The prize for literature goes to... The Sims

December 2, 2005

English and computer science academics ponder whether computer games could ever be artistic equals of great novels

Tomb Raider and Doom may lack the cultural status of Pride and Prejudice and Bleak House , but a straw poll of English and computer science academics suggests their successors may one day be considered their equal.

In a Times Higher survey of 50 English scholars and 50 computer scientists, two thirds of those who replied believe that some time in the future a computer game could be held to be comparable to a great work of literature.

Seven English scholars agreed with the possibility against three dissenting colleagues, while the proportions were similar among the computer scientists, with 13 agreeing and six rejecting the possibility.

Les Carr, a senior lecturer in computer science at Southampton University, said: "Once you accept that plot and narrative development is possible in a computer-based literature, then it is a matter of time before a clever human can create as great a work of literature as they can non-interactive literature."

Stacy Gillis, lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at Newcastle University, argued that some computer games, such as Halo , Myst or other massive multiplayer online role-playing games, could already have achieved such status. "Novels and films are being turned into computer games - an indication that computer games have established a new criterion of narrative innovation; and by being interactive, they are arguably at a higher starting point on this scale of narrative," she said.

But Brian Cummings, professor of English at Sussex University, dismissed the proposal. "The question is a stupid one," he said. "The imagination works in a completely different way within writing."

Another English literature lecturer said the experience of playing a computer game was not as richly variegated as that of reading a book, adding that he had no desire to replay a game once it had been completed.

And a computer lecturer added: "No computer game I've yet seen qualifies as even vaguely comparable to a work of literature."

"Film has had a longer time period within which to develop its level of narrative sophistication. Although there may be fierce arguments about which films deserve this kind of accolade, I suspect that there would be a widespread consensus that some, at least, have achieved an equal status with great literature.

"If we can agree about that, then arguably the same must be possible in the realm of interactive narrative. The obstacles to be overcome are comparable: developing the technology, developing audience awareness of how narrative is being delivered, developing more complex narrative codes, involving artists and creative thinkers who are capable of conceiving and realising an interactive narrative of sufficient subtlety and so on."

Neal Swettenham, lecturer in drama at Loughborough University

"Most computer games now are simple linear narratives whose pace is dictated by the player's success at solving puzzles. Modern games are not used by their authors to convey anything more than the most basic of emotions.

"But consider a system in the future able to tailor a detailed narrative specifically for an individual. It would be engineered to retell a story in exactly the way needed to provoke the desired effects specified by the author.

"In its simplest form, such tailoring already takes place, with internet pages automatically translating foreign text into that readable by the user. With advanced models of human psychology, a computer could run billions of different versions of a story past a simulated reader every second, constantly changing the narrative to account for the user's actions and to continue to create an experience that effectively conveys the author's message."

Duncan Rowland, senior lecturer in games development at Lincoln University

"There can be little doubt that in the not too distant future computer gaming will provide a richness of dynamic interaction that will far exceed the sophistication and power of great literature - certainly for the vast majority of participants.

"Look at the impact of computer-generated imagery on films, and partner that with the advanced participatory gaming available now. Then allow for an Anthony Minghella of scene-writing, a Peter Greenaway of games imagery, a Quentin Tarantino of overall direction and so on. All the talents deployed by an author could be captured in a multimedia format of 'gaming', in which the reader may be anything from passive observer to principal actor."

Tom Anderson, professor of computer science at Newcastle University

"Great literature invites us to imagine what it would be like to be some other person, and by doing so to obtain a better understanding of other people and of ourselves.

"A computer game is different in that it can allow us to simulate the experience of some other person but not to enter that person's mind. A sophisticated game might offer us a virtual experience of, say, a war, which could give us an insight into our own reactions to this. But this experience would still be our own visceral experience rather than an imagined experience of a 'real' soldier.

"I am not sure a game can give us the imaginative insight into the mind of others that literature does. Without this, I rather doubt that we should think of computer games as an authentic art form."

Paul Leng, director of the e-learning unit, Liverpool University

"Computer games have advanced in hardware and programming technology but seem to be very weak on content. They are, as yet, merely escapist diversions that have little to say about reality and the human condition. To me, the most profound of computer games remains one of the first, Pong . In its minimalist abstraction and its emphasis on continued practice, it reaches the heights of that Japanese Zen classic Dogen Zenji's Shobogenzo . :-)"

Anonymous computer scientist

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