Sonic the Hedgehog vs. Dostoevsky?

July 18, 2011

I just finished reading a fantastic article: Christine Rosen’s People of the Screen, published in The New Atlantis (“A Journal of Technology and Society”) in 2008. There’s lots I could say about it, but I’m going to focus on the argument that Rosen refutes about video games. Jay Parini, a writer who teaches English at Middlebury College, is quoted in the article as follows:

I wouldn’t be surprised if, in ten or twenty years, video games are creating fictional universes which are every bit as complex as the world of fiction of Dickens or Dostoevsky.

For a thorough debunking of the “video games are superior to novels” argument, I only need refer you back to the article, and it has my complete endorsement. But for now, I’ll play with the idea that maybe video games do have something to offer in the sense that Parini suggests, even though I find the hubris with which their superiority is suggested to be patently absurd.

Another caveat: my video game playing experience is not exactly typical of my generation nor of the slightly younger one now glued to their XBoxes, but I do like video games.

Here’s how I played them. I started off playing computer games on my family’s Amiga (an amazing personal computer that was ahead of its time), but I wanted a console system, too. My parents wouldn’t buy it for me, so I saved up and bought one myself. It was such a momentous occasion that I can still remember the date: June 19, 1994. That was the day I emptied out my bank and headed to Toys R Us to buy my Sega Genesis.

The rest of that summer, I spent 2 hours first thing every morning playing all the way through Sonic the Hedgehog 2, up to the very last boss, a giant Robotnik (that was the villain of the game) who I couldn’t quite beat until a few years later. But I kept playing. I got so I could beat the first of the Special Stages with my eyes closed. Pretty impressive, or pretty scary, depending on your values.

What I meant by my earlier caveat is this: most kids don’t feel the need to play the same video game over and over and over.1 But I did. And I liked doing so.

I have thought a bit about this over the years. I favored Sonic over Mario, Nintendo’s plumber mascot, because of the faster pace of the games. Zipping through those loop-de-loops was exhilarating, even if I’d done the same thing 938 times before. I liked the colorful, diverse settings of the different zones through which you raced, and the catchy soundtracks. So maybe this is evidence of the idea that we want things to be faster-paced and more stimulating.

But probing a little deeper, I think that exactly the opposite was true for me. I think that, eventually, I was playing games I’d memorized because it was a way to zone out — to get to that still space that connected, engaging, electronically enhanced books and the Dickensian video games that are supposed to replace them mean to help us avoid. I thought of friends who have taken their knitting needles to college classes or even to staff meetings, and I wonder if the same thing is going on for them. Perhaps a bare minimum of mental activity satisfies the basic demand for stimulation, leaving higher cognitive processes to flourish. (I would like to note that for someone just learning to knit or for someone playing a video game they haven’t memorized and actually want to beat, this would not work. One of my knitting friends had special permission to knit in class while others had no such license, because the professor knew my friend paid attention while knitting.)

I also noted that my most prolific creative years thus far (not that I’m old or anything) were the same years that I spent hours in the morning plugged in to my Sega Genesis. This likely is because in middle and high school, I had more free time (combined with by-then-adequately-developed writing skills) than I have had since. But I think it might also have something to do with the fact — and I remember sitting there thinking these things — that playing Sonic games for the gazillionth time gave me just the right level of stimulus/distraction, without any further cognitive demands (except maybe for the occasional boss fight), to let me otherwise ruminate on storylines and other creative projects.

In short: my Sega Genesis was, for me, a contemplation space.

Like I said, I think I’m a little bit of a freak this way, and maybe this is why I’m the one out there writing a policy proposal about creating more contemplation spaces. I haven’t played many video games since the 32-bit console generation passed because they don’t suit that purpose anymore. (Ugh, get that narration out of my Sonic games. Sonic isn’t supposed to talk; he’s just supposed to run around and collect rings!)

But let’s consider now the idea of video games that follow in the footsteps of Dickens and Dostoevsky, as Jan Parini has suggested, and as James Paul Gee of the Games, Learning, and Society group of the University of Wisconsin – Madison also praised in the article with which I began.

Could a story as deep as, say, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, but with user-driven unfolding complexity, grab the attention of a bibliophobic generation raised on video games?

I obviously haven’t done a study, but I’m inclined to be pessimistic. I’ve played a total of two RPGs (role playing games) in my day. They weren’t really my thing, but I understand the appeal they have for my friends who were active fans of the RPG genre.

But when it comes to really deep thoughts, is a video game player — someone in the mindset of actively trying to advance a plot — ready to sit patiently and read/listen to Ivan Karamazov opining on the existence of God in a world of suffering?

So I here I come to two divergent trains of thought that you’ve no doubt heard before:

1. Maybe Ivan rambles on way too long and he loses too many people, so if he were stuck in a video game with only a few screens to make his point, maybe he’d have to be a bit more pithy and would reach more people.

Or:

2. Even if some might argue that it could have used a tighter editor, you can’t get what is worth getting out of The Brothers Karamazov without the patience to listen fully to Ivan and Alyosha’s dialogue.

I don’t know; TBK is ultimately a courtroom drama, and I’ve heard that those can make popular video games.

And maybe I would play a video game where I had to sit there for screens and screens of Vanya ranting, but we’ve already established that I’m not a typical video game player.

So, I would wager that we’re not going to see Dickens and Dostoevsky coming soon to a PlayStation near you. To make them work there would take the essentially the same effort that encouraging kids to pick up those authors’ works in the first place would take. They would only be interested for those few moments when what you’re offering still looks on its surface like the video games they like; but you’re not going to fool them for long. It’s the same reason people who read Harry Potter don’t necessarily read the classics.

It’s patience and space for pondering that we’re losing. Trying to package it into a hip and trendy medium isn’t going to save that. So hey, go ahead and make the great American game-novel, and I’d try it out. Someone would probably play it. But it’s a digression from the real question at the heart of the war between books and video games.

Screen time vs. page time has more to do with the types of thought involved. Page time, as we’ve traditionally seen it, is usually more conducive to deep thought, though as I have demonstrated, in weird, twisted ways, video games can help with deep thought. I’m just not convinced that this use of the medium is obvious to or even seen as desirable by most players.

My main thesis here is to say that I think video games are fine and it’s great if someone wants to try to write classic literature using them. But what we see “video games” to represent, and what makes old-school education advocates disdain them, is that they don’t promote contemplative thought. A video game that tries to would be great, but it faces the same uphill battle that books face, and anyone who thinks Dickens-as-RPG will address this is missing the bigger problem.

And this is not my main thesis, but I also want to ad: I firmly believe that playing Sonic did help me as a writer to some extent. But on balance, I do wish that, in high school, I had played a little less Sonic and read a little more Dostoevsky. I think my stories now would be richer and deeper. As always, it comes down to a question of getting the balance right.

  1. (I did occasionally play other games. Mostly they were Sonic 1, Sonic 3, Sonic and Knuckles, and Sonic Spinball, but occasionally I played spinoffs of Disney movies and the Animaniacs cartoon show. I also loved all the Sim games, Lemmings, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? But I always put those games in a separate mental category from what I referred to as “playing Sonic,” a category which did include the Disney games.)
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