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7 December 2023

What video games taught me

A collection of essays on gaming confirms the rich complexity of an art form that remains widely misunderstood.

By Imogen West-Knights

Writing about video games has a defensive streak. For a good decade now, we’ve been told by the games industry that video games are on the verge of being understood as works of art in the same way as books or films: media products of cultural worth and critical depth. And yet, still, we’re not quite there. There are hundreds of collections of essays where writers expound on their love for books, films, and even television. But not games.

I’ve always been a keen gamer. Some of my most precious childhood memories are populated by figures such as Spyro the dragon and the jankily pixelated face of Pierce Brosnan in James Bond: Nightfire. As an adult, I still play a lot, and now write games myself. I’ve long thought of playing narratively sophisticated video games, such as the open-world, role-playing game Disco Elysium, as a core part of my emotional and intellectual life, rather than a distraction from it. But tell someone you’re interested in video games and, more often than not, you’ll see them re-evaluate you a little, like you’ve said you have a keen academic passion for tic-tac-toe.

A new book presents a strong rebuttal to this kind of thinking. Critical Hits: Writers on Gaming and the Alternate Worlds We Inhabit is a collection of essays and one comic strip edited by the American writers Carmen Maria Machado and J Robert Lennon – 18 pieces of work in which writers who love games as varied as Red Dead Redemption 2, Alien vs Predator, Clash of Clans, Leisure Suit Larry and Halo are asked to explain themselves.

Some of the pieces take an academic approach to demonstrating that video game narratives and lore are worthy of critical attention. The Mexican-American poet Vanessa Villarreal unpacks the dodgy racial politics of Norse mythological games such as Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Dragon Age: Inquisition, and asks us to interrogate how Norse-inflected popular culture feeds and reflects far-right racial fantasies. In “Narnia Made of Pixels” the sci-fi writer Charlie Jane Anders investigates films that depict video games, and thinks about the appeal of disappearing into virtual worlds such as those in Tron and Ready Player One.

These are well-argued, rigorous essays. But I preferred the more personal, less scholarly pieces. Take the essay by the host of the Literary Friction podcast Octavia Bright, on playing Leisure Suit Larry – a comical but decidedly adult game in which a man in his 40s attempts to seduce women – surreptitiously on a family desktop computer as a ten-year-old. Here, Bright expresses how games help us discover who we are, and mirror and shape the real world around us.

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Intuitively, we think of playing video games as a loner’s activity. I’ve never been convinced of this, and the writers in this collection don’t seem to be either. Of course, many people play games with others, either in multiplayer mode in person or online, or by handing the controller back and forth between a group. But even if you do play a game alone, there is community to be found. In her introduction to the book, Machado – best known for her memoir In the Dream House –remembers giving a talk at a fundraiser in which she mentioned being stuck at a particular point in the action role-playing game Elden Ring. Afterwards, a group of women came up to offer her their advice on playing it. “There was such joy in the conversation; a peculiar investment in a stranger’s success at some obscure shared task,” she writes.

[See also: The Amazon guide to burnout]

Another truism about video games is that they are escapist: a way of getting away from ourselves and the real world. There’s no denying that part of the magic of playing a video game is that it lifts you out of reality. In “No Traces”, the Irish poet Stephen Sexton remembers playing Metal Gear Solid with a friend in his youth. “The intimacy of our experience hung on the sense that, for hours on end, neither of us felt like we were physically present in the room.” But for many of the writers in this collection, gaming is a way of connecting with their own bodies, questioning and accepting them.

Several writers discuss how playing video games offered them a chance to experiment with gender identity. In one piece, the game designer and poet Keith S Wilson considers how Final Fantasy’s mixed-race “monster” character Terra sparked thoughts about his own mixed-race identity as a child. For so many people, playing games in their youth was a first encounter with questions so big and profound that they didn’t even know how to consider them properly at the time. Questions including, as Wilson writes, “What if there is no such thing as justice?” and “What is the human spirit?” But these questions remain with them, and so does the impact of asking them through the process of play. In another essay, the Native American memoirist Elissa Washuta explores parallels between The Last of Us, the game set in a pandemic-ravaged post-apocalyptic society that was recently turned into a television series by HBO, and her own experience shielding from coronavirus due to her autoimmune disorder, Sjögren’s syndrome.

The pandemic looms large in this collection: many of the essays were written during the Covid lockdowns. Read two years later, the book already belongs to a different moment, with lines such as: “Do you remember houses? Other people’s I mean – the way they looked and smelled, how cushy their sofas were, the mysterious contents of their medicine cabinets?” If you’re minded to think about the effect the pandemic had on our psyches, then reading Critical Hits would be a good place to start. I’m not sure I am yet.

The collection is evidence that video games can help us think about who we are as people. Perhaps the best piece is “This Kind of Animal” by the speculative fiction author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. In it, he writes about turning to Disco Elysium after the death of his father. The game is, as Adjei-Brenyah notes, a “magnificent literary experience” at a scale not seen in games before or, I would argue, since. In it, you play as an amnesiac detective who must discover how a dead body came to be hanging from a tree in the dead-end town of Martinaise. You make choices about how to proceed with your investigation, and either make progress or fail to do so according to how skilled you are in various different traits, such as Logic, Pain Threshold, Composure and Empathy. Playing the game, Adjei-Brenyah found that questions about his personal character that he was forced to confront after his father’s death were also being posed by the game: “Who are you when that Charm shit doesn’t work? What kind of animal are you actually?” Similarly, playing Ninja Gaiden Black provokes the novelist Alexander Chee to think through aspects of his Korean-American identity and notions of how to live “authentically” as a biracial, queer man.

And games, the collection suggests, are not so unlike real life. What is “real life” anyway? In one essay, J Robert Lennon writes about how the in-game world of Fallout 76, another post-apocalyptic adventure, began to feel more “real” and expansive to him than his real life teaching online from his house during the Covid lockdowns. Games don’t just exist inside cartridges and the minds of those who play them, either. They have real world consequences. In “Cathartic Warfare”, the Afghan-American fiction author Jamil Jan Kochai considers how playing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – a shooter in which you inhabit the perspective of a US soldier killing Middle Eastern insurgents – cast him into “some ruptured space between the first-person shooter and the third-person corpse”. He recalls the US military coming to his high school and setting up a recruiting station in the back of a van, where teenagers could play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

The most refreshing thing about this collection is that it doesn’t try too hard to defend itself against the notion that games are fun. Of course they are. So is reading books, but most people would describe reading as a productive pursuit. Gaming, to many, is a waste of time – because it is what, too enjoyable? As  the novelist Tony Tulathimutte writes, “I could wax poetic about how games and novels offer vivid vicarious experiences and broaden your world-view by putting you in the minds and roles of other people, but that’s disingenuous. I read and play games because I want to and because nobody is making me stop.”

Critical Hits is an exciting, original and rich collection. It made me want to read more, to write more, and – I admit without shame – to play more.

Critical Hits: Writers on Gaming and the Alternate Worlds We Inhabit
Edited by Carmen Maria Marchado and J Robert Lennon
Serpent’s Tail, 256pp, £14.99

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[See also: The post-language world]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special