There’s something hidden in the fact that Tom Bissell felt the need to add a preemptive author’s note to Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter which basically amounts to: “Five years from now, this book will probably serve best as a fossil.” There’s a known tension between old media and videogames. Television shows about games, or entire TV networks dedicated to gaming (RIP G4–we hardly knew ye) are notoriously big failures. Print gaming magazines are, at best, barely scrapping by or dependent on their web traffic to stay afloat. Books about games expect fossilization within five years. Yet somehow, despite an aversion to television, “lets play” videos dominate youtube. Gamers like Pewdiepie surpass any traditional celebrity or old media-related youtube channel, garnering over 12 million subscribers. Twitch.tv grows more and more popular everyday. Game writing, though originating in print magazine, has spawned a new beast of profitable gaming mega-websites, giving rise to an entire industry of journalism focused on online presence.
Like the emo teen boy and the emo teen girl, new media just gets games more. But why is that? Why would regularly scheduled television programming fail to capture the community’s attention, while 12 million viewers gladly watch one dude play for hours upon hours?
Well–and just hear me out for a second here–the transition from oral traditions into print culture might help us figure that out. It might even show us why mainstream society seems so incapable of understanding the value of games. So strap in, ’cause we’re about to get older than old school.
Seminal media studies analyst Marshall McLuhan claims that typography embedded an innate bias in our culture toward mediums that followed the uniformity, lineality, and continuity of print grammar. Books, films, magazines, and television all strictly adhere to the rigid structures demanded of writing–and as a result, our minds have been shaped by these predominant mediums.
In a cycle where new technologies (or mediums) manipulate us as much as we manipulate them (if not more), every person steeped in a print society suffers from what McLuhan calls the “typographical trance.” It renders us incapable of valuing oral cultures, due to their association with more “primitive” or less intellectual communications.
Another media studies analyst, Walter Ong, summarized these differences best in his book Writing Restructures Consciousness:
The distancing which writing effects develops a new kind of precision in verbalization by removing it from the rich but chaotic existential context of much oral utterance. Oral performances can be impressive in their magniloquence and communal wisdom, whether they are lengthy, as in formal narrative, or brief and apophthegmatic, as in proverbs. Yet wisdom has to do with a total and relatively infrangible social context. Orally managed language and thought are not noted for analytic precision.
Unlike orality, the physical act of writing and reading about an idea requires it to be removed from the spontaneity of life. Ideas in texts–even when performed through movies, theatrical performances, or TV–are bound by the stagnation of a page. There’s an inherent deadness to print-inspired mediums, because “written words are isolated from the fuller context in which spoken words come into being. The word in its natural, oral habitat is a part of a real, existential present.”
It’s interesting to view these differences through the assumptions we make about narrative in games. Tom Bissell says that, “the videogame form is incompatible with traditional concepts of narrative progression. Stories are about time passing and narrative progression. Games are about challenge, which frustrates the passing of time and impedes narrative progression.” It seems to me like Mr. Bissell has come down with a bad case of typographical-trance-initis. For one thing, if we’re really getting “traditional” here, narratives born in oral storytelling were categorically unconcerned with concepts of time and progression as we know them in narrative today. Orally told stories often jumped backwards and forwards in time, lacking linear or chronological (or even just plain logical) continuity. Some oral traditions even allowed for entire disruptions in the narrative, where storytellers would interject their own personal, improvised (often nonsensical) interludes. Oral narratives are entirely more concerned with connecting events in engaging, emotional ways to the listener. Their method centers around leaving a space for the crowd to add their own personal context and situation–like what venue is it, or in which country, and at what time? Oral storytelling, essentially, relies on the input of the teller/listener to deepen their immersion.
Now is that starting to sound like anything we know and love today?
But if you really want me to beat a dead horse, chew on this for a second too. On Bissell’s second point: concepts of “challenge” are integral to good, engaging oral narratives. What propeled legends and fairytales forward were all those lengthy bouts of challenges the hero had to face. That’s how just about anything happened in a story, really.
I won’t hound Tom Bissell for his biases, though, because you can’t blame the guy. It’s been a couple centuries since typographical trances permanently distorted our perception of what a “traditional narrative” should be like. We cannot perceive of a time before print grammar. But there are just too many striking resemblances between orality and new media–and videogames specifically. Like oral communication, internet interactions are essentially ephemeral. Whether they are documented or not, interactions are inevitably lost to the tide of perpetual content. Wikipedia, criticized by all typographically-entranced academics, might be viewed as our entire species’ collection of “communal knowledge.” Like Ong’s description of orality, the internet is a chaotic and often existential place, built on the rich contexts of each user contributing to it.
Great games tend to rely on the often awe-inspiring sensation of just living inside their worlds. Just like great legends are born out of the collective context of a specific time and place. That is their greatest power–the overarching “narrative” is the chaotic, spontaneous experience of living itself. Like oral cultures, game narratives often have several different iterations, adapting to player-specific decisions and events (coughcough Walking Dead)–just like the variations in fairytales and legends adapted to whatever was needed from that specific culture telling it at that time.
Tom Bissell should feel self-conscious about the shelf-life of his book. Because the analysis contained within a book on games, no matter how well-crafted or insightful, can only speak to the precise and static context it created for itself. And sure enough, Tom Bissell now says that rereading Extra Lives is humiliating. His predictions–while logical within the parameters of the book–could not account for the chaotic richness of a medium like games. Because game systems (and game makers) are always in conversation with one another. Typographical mediums can, at best, take a snapshot of that conversation. But meanwhile–as the publishing company furiously drafts, edits, redrafts, re-edits, markets, and then finally prints the book–that conversation has already moved onto far better things.
In Bissell’s much more eloquent words, writing for and about games might sometimes feel like “writing your legacy in water.” But maybe that’s because we’re still trying to understand games through things like writing. And that’s a disservice to what makes games so special. We need new media to fully appreciate the capacity of a game; something that emulates the dynamic nature of the art form.
I think it’s time to put old media, with all that arrogance, in its proper place. You might think you’re the bees knees, old media, for all your “analytic precision.” You might think this makes you better than new media. But in the meantime, no one’s saying “bees knees” anymore and you’re still trying to analyze how popular colloquial phrases like “bees knees” have an origin in biblical proverbs–or something like that. I’m not saying “let’s give up print culture.” Because that’s just impossible, or at least improbable. But let’s try not mixing our apples and oranges as much, yeah? Let videogames speak their own language. The language they deserve.
LET’S TRY GETTING ORAL ABOUT IT, OLD MEDIA!