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Games as Lit I: Playing with Beautiful Significance


This is the blog of Larcenous Designs, LLC, through which I (Nathan Rockwood) will be publishing thoughts and ramblings related to my business' projects, which may include anything related to games, game design, and the use of gaming in education. 

Comments will be moderated without mercy.

Games as Lit I: Playing with Beautiful Significance

Nathan Rockwood

This is the first part of an ongoing series about teaching games--both video games and tabletop role playing games--as literature.

We should teach games the same way we teach books: as literature.

Yes, seriously. Games as Lit. Bear with me here.

I have taught 9th and 12th grade English for some time now. I’ve taught  inclusion, honors, and Advanced Placement level courses. It should be unsurprising that I have Opinions on the subject of what should be taught in “literature” classes. But what exactly is literature? This is a long-running debate, and it doesn’t help that commonly referenced dictionaries all include multiple, un-helpful definitions of the term ‘literature.’ Paraphrased, these definitions range from ‘all written texts’ to ‘written works of particular merit.’

That last bit, that value-judgement, is the piece that teachers and readers and writers have been arguing about for quite some time. When we say that we teach texts with ‘literary merit,’ those reassuring syllables convey no actual, objective fact, since the concept of ‘merit’ will vary between people, places, and eras. If you read critical literary theory, you might have heard this definition of literature called ‘culturally relative.’

Put more simply, what works for you won’t necessarily work for others, now or in the future. There’s a reason for all those jokes about the literary canon being just a bunch of dead white guys. Their standards were the ones by which they judged the literary merit of English texts, and so the standards and ideals of my white, European, English speaking ancestors became enshrined in academia as if they were universal cultural norms. Which they are not, and never have been. It would be absurd to believe that only white males had written things for hundreds of years, and yet even now that narrative continues in the form of the carefully selected ‘literature’ we’re allowed to teach in schools.

The fact that this stagnation has gone on for so long has, at least, led to it being treated with the negative attention it deserves, but it still hasn’t been fixed. We know the problem, but we can’t seem to solve it. We know that 70% of high school dropouts feel unmotivated and uninspired by school, and yet we still struggle to update the texts we teach. Whether that struggle is to admit the problem exists at all, or to get our school systems to approve new materials--especially those by women or people of color--we carry on, fighting a battle that should have been won decades ago.

The cognitive dissonance required to acknowledge the impact of an author’s culture on their work while simultaneously pretending that everyone is a white dude isn’t a new problem. In 1918, in A History of English Literature, Robert Huntington Fletcher acknowledged that consideration of an author’s era and culture was critical to understanding their work--in fact, that the entire history of their culture was a vital component--and yet Fletcher remained committed to restricting the title of literature to works of “permanent significance and beauty.” But if we’re using only the critic’s cultural standards for significance and beauty, that brings us back around to the start of our little ouroboros, and we swallow our own tail.

However, while it should by now be apparent that I think the literary canon of English academia is imperfect in its breadth and depth, that doesn’t mean I think it needs to be scrapped entirely. I just think this particular canon is in need of a little calibration. We can fix this problem, and help that poor, tail-devouring snake stop choking on itself.

Rather than rely on what others--in the past, in one particular culture--judged to have merit, we need to embrace the idea that literature is what we, here and now, find to have “significance and beauty.”

Once we admit that those qualities are fleeting, relative, and still valid, we will have access to a new and ever-evolving chronicle of our planet’s art, at a time when our students can still connect with and appreciate it.

That covers what I hold to be a working understanding of literature. Next, I’ll make my case for the literary potential of games, in the post Games as Lit II: Unanswered Questions. If you have any suggestions or comments, I’m happy to hear them, but please note my standard comment policy.