Books have survived the coming of film, TV and rock'n'roll... and tomorrow's novels can only be enriched by the likes of Grand Theft Auto.
The rock’n’roll generation’s era lasted from Heartbreak Hotel to the death of Steve Jobs (an ex-counterculture dropout whose whole ethos was informed by rock’n’roll, and a love of Dylan and the Beatles, among others). Music was important to us, it was how we defined ourselves and it was what made us different to our parents, who felt alienated by its loudness, nihilism, hedonism and anti-authoritarian stance.
But now all that has come to an end. My kids can’t annoy me by playing loud music – I’m more likely to annoy them by saying that it’s all been done before, and isn’t really any different to the stuff I was listening to when I was their age. Modern music is one huge buffet from which modern kids can pick and choose any bits they like from the past 50 years. Everything is accessible and nothing is fresh. Music just isn’t that important any more – or so it seems.
Instead my kids are part of the digital generation, born to the bip-bip-bip of Space Invaders and 80s electro-pop. Their world revolves around the microchip. If you buy a new computer, you can take it out of its box, plug it in and instantly you are sitting there, like Captain Kirk, at the helm of an enormously powerful machine that can take you anywhere in the universe. A modern computer can be your office, your communications device, your reference library, you can listen to music on it, you can make music on it … and, of course, you can play games.
To my kids, computer games are the most important thing in the world. In the same way that we might have waited for the new Rolling Stones album or the latest Clash single, my kids now wait expectantly for the new Fifa simulation, or the latest Gears Of War, and the amount of time they put into playing these games is terrifying to someone of my generation.
That’s the important part, though. That is how they’ve rebelled. It is the thing they do that I did not do when I was their age. I do play a lot of games, but gaming has not completely taken over my life.
For my boys, games are more important than TV, films, music and books. Because, of course, games incorporate all of those elements so comprehensively and so seductively.
OK, I must stop now and confess that I have no daughters. Maybe girls are different? I know games aren’t such a big part of their world (although the biggest selling and most popular games of all time, such as The Sims and FarmVille, are those that appeal to girls more than boys). And speaking purely subjectively, my wife is obsessed by Angry Birds and Tiny Wings. Games are not going to go away, they are simply going to become more immersive, more beguiling and more time-devouring. They are taking over. So I was delighted when they asked me to be a judge for the new GameCity prize.
GameCity is a computer games festival held annually in Nottingham, and the prize is the first major one of its type. The idea is to lift games out of the hands of the nerds and industry insiders and award them the cultural status of music, films or books. The aim is partly to find a way of talking about games, to find a language to stand alongside the languages of film or literary criticism, but it is also to make games respectable and accessible to the wider non-games-playing public.
The range of judges, including musician Nitin Sawhney, actress Frances Barber and Labour MP Tom Watson, reflected this ideal, coming as we did from the fields of music, literature, theatre, academia, politics and journalism. What we were asked to do was find a game that you could show to someone who had never played anything before and say: “Look at this: this is what you’ve been missing out on, this is what games are capable of.”
It was an interesting selection as the shortlist had been compiled from suggestions by the industry itself, and was perhaps aimed too much at games nerds. It was interesting that none of the mega-blockbuster franchises were on the list. There was no Grand Theft Auto, or Halo, or Red Dead Redemption, no Assassin’s Creed or Call Of Duty (in some cases because they didn’t fit into the prize timeframe). It was a shame that there were no RPGs (role-playing games) with stories to tell and huge intricate worlds to explore – nothing like LA Noire to really show the novice gamers just what modern games are capable of. There was a feeling that the industry insiders who had made the list were perhaps trying too hard to be clever.
In the end we gave the prize to Minecraft, a world-building game that is as simple or as complex as you want to make it. It seemed to fulfil the criteria of a game that you would want to keep coming back to. It’s creative, immersive, neatly designed (everything is a cube) and will be fondly remembered for a very long time. It’s a game you get obsessed by and end up playing in your sleep, chopping down trees, mining resources, creating blocks, moving blocks, building blocky castles, avoiding Creepers. In truth it’s perhaps not so much a game as a creative resource and as it’s played in your web browser the graphics are not hugely complex. But, for me, that was part of its appeal. I hate games that use beautiful and elaborate visuals to try to distract from the fact that the gameplay is actually pretty rubbish. I would much rather a game plays well but doesn’t necessarily look amazing (though the best games do both).
As an author who also plays games, and the father of three boys who read books and play games, I often get asked whether I think games will kill off the novel, and the answer is no, of course they won’t. Books have survived the coming of films and TV, rock’n’roll and sudoku, and they will survive the coming of computer games. But they will be influenced by them, just as all those other media had their own impact and influence on books and, let’s not forget, were hugely influenced by them.
The best games have taken stuff from books (where would computer games be without Tolkien, for instance?) and any novelist worth their salt should be taking stuff from games. What you don’t want are books that slavishly replicate the experience of playing a game because, well, why not just go and play a game instead? In the same way, you don’t want a game that gets bogged down with interminable cut-scenes and has only one, very rigid, way of being played. There are cleverer and more elegant ways of designing them, as demonstrated by the brilliant GTA series.
I am fully aware that if I write a book for kids, however, I am competing for their time and attention with computer games. I know that my books have to give young readers the same kick they get out of playing Call Of Duty: Black Ops in zombie mode. So they are as full of action and adventure, bloodshed and zombies as any Xbox game, but they also do the one thing that games cannot do – they put you inside the minds of characters so that you can understand how they think and feel.
That’s the essential difference between books and games. Games create worlds for you to play about in. The best of them are about you, the player. You are either God, in control of everything, or you are a grunt on the battlefields of the second world war, desperately fighting to stay alive. The best books are the ones that are about other people. Novels get inside people in a way that no other medium can. Reading, whether it’s from the pages of a book or the screen of a Kindle, is a very intimate, private and immersive experience, utterly different to any other medium. And that is why we will always read. And when we are not reading, we will play games.
© Charlie Higson, October 2011
Charlie Higson was on the judging panel for the inaugural GameCity prize, a new arts award for video games. The Fear, the latest in his zombie adventure series for teens, is published by Puffin