Taking Back “Literature”

Video games are a category of creative work that deserves consideration and respect as an art form, and to be valued as literature. For nearly as long as there has been art or literature, there have been those who have tried to restrict the terms to only define the works that they have deemed worthy. This has become particularly prevalent in culture since the early Renaissance, with the sanctification and elevation of art and literature as the province of the refined and privileged, a method to further segregate the masses from the intellectual and social elite.[1] In modern society, however, there is no excuse for this segregation to continue. Art and literature can take many forms, and exist on a variety of levels throughout society, yet we continue to delineate only a few “classics” as qualifying for such a lofty term as literature or art. This needs to stop: art and literature are everywhere; art and literature are as varied and colorful as the individuals who create them; art and literature cannot be pigeonholed, categorized, or rigidly defined within a free society. We as individuals need to stand up for creative expression, and take back the language that has been subverted for so many years.

According to the Oxford American Dictionary, literature can be defined as, “written works, esp. those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit”. Given this definition, it is hardly a surprise that there is so much difficulty in defining what is or is not “literature”, and rightfully so: the definition is fluid, and ultimately subjective on what is of merit, as well as in what fashion it may be worthwhile. I believe that it is ultimately the individual’s decision on the merit or worthiness of any given work. Whether or not a work is considered “literature” by some arbitrary group should not dictate the social, intellectual, or legal value of that work. I believe that it’s possible to rephrase the current definition such that the intent of the term remains, but the terminology becomes less restrictive, and I feel that doing so is necessary towards doing away with segregational labels. I believe a better way to think about literature is that it is verbal art.

Over the course of centuries, various media have successfully taken their rightful place under the label of literature. Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets are for all intents and purposes universally considered great works of literature, despite the fact that they were originally intended to be performed, not read. They’re still considered literature, however, because they have been placed in a written form. By that same logic, epic ballads such as “Beowulf” have been accepted as literature. Poems of various forms have been accepted (ranging in style and nature from William Carlos Willams’ “Red Wheelbarrow” to Homer’s epic, The Iliad). Music, notably operas such as Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville have also successfully earned their place as literature. There is a trend worth noticing, here: all these accepted forms of literature are hundreds of years old; contemporary media are conspicuously from popular acceptance.

What then of contemporary creators? Alan Moore’s The Watchmen puts forth ideas in a cogent, eloquent manner that rivals the works of Steinbeck or Twain, and yet it is not popularly considered to be literature, because it is a graphic novel, sequential visual art accompanied and interwoven with dialogue.[2] Pete Townsend wrote a scathing and moving social commentary of coming of age in 1950’s and 1960’s England in Quadrophenia, and yet it does not command the same respect within academic circles of its older, more traditional counterparts. These are not exceptions to the rule. If anything, the opposite is true: they are endemic of an entire category of creative work that deserves consideration and respect, and yet receives neither.

Arguably the newest medium to the literature debate is video games. While not every game might be considered literature, since some are purely ludological in nature and have no narrative or written body to satisfy the needs of the term, there are some games that clearly deserve the title. (As for the purely ludological games, like Frequency, or Dance Dance Revolution, or N, they may not be considered literature, but they can still be considered art.) Some of the earliest video games available were text based (Dungen and Advent immediately come to mind), and early pioneers in the industry continued to incorporate narrative in their games (as an example, Ultima, followed later by games like Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and Star Tropics). The stories viewed from a technical level were often sub-par, but from a viewpoint of creating a meaningful impact within the viewer (player), the games in toto were successful works much in the same way that Rossini’s The Barber of Seville does not carry nearly as much emotional or artistic weight without the accompanying remarkable musical score. Even games with as simplistic a story as Super Mario Brothers (the princess has been kidnapped; it’s up to you to save her) succeeded in making a lasting emotional and artistic impact on millions of people, influencing thousands to become involved in art, music, and writing. It’s been easy to decry video games as without merit however, because it has taken time for those inspired individuals to reach a point in their abilities that such a positive impact could be noticed (examples include musical groups who play video game inspired music such as The Minibosses).

As video games have evolved as a creative medium, the quality of the narrative element of the games has improved. While on the whole there is still significant room for improvement, there are games like Halo and Final Fantasy X that not only successfully blend ludological and narratological elements together, but they do so on multiple levels, creating rich, robust cultures combined with compelling personalities and situations to interact with. Then there are games set within a contemporary world, which far more overtly indict modern culture, such as games like the controversy-laden Grand Theft Auto series of games. These games involve a wide variety of lewd, offensive behavior ranging from sleeping with prostitutes to cold blooded murder. This has incited a significant uproar within conservative circles, with varying levels of justification, though almost universally missing that the game is intentionally offensive as a means of social commentary.[3] A good comparison from a more traditional media is the novel, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. When the book first came out, the book was widely banned and decried as offensive; a few decades later, the book is taught regularly in schools. Public views shift over time, and initial reactions often cool. There is nothing wrong with groups or individuals choosing to express their displeasure over something, just as much as there is nothing wrong with creating that thing in the first place. It’s when those groups then choose to take restrictive, legislative action that something is wrong.

That is ultimately the crux of the matter, the reason why we should even care about what is classified as literature: the people who are making these decisions are often the same people who choose to enact new legislation, to bring the government into places where it is quite explicitly not allowed to go. Private groups may ban or protest a body of work; the government may not, as it is a clear violation of first amendment rights. By not defending video games and graphic novels and rock operas and movies as art and literature, we are forfeiting the protections provided under that amendment. We are enabling a mindset that pigeonholes these contemporary media as meaningless, without value, or exclusively meant for children and simpletons. This is why taking back the word “literature” matters: because there has been so much weight placed on the word, and by placing our work on par with the more traditionally hallowed material allows us to claim the same protections that have been afforded to them. By not doing so, we are setting ourselves up for continued persecution and misrepresentation.

Work Cited:

N. Burns, Raigan; Sheppard, Mare. Metanet Software, 2004.
Advent. Crowther, Will. Will Crowther, 1976.
Dungen. Daglow, Dan. Dan Daglow, 1975.
Ultima. Garriot, Richard. California Pacific Computer, 1980.
Homer. The Iliad.
Grand Theft Auto. Benzies, Leslie. Rockstar Games, Inc., 2004.
Dance Dance Revolution. Ishikawa, Hirotaka. Konami, 2001.
Halo. Jones, Jason. Bungie Software, 2001.
Frequency. LoPiccolo, Greg. Harmonix Music Systems, inc., 2001.
Super Mario Brothers. Miyamoto, Shigeru. Nintendo, 1985.
Moore, Alan. The Watchmen. DC Comics, 1986.
Dragon Quest. Nakamura, Koichi. Enix, 1986.
The Barber of Seville. Rossini, Gioacchino.
Final Fantasy. Sakaguchi, Hironobu. Squaresoft, 1987.
Final Fantasy X. Sakaguchi, HIronobu. Square, 2001.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown, 1951.
Star Tropics. Takeda, Genyo; Yoneyama, K.; Hatakeyama, Masato. Nintendo, 1990.
The Ring Cycle. Wagner, Richard.
The Who. Quadrophenia. MCA Records, 1973.
Williams, William Carlos. “The Red Wheelbarrow”. 1923.

[1] For a more complete discussion of this topic, please see John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.
[2] For more information on the history of comics and their efforts to be treated as a valid form of expression, please see http://www.cbldf.org.
[3] See Sections 4.1 and 4.2 of this work for a more in depth examination of this subject and game.