I recently had an argument with my brother and my boyfriend about the “worth” (or lack thereof) of videogames, literature, and videogames as literature. This was a two-against-one battle, and I quickly realized that my stance—literature is important, and videogames are a waste of time—was quickly getting beaten and bloodied by my very unliterary, technophile adversaries. I got upset, perhaps unreasonably so, and abandoned the debate without saying my final say. Now that I’ve had the chance to reflect on the discussion, I think I can say some words on the subject.
For me, there are two kinds of texts in this world: semantic and aesthetic. SEMANTIC texts are those which are used as tools for thinking about the nature of the universe. They come in an amazing array of forms, but they all make us think about ideas and ideologies—things bigger than ourselves—and how they interact with our own lives. Semantic texts prevent us from going through life as automatons that complete the surfacy motions of the day to day grind without ever looking outside or within. In contrast, AESTHETIC texts are those which are experienced solely for beauty or entertainment. Afterward, they are easily dismissed and forgotten. They pass through our consciousness as meaningless daydreams. THE CATCH: the difference between these two is mainly distinguished by the viewer, not intrinsic to the text itself.
A piece of literature, to me, is a fine example of a semantic text. As such, the reading of literature is an important act. (Here, I’ll consider “literature” to be any crafted piece of writing that provokes the reader to think in a new way, to reflect on his/her own life, and to reflect on his/her own society.) Literature makes us real—questioning, doubting, angry, dazzled, puzzled, inspired human beings. It’s intense. It’s mind-blowing. It’s cool.
You know what else is cool? Videogames. Well, maybe “computer games” is a better term. We’re talking Halo. We’re talking Diablo II. And we’re definitely talking World of Warcraft. These games are fun, stimulating, addicting, and social, but they are a way lower rung on the ladder of important things than literature. They are aesthetic. Scripted. Predictable. Void of meaning.
But wait! Didn’t I proclaim that anything can work as a text? And didn’t I say that whether a text is semantic or aesthetic is in the eye of the beholder? According to all that, maybe… just maybe… computer games ARE literature!
Take Fable, for example. Fable is a game with an insane amount of writing and design put into it, which someone crafted with great care. Considering, also, that a player in Fable can do pretty much whatever they can think up (making actions that tend toward evil, good, order, chaos, or anything in between), the game certainly reflects the human condition. One could analyze the workings of the game or the shifting of the plot as decisions are made and relate it to life. Yes, Fable could be a literary experience. I guess I should be more wary about what I dismiss as a wasteful pastime.
HOWEVER, I still believe that most people who play computer games do not approach them as semantic texts. Rather, they are looking for an escape from thinking about the world. Readers are guilty of this as well. Fans of cheesy romance novels and weakly told horror books are also to blame for preferring the aesthetic over the semantic. Bottom line? The best way to not waste our time is to become literary people who try to find meaning in the manifold texts we encounter.
All that said, for goodness’ sake, pick up a book every once in a while. They are the original, intended semantic texts. They have a wealth to teach us.