Growing up, I had many friends whose parents did not want them playing video games. I am thankful that my parents made no such rules. Admittedly, the many hours my brother and I poured into Radical Psycho Machine Racing (1991) represents a significant portion of my childhood that I will never get back–but it was also a supremely good time that niether he nor I will ever forget. RPM Racing aside, the formative effect of video games upon me, and their contribution to my current love of literature and art has been monumental.
By the time I was 11 I had journeyed to distant countries to take in opera, experienced the Shakespearean witches’ incantation, and killed more than my share of basilisks, chimeras, lamias, and gorgons. From whence came all these cultured experiences? The Super Nintendo Entertainment System.
I am currently a high school English teacher, with a Master’s degree in English Literature, and a couple of published scholarly essays to my name. Why did I ever get into literature? It certainly wasn’t because I had a natural love of reading. My first literary experiences were the cinematic sequences of Nintendo and Super Nintendo Role Playing Games. As a teenager I did not read for fun. But then, one day, after completing Final Fantasy IX, I found myself longing for more fantasy fiction so I made a trip to my local library, and thus a lifelong reader was born.
In grade 12, I had a theory that literature had to be unduly vapid, and punctiliously verbose to qualify as “Literature.” I believed “Classics” were academia’s way of putting the rest of us in our place. Read this, they would say, if you understand it you can pass English class, and if you pretend to enjoy it you can join our ranks. But this all changed in grade 12, when I was first introduced to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. As I read this poem, I realized I had already experienced many of its tropes and plot elements—in a video game. I had already walked the decks of that skeletal ship and lived through the attendant loneliness. I had already stood among Gustave Dore’s engravings of the poem, and I had done all of this when, at 13, I played through Illusion of Gaia (1994) for the Super Nintendo. I first encountered Shakespeare’s weird sisters in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991). I was enchanted by opera because I had attended one in Final Fantasy VI (1994). I early developed a love of Monet because, while still a teenager, I had lived inside an impressionist painting (The Temporal Vortex in Chrono Cross ).
I can also thank video games for my early metaphysical bent. By the time I was twenty, I had questioned the meaning of existence more times than I care to count—Square-Enix’ Soul Blazer (1992) , Secret of Mana (1993), Chrono Trigger (1995), and the entire Final Fantasy series’ account for much of this. I may not have known the words teleology, ontology, or existentialism yet, but I had already asked the major questions associated with these branches of philosophy.
All of this is not to say that we should stick controllers in the hands of the next generation and hope for the best. Certainly, not all games are created equal. This is why I have always loved Role Playing Games (that genre that prized character and story when all others eschewed them). Don’t get me wrong, I love other games too. I have played more than 1200 competitive games of StarCraft II, and I was ranked in the top 400 East Coast Warcraft III players for a long time. But, I would not argue that these experiences did anything to make me a better person.
Literature has the power to transform us. By experiencing other places, times, and personalities, I believe that we actually can become more thoughtful, tolerant, and understanding people. Today, many genres are using story in the way that only RPGs used to. My challenge, is that as much as we might enjoy our endless matches of StarCraft, League of Legends, or Call of Duty, that we alsotake some time to enjoy video games as literature—to experience the story of someone other than ourselves and, hopefully, to enlarge our own understandings and sympathies as a result.