Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Reaching for the Skyrim

When the novel first began to gain popularity, especially in England, there were countless articles written by people of an artistic, philosophical and literary bent. The major complaint? That the young women of England were wasting their time reading novels -- hours on end -- when they could have been doing more productive things. In short, novels were, to the lovers of poetry and philosophy and theology, the soap operas of the age -- a mindless submersion in pure entertainment. They were so full of (here every literary fiction snob across the globe retches) . . .  plot. ("'Plot" even sounds like 'clot,'" once said a black-clad grad student holding a giant wine glass.)

By the way, many novels of that time, as in today's era, stank on ice. But that is neither here nor there. The point is, today, we wish our kids would while away summer afternoons reading, instead of doing other things, like watching TV or (curse it all) playing (holds the words out at arm's-length, like a dead mouse) video games.

You do, of course, see what happens, here. It can amount to only one of two possible things: either our standards are sinking and sinking and sinking over time or we judge new things too harshly, too quickly.

Over the years, I have read stacks of articles about video games and kids -- some say they need to be limited; others say the games are great for all sorts of developmental reasons. My own observations tell me that the only problems with video games are situations in which they totally replace physical activity and, also, a phenomenon that I have experienced first-hand: the "video game nasties" (a condition that occurs when you spend way too much time on the Digi-train to Pixelburgh. I am subject to this condition myself and, so, find myself only able to handle these games in hour-or-so doses.)

Scenery from Skyrim -- if you stand still, you can hear the wind
and see it move the leaves and the winter grass.

But, in the end, wouldn't you rather your kids play a problem-solving, hand-eye coordination strengthening, imagination-inspiring video game than watch hours of the cheap "Monkees" rip-off ,"Big Time Rush"? (Ptooey! -- at least The Monkees had real songwriters behind them.)

We can take this a step further, I think. Could it be that video games are underrated as an art form?

Now, wait . . .  I know there are a lot of gaming dorks out there (You know who you are, you nerdy, dweebish, cuddly stink-bears, you!) who have been waiting for the world to recognize their favorite (second favorite?) living room couch activity as an Olympic sport and as a Nobel Peace Prize category ever since the Space Invader days, but I am talking from the view of a writer, musician and occasional video game player -- one who grew up as a video kid, from the Pac Man game at the local convenience store, to the mall arcade, Missile Command days, to Skyrim . . .

There -- I said it. I'm playing Skyrim. And it occurred to me, last night, as I entered the village or Riverrun, that the world of interactive story-telling has reached a new plateau. For a moment, I stood still, taking in the first-person view. I stood by a rolling river that looked an awful lot like a rolling river. I looked up at a snowy-sharp mountain above me, that towered like the Matterhorn against a cloudless sky. I stood still and I noticed that the trees and the grass were moving in the breeze, gently, sonorously.

The art is breathtaking.

And I realized that the makers of that game had brought me into their world in a way that no novelist ever has.

Yes, I know. Novels have been more profound. No video game has ever gotten to the human depths the way an Updike novel has.

But, what if John Updike were to get behind the creation of a video game? A hundred years from now, will university lit. students be discussing the themes of early twenty-first century interactive literature?

I don't see why not.


  1. Awesome Blog post, FUS RO DAH!

  2. Now, if only Bethesda would actually spend some money on voice acting for their games.

    Disclaimer -- I haven't played Skyrim yet. But Bethesda Game Studios are sort of notorious for skimping on the voice acting. (Bioware, on the other hand ... but their most recent games are distinctly Not For Kids).

    I object to being called a 'dweeb' or a 'stink-bear.' Nerd I'll own, but dweeb? Dear sir, I am no dweeb.

  3. Lara Roberts Seigel LeBeauJanuary 4, 2012 at 10:17 AM

    I sometimes think of kids who live in a place like Camden, shockingly many of them do have game systems (not all but a surprising number based on my volunteer time experience), and that experience may be the closest they have to standing by a real river hearing real wind blowing through real trees.... It's not ideal but is it comparable to me as a 11 year old girl finding friendship in Anne of Green Gables when my own classmates made me feel like an outcast? Or my own adventures with Black Beauty because my parents didn't want me to ride a real horse, fall, and undo thousands of dollars and countless operations to fix my birth defect? If a child expands their experiences, and I read to excess to escape often, maybe we adults should not judge too quickly.

  4. 'nora -- the acting is not bad in Skyrim, but not great, by any stretch. Imagine, if all of the elements of the games reached the level of the graphics and complexity. (The acting in my sons' Justice League game for regular Xbox is great -- they even have Ron Perlman as Batman.) My apologies about the dweeb and stink-bear comments. They were directed at the male gaming contingent which, I imagine, takes pride in its stink-bearness. You are, in fact, as far as I can tell form electronic communication, in fact, the anti-dweeb and have no discernable stench.

    Lara -- so well said. We grown-ups are notorious for recoiling from things out kids to, especially for long periods of time. I think we show our Puritanical origins in our attachment to modration and simplicity. Thanks for commenting!

    Anonymous -- thanks. Uh, I have only played about an hour of the game. Maybe I will find out what "FUS RO DAH" means, soon. (I'm a bad gamer.)

  5. Chris -- yep, quite a few name actors are showing up in video game credits these days. Dragon Age: Origins (a 2010 Bioware release) had Tim Curry voicing one of the bad guys. (DA:O was also the first game that really blew me away by the quality of its voice acting, but it really earns its 'M' rating. I recommend it, but only when the kids are asleep, or maybe at camp).

    Some of the more serious gamer-thinkers have been discussing (and developing) the idea of games as a medium for storytelling more seriously in the last few years. And then also there's this, which showed up in my feed reader this morning:

    As for dweebs and stink-bears, yep, I know exactly the guys you mean.

  6. Thanks, 'nora -- I will check out both the link and the DA:O game -- if I don't need intervention for my growing Skyrim addiction.

  7. If you buy your kids an X-box, you will soon be writing posts about how beautiful Skyrim is? (or am I displaying my ignorance - is Skyrim nothing to do with X-boxes?)

  8. The book Everything Bad for You is Good makes a case for games (and TV). It seemed to me that its weakness was in regarding art as something like a scavenger hunt or a jigsaw puzzle, and intelligence as what is needed to master either.

  9. I've long been torn on this one. My video game experience stretches from Pong consoles in the '70s to the occasional online Starcraft II match with dear old friends today, so I find intense criticism of video games hilariously overblown. But while I think video games are good ways to learn to solve puzzles and work out quantitative problems, and while I think fun and escapism are quite fine in moderation, I'm wary of granting them the imperviousness that comes with declaring them either educational or art. Why can't we dub them "mostly harmless" and leave it at that?

    That said, the older I get, the less satisfying I find video games; after playing for an hour and a half, I keenly sense the horrifying brevity of the rest of my life. I'm a bookworm and a homebody, but telling kids to go outside and play rather than immerse themselves in a meticulously programmed work of someone else's imagination strikes me as still sound advice.

  10. Z -- no, you are correct -- it is on the Xbox. Think of it as the light inn at the end of the long, dark road. I don't hold any grudges against the Creature -- just the young, cheeky doctors who built it. (By the way, the story of misery goes on -- just two days ago, I nearly pushed the new TV out of the cabinet in anger -- long and less interesting story than the last one.)

    George -- I have yet to read that book, but I should. I don't think the art is in the playing, but in the creating of the games. Still, I suppose my theory that someday we will study them as literature is a little like imagining that one day we will all have robotic butlers who laugh and drink brandy and read Shakespeare. It's a LONG way off, if ever . . .

    Jeff -- I suppose the only rational views are either yours or mine -- to see them as either harmless or beneficial. I do think they can be (and sometimes are) more than just harmless diversions. Still, I can't agree more on one thing: an hour and a half is the limit for me -- two at the most -- horrifying, indeed. (In fact, I rarely even read for more than an hour or two. The only thing I truly get immersed in is music -- when I'm working, the sun could rise and fall.) I also believe in parenting by instinct, in some cases, and it just feels right when my kids get away from the screens and out under the real clouds.

  11. How did I miss this post? Blargh!

    I do remember you saying you played through Chrono Trigger once, so your video game street cred is not a surprise to me.

  12. I'm hip that way. It was Chrono Cross -- still on of my favorite video game experiences of all time...