Video Games and Literature

I was sitting, thinking about what to write for my blog post, and watching some friends play video games when it hits me. Video games. Why not video games? Are video games really that far off from digital stories and literature?

(image source)

Video Games as Narratives

I’ll just go ahead and get one thing out in the open now. I am not an avid gamer, but I am a lover of stories. The video games that draw me in and keep me playing are centered on stories that I love. Let’s take a look at the latest Zelda trailer, one of my favorites.


In the trailer we are introduced to a relationship between characters including Link and Zelda. We can infer their friendship from how they interact. The trailer reveals Link’s call to adventure to rescue the fair maiden Zelda and some of the hardships he will encounter along the way. In short, the trailer is telling us about the story we will enter as we play the game. The trailer is even focusing more on the story than actual game play.

I already feel rather convinced that some (although admittedly not all, such as my much played Tetris) games center around rich stories, so let’s take a look at their characters and storyworlds, both components of literature.

The Characters

Many video games, not unlike literature, center on their characters. Strong video game characters have unique physical traits, personalities and relationships that help shape the story within the game. Characters can be organized into heroes and villains. We can question their motives in good and evil and interactions with each other. We can choose to like or dislike these characters through our analyses. Some games even allow for the player to choose who they will play on allowing the player to analyze the character and choose who best suits their personal needs as a player. Often times, players are directly placed into the role of managing one or more specific characters. Players must have properly analyzed the characters strengths, weaknesses and relationships to succeed in their roles and even survive within the game.

The Storyworld

One important part of experiencing literature is the ability to enter the storyworld. Successful video game narratives require rich storyworlds to function. Rich maps are a key feature I look for when considering playing a video game. In “reading” the story setting of a game, the player is not only learning how the new world operates and is laid out but also how he/she must interact within that world to survive and succeed. Video games can be a full immersion experience.

Creating the Narrative While Gaming

What really takes video games a step beyond literature is the interactive component. As previously stated, a player must have sufficient knowledge of the characters and storyworld to succeed and survive.

However, video games also provide options to shape the narratives in various ways. A player may become involved in various subplots, choose one path or decision over another as they steer their way through the narrative. Jason Ohler briefly addresses games in the chapter “Other Kinds of Stories” in the section “Gaming and New Narrative Possibilities” (Ohler 167-168). Ohler focuses on how video games interact as narratives and provides a link to help define the different types of narratives in games. If you are not already familiar with various video game narrative forms, I recommend viewing the Prezi provided on the link. There are a myriad of unique ways a game narrative can unfold and engage players with the story.

Ohler, Jason B. Digital Storytelling in the Classroom: New Media Pathways to Literacy, Learning, and Creativity. Second ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2013. Print.

Literature Reimagined as Video Games

Fans of the Walking Dead comics and television series can put themselves in the Walking Dead storyworld through the video game series. In the Walking Dead video games, “players are forced to confront tough moral choices. Players have to decide, for instance, whether a former history professor named Lee Everett should abandon a character named Lilly to die” (source). Players aren’t only analyzing the games characters, but their own morals and how the particular story world complicates them.

Walking Dead isn’t the only literature to cross over into interactive game play. Video game Dante’s Inferno is based off of course The Divine Comedy. In fact, “when the Dante’s Inferno video game was released in 2010, it caused several editions of The Divine Comedy to shoot up Amazon’s sales charts” (source).

Direct interaction within storyworlds and experiencing the roles of characters directly can change how readers interact with the literature the game was spawned from.

In the English Classroom

Video games are a rapidly consumed and popular form of media among both adults and young students. As a form of story, I can see a place in the English classroom for analysis of video game characters and storyworlds that already interest students. Game narratives can be broken down into story maps and story boards and students can locate the calls to adventure, conflicts and tensions, and possible resolution for the games. Literature and the video games they inspire can be compared and contrasted. Students can live out the complications of decision making and morals in worlds varying from their own.

Here is a website that offers various suggestions for using video games as an instructional tool in the classroom. I appreciate the suggestion of video games as entry points and the example on tone provided.

Another website provides more ideas. I am particularly drawn to suggestion number five in which students can reimagine video games as literature of film.

Can you see the possibility of video games in your English classroom?

As previously mentioned, I am not a gamer but a lover of stories. Please, share with me the video games you love and how they relate to storytelling and literature.


– Sarah Lambach

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6 Responses to Video Games and Literature

  1. ptdinardi says:

    I, like you, am not an avid video game player. However when I was younger I spent many hours on the Gameboy, GameCube, or computer. My brother Connor, who is a year younger than me, and I would marathon games for the entirety of a weekend. Pokémon, Luigi’s Mansion, and Civilization were all games that we played and that, after your post, I realize have really rich stories. Your post made me realize how engaged we were in the narrative of the story and not solely the engagement of the technology.

    This post also made me think about my youngest brother Boston who is 15. He is an avid video gamer. He is so involved that he regularly reads discussion boards, blogs, and books about his games. I have overheard him and his friends using a unique vocabulary devoted to the games they play. When you mentioned the idea of storymapping the narrative of video game I immediately thought of Boston. I can only imagine how much he would enjoy being able to bring his knowledge of his games and apply it in this format. I think incorporating student knowledge and interest of video games in the classroom is a great idea.

  2. marybethlillian says:

    Video games have never been my cup of tea, and I have always been intimidated by the idea of incorporating video games into the English classroom. The extent of my gaming was probably this past summer, when I broke out the Super Nintendo and powered through days on end of Super Mario World. While there is not a ton of character development in Mario, there is some. The greater story line involves destroying Bowser, the antagonist, and his pesky castles. Yoshi (the…dinosaur?) is given a bit of characterization, but not much. Mario and Luigi are honestly pretty much the exact same character. But the game is fun in the middle of summer when you are sick on the couch for weeks!

    I would be hesitant to teach video games in my classroom, just because I am so out of touch with them. I know most of my students would know so much more about them than I do — not that I couldn’t learn, or even learn from them. I have a lot of trouble grasping the idea and world of video games. They go over my head in concept and interest.

    I think about what my response would have been if my teacher had tried to incorporate video games in a high school English class. I would have hated it. I have remained in a pretty consistent “I hate all things video game” state throughout my life. So, I would have instantly checked out of a video game lesson in class. I know you cannot, as a teacher, cater to every student’s interest, and it might have been good for me to stretch my horizons. I just sympathize with those who don’t really enjoy engaging in video games, and I feel that I don’t know enough to teach them.

  3. kmoleson says:

    I love everything about this topic that you chose. I too was not much of a gamer, however, my older brothers were always playing something. We had nearly every Nintendo game you could think of and there were certain occasions that I would play with them. I remember my favorite games were Mortal Combat, Zelda, and Banjo-Kazooie. I especially loved Banjo-Kazooie because of the storyline behind it and it involved a witch and I am into creepy stuff like that, so it made sense that I liked the one with a witch. I think that there are a lot of things you can learn about the storyworld through videogames and I think a good way to get students involved with creating stories would be through a videogame, considering how popular xbox and all of that is today. Both links that you shared involving vieogames in the classroom offer great suggestions of how to use it in your lesson planning.

    I know from personal experience when I was in high school taking Spanish, I went to the websites that were often listed in my textbook that offered study help. I thoroughly enjoyed using these websites because they offered games as a way to study and practice using Spanish. It made it more fun to learn and it was a lot of help for me because it kept me engaged in my homework and actually excited to learn the language. I think that there are a number of ways to incorporate using digital games in the classroom, even to teach ESL. It is probably and underrated use of learning and I think it would be a good idea to start bringing up in the classroom.

  4. I think gaming is a great topic. I like the idea of story mapping games and thinking about the different genres of video games. They’re not all the same, and the ones with a storyline are really like entering an interactive novel. If you’re really interested in how video games engage students in the classroom, you should read the work of James Paul Gee–“What Video Games Have to Teach us About Literacy and Learning.” Also, the other text we’re reading for class (after the novels) talks about how to create interactive video games and virtual worlds for the English classroom. There are so many different educational games out there, that it’s important to know how gaming impacts learning. Great topic.

  5. djkopping says:

    I lost many days playing Zelda in my basement as a child, so thanks for bringing back those memories. Was never able to get past the sixth labrynth, and that was very frustrating. I stopped playing video games when the controllers started having more buttons than I had fingers, so I have not kept up with it much, I do know that Halo and Grand Theft Auto are big, but that is really it.

    So, I never really gave any thought to incorporating video games into the classroom. I checked out the links above, and do agree with you on the video games/film connection. some of the comercials that I see for video games even make me think that they are for a movie and not a video game. The graphic technology has advanced that much. On the same page there was also a link to “Six video games you can teach tomorrow” that looks useful. I’ve only heard of one of the games that they use, Fallout 3, but it would be a good place to start to see how video games can be incorporated into a classroom.

    Very imaginative post. And Tetris totally rocks! That game got me through so many family car trips that it is not funny.

  6. zxxkimxxz says:

    I’ve always been very interested in using video games in an academic setting, but I am very worried that they would be used as more of a “reward day activity” than an actual informational text. I’m so excited that you’ve included resources that explain ways they can be effectively used in the classroom. I loved the video game Limbo, and re-imagining it as an academic tool just makes me giddy.

    I think it’s possible to view using a video game in a similar light to using a film within the English class. There are aspects of each that are similar to novels, just like you’ve mentioned. They are also easily accessible to students, and an engaging way to approach new material. We just have to be conscious of whether we are using it as a new media to present information, or just another way to gain our student’s attention.

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