What the Book Business Can Learn from Video Games

February 19, 2013

Hazlitt regular contributor Navneet Alang writes about the weirdness and wonder of modern techno-culture. He has a PhD that is technically in English...

Tell me if this sounds familiar: an established long-form medium that emphasizes depth is now under threat from new technology that tends to privilege bite-size experiences. Proponents of the older format worry the shiny new thing will chip away at the cultural importance of their preferred medium, while tech bloggers breathlessly talk about the inevitability of what comes next.

I’m talking about books, right? Or magazines? Nope. I’m describing the contemporary world of video games.

It may sound strange to link these two fields. But not only do the game and book businesses have more in common than you might think, there might also be lessons for the literary world in the travails of gaming.

Consider this: last month, the Wii U, Nintendo’s newest, most advanced game console sold a paltry fifty-five thousand units in the U.S., and has only managed around 3 million units in total since its release last Fall. For comparison’s sake, Apple sold 23 million iPads in the last quarter of 2012 alone. While the reasons for the huge disparity are not easy to distill, a good part of Nintendo’s misfortunes stem from the simple fact that machines primarily dedicated to one thing seem to be getting harder and harder to sell. What seems to be happening is that, like ‘serious reading,’ long-form gaming is becoming the pursuit of a dedicated minority, while simpler, shorter experiences will soon be the norm for everyone else.

Interestingly though, we recently got a glimpse of how long-form media might ‘fight back’. This weekend, Bungie, makers of the famous Halo game series, revealed their promising new creation, Destiny. What seems intriguing about the game is that offers a hybrid of a narrative-based single person experience and an online, social one. Destiny will offer a constant world and story that exists online and, alone or with others, players can connect and engage with it and a narrative as it unfolds over the next 10 years. It could be entirely too ambitious, boring, or just a flop, but as a conceptual space for experiencing and making stories, a persistent fictional world, accessible at all times and through various means seems pretty damn fascinating.

I don’t raise the example, however, to imply that writers and publishers should themselves simply look to glossy new techno-futurist experiences as the answer. Books aren’t games, and they aren’t apps. But what Bungie’s bold new experiment does suggest is that it is compelling new ideas that build on the ideals of an established medium, rather than simple dumbing down, that might stem the tide of loss to the Angry Birds of the world. Destiny’s initial appeal feels as equally enabled by technology as it is ideas and art design, and also by a fastidious attention to the craft of interactive entertainment, its worlds and stories. If it succeeds, it will be on the strength of how it incorporates and co-opts new trends, rather than simply capitulates to them.

Put another way, in the face of a tide of disruptive new technology, the point isn’t to simply lament the loss of yet another home for what we love; it’s to get in there and, in accordance with the ideals of the art we wish to protect, actually play the game.

Image from Bungie's Destiny

Hazlitt regular contributor Navneet Alang writes about the weirdness and wonder of modern techno-culture. He has a PhD that is technically in English Literature, but was really just about Twitter.