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Are Video Games Like Novels?

Ashawnta Jackson

Are video games like novels? Maybe not exactly, but as literature scholar Eric Hayot asserts, “any understanding of video games that does not include the novel … will necessarily be incomplete.” Video games are influenced by more traditional forms of storytelling, but also influence storytelling back. And tracing their history uncovers some unusual ways that video games have played with conventional ideas of fiction.

Early research on video games tended to underscore their differences from traditional narrative. Hayot writes that “games were so different from novels, films, or drama that anyone seeking to simply slot them into that longer aesthetic history would be effectively attempting to ‘colonize’ a new medium.” And this was coming from those who championed gaming. Maybe that was true for games like Tetris or Super Mario Brothers where the “kinesthetic and interactive structures,” i.e. the running, jumping, and spinning were the main point. But like any other medium, it’s difficult to place them all into a single box, or to give them all a similar definition. As Hayot points out, “Plenty of video games involve stories, enough that attempting to think about what games do or are, culturally speaking, without any sense of how storytelling works would be a pretty odd thing to do.”

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Read Eric Hayot’s complete essay, Video Games & the Novel, in the Winter 2021 issue of Dædalus “On the Novel.”

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