What writers can learn from video games

When I was kid, books were the de facto choice for escaping the perfunctory clutches of reality. There were comics, and of course there was television, but books offered the most immersive, the most exciting, and the most varied opportunities to broaden a child’s horizons. Although there were times when I didn’t have a book in my hands, they acted as such an excellent catalyst to my imagination, the most important part of each day was settling down to a book and visiting places I’d have never dreamed about.

Although video games were around, they were new, and they were very basic. They might have been fun, but books were the only sure thing if you wanted to exercise your imagination. Video games were also highly distrusted. Everyone knew they were a waste of time, they rotted the brain, and would make you a violent degenerate. While reading books was never cool, playing video games was the bete noire of coolness. If the science fiction and fantasy books I chewed my way through were low culture, then video games were too low to make it onto the radar. Video games were about as tasteful as incest, and as cultural as a peep show.

But times change, tastes evolve, and the march of technology is as inclusive as it is indomitable. Today video games are everywhere. From kids on their consoles and tablets, to commuters on their phones, video games are not only ubiquitous, but they’ve become gender neutral, as well as becoming one of the biggest global cultural phenomenona since bread and circuses.

Of course, there are a lot of similarities between books and video games, and while the video game market is an infant when compared to the mature book market, its often struck me that if writers want align themselves with contemporary cultural tastes, then there’s an important lesson they can learn from video games.

All writers know the golden rule to getting published is to have an audience. If your book fits into a popular genre then it’s got a chance of appealing to a wide audience, a pretty much is essential  precursor before publishers will show the remotest bit of interest in publishing a book.

However, while producing video games has precisely the same audience requirement, there are many writers who write for the pure pleasure of putting words on pages, and in that regard the video games industry is quite different. Unlike books it’s unheard of for video games to be created without a clear route to market, and a carefully designed sales channel. Since creating all but the most basic video games requires multiple skills and therefore individuals to complete, this heightened commerciality might be necessitated by the team dynamics required to create a game. Nonetheless, the most important aspect of this focus on the audience, is that the player is at the heart of many decisions made when making a video game: a game without a player is, at best, a half-formed thing.

The obvious lesson for writers is that—no matter what our general motivation for writing—we should bring the reader into the design, writing, and editing process at every opportunity possible. While it’s often tempting to abstract away the reader from the writing process, choosing an audience isn’t just a matter of settling on a genre and following the appropriate principles and themes, it’s about thinking of and considering the reader at every opportunity possible.

As writers we might tend to think of the end product as being our writing itself, but that’s to mistake the medium with the product. Our final product is no more our words than it is the paper or screen they’re written on. The product of writing is actually the experiences and thoughts we generate in the minds of our readers. While that doesn’t mean we actually have to write for anyone other than ourselves, what it does mean is we should think of the reader at every step of the way. Just like video game artists, writers are only responsible for creating half the story, a catalyst for our audience’s imagination. And the most important lesson writers can take from video games  is that it’s in our audiences’ mind where the real action takes place, transforming our meagre words into something magical that keeps them coming back for more.

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Author: Mark J Easton

Writer and technologist from England, with tastes for the eclectic and for the esoteric.

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