Play On: A Defence of Video Games

When I hear other writers holding forth in intellectual debate, I’ve always wished I could be like them. Unfortunately, I’m just not the type who feels comfortable taking issue with, well, anything. I can only think I was raised to be too polite for my own good, but there have been times when I wish I had spoken up.

A case in point occurred at a book festival a few years ago. I was on a panel with a well-respected novelist who was asked for her opinion of video games. I sat there quietly while she dismissed them out of hand - describing the entire medium as a corrupting influence on young people – to much head-nodding among the audience. Frankly, I was too embarrassed to admit that I’ve always spent as much time in front of the Xbox as I have with my nose in a book. Still, I felt like a fraud, but nodded sagely like everyone else.

Matt WhymanI wish I hadn’t, because that moment has stayed with me. Every time I’m invited to talk in schools, I ask for hands up if anyone has read a book in the last week (a fair few), or watched a film (a lot more)… or played a videogame (boom!). By the time the chatter has subsided, I go on to ask what games everyone has played. I’m not only addressing every single boy in the room. Girls can be just as passionate, or well aware of how their classmates spend their spare time. As a rule, most young people have a total disregard for the age ratings. Games such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty always rank highly as the titles of choice. Now, I'm not here to pass judgement on whether parents have paid any attention to the content. What interests me is that the majority of young people are intimately familiar with the storyline. Whatever game we run with, I ask them to tell me about the main character. Where do we find them, for example, and what is their ultimate goal? Then I want to know what happens to their hero or heroine along the way. Do they forge friendships, make enemies and take on challenges in order to acquire skills (and often firepower)?  And when the dust has settled, what has their adventure taught them about the world - and about themselves?

The parallels between books and gaming

Teasing out answers in this situation really isn’t difficult. Even if they've chosen a gentle, pastoral game like Minecraft, it’s still possible to identify aims and objectives. I could even leave the classroom and everyone would continue to chatter enthusiastically about the subject. Why? Because young people are wholly connected to the games they play. What they may not realise, however, is that they’re also immersed in a narrative – much as we’d like them to be with books.

Ultimately, if games provide a stepping stone for some then it should be embraced.

So, when I stop the conversation and compare CJ's ambitions in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to those of Ulysses in Homer’s The Odyssey, or suggest that Mason's brief in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is remarkably similar to Dorothy's adventures in Oz, the response begins with gasps of horror (and embarrassment) and finishes with a recognition that we've effectively been discussing classic storytelling principles. We can be talking about literature, movies or games – from The Hunger Games to Star Wars and Tomb Raider, they all call upon the same elements.

Making the move to reading

Now, I'm not suggesting for a moment that videogames offer a superior narrative experience to literature or cinema. It's more immediate, perhaps, and more annoying if you're in the same room (and trying to read a novel), but behind every flash bang grenade or carjacking is a hero on a quest against all odds. Once we've made this connection it's far easier to encourage our young gamers to put down the controller and pick up a book - especially those that address similar themes - and explore them in a much deeper way. I don't see it as an either/or scenario. Everyone follows different paths through reading, after all. Ultimately, if games provide a stepping stone for some then it should be embraced. What's more, as a writer of teen fiction, I believe it's my job to be as familiar with the medium as the intended audience. I'm competing for their time and attention, after all. At least that's how I pitch it to my wife when she comes home from work, puts her hand on the top of the Xbox, and finds it to be warm. 

Check out Matt's top books to read after playing video games in this blog.

To watch Matt answer teens' questions on writing, check out this video. We have teaching resources available to help you explore Matt's book The Savages, a deliciously macabre tale which has received widespread acclaim.

Matt Whyman

Matt is a best selling author and resident agony uncle for both Bliss Magazine and BBC Radio 1's The Surgery with Aled. Writing for both adults and young adults. His previous young adult books have been shortlisted for various awards and his newest book The Savages has received widespread praise - being described by The Guardian as 'a dark-hearted comedy of family life.'