Video Game Literacy

In his 2009 speech at Dartmouth, Jesper Juul argued that the list of games people choose to play is itself a form of self-expression. His “video game literacy” really does exist. People read, experience and cite games like they do printed text. Yet we don’t consider gamers to be ‘well-read’ just quite yet.


Why we don’t spend more time playing games? Why is experiencing games viewed as less beneficial than spending the same amount of time reading a book?

For many reasons. I think that the graphic nature of virtual games, games that hand visualizations directly to the reader, make “reading” a bit easier; players don’t have to imagine anything, and rarely have time to apply what they are visualizing to their real lives. The frantic pace of most digital play leaves little room or time for reflection.

Then again, games make you do things. Especially in multiplayer situations, games push readers to react, plan, and strategize on-the-fly. It’s perhaps a kind of mental exercise that we have yet to fully appreciate. I believe that a certain section of my mind has benefited from hours of digital play.

But personally, I think textual literature is an inherently, appropriately disembodied experience; readers are led to imagine a situation outside of themselves.

Yet game literature need not be as equally disembodied. The same real-time responses and motivations could be cultivated in physical games (modified sports, paintball, LARPing). Much of our culture’s play has become unnecessarily disembodied.


THEN AGAIN, some video game experiences place readers in situations that they could never experience in the real world. The command of armies, the flight of a flower petal… these would be impossible to experience with our physical bodies.

But we could imagine them…

So we should look at video game literacy, at the games that people decide to play. Are people playing games simply to replace physical activities, or are they taking steps to experience situations outside of their possible frame of experience? Do they read deep, thought provoking works, or commercial garbage?

I play Smash Brothers, Age of Conan and Left 4 Dead right now, co-op games that require in-the-moment combat skills. What does this say about me? I dunno, but it says something. People who play those games might understand what that something is…The question remains…. unless you’ve played them, you can’t comment? (Feels kind of like a book club.)

What games do you play? What should you be playing? Why don’t you? We need to get past social stigmas against play so that our society can more appropriately comment on, and reward, truly inspired works of interactive art.