome, I wasn’t itching to get back to finish the series the way I was with Mass Effect 2 or Borderlands. And the story in Borderlands wasn’t good! But I was hooked on it. And I didn’t know it!

That’s my rules. And they’re mostly working. I think a big part of problem is that video games are reward-based and provide instant gratification. What if the process of writing a book gave you a trophy for every chapter? Or you received 1000 fictional gold for reading a novel? Even then, the process of writing a chapter takes too long. Maybe that’s why I check my word count so often! (hold on, I’m having a realization here) The word count when I’m writing is like collecting bolts in Ratchet and Clank or gold in Skyrim. Little bits at a time that add up to huge numbers. Maybe I can find an app that gives you a live word count! Then, my friends, you would see the numbers climb. I would have five books written by the end of the year.

But first, I need to finish a couple quests.


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