My wife games more than me. In recent months, she has been known to spend entire weekends engaged in battle on Dragon Age or defeating the Joker in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Sometimes she’ll look over at me, reading or staring at the laptop while ‘thinking’ about writing, and she’ll ask:
“Do you want to play?”
“No,” I say. “You go ahead.”
With a sigh, she replies, “I don’t think you like playing video games anymore.”
“I do,” I say. “I just feel like I should be doing something more productive. You know, like writing.”
I, too, grew up in the gamer generation. My adolescence wasted away many an afternoon, pursuing a Flawless Victory against Shang Tsung and Shao Kahn in Mortal Kombat. Of course, I enjoy gaming from time to time, but as I’ve grown older, I strive to utilize my various avenues for entertainment as a way to improve my writing craft. At least, that’s what I tell myself, while the dunce inside asks with a snobbish tone, What could I possibly learn about writing from playing a video game?
Then there was last Friday. While reading G. Christopher Williams’ article, entitled “Rewind to Advance: Jordan Mechner’s Games with Time,” on PopMatters.com, I began to sense similarities between the way some writers write and the way gamers interact with video games. In the article, Williams begins by discussing the traditional and most common form of gameplay in gaming. He writes:
[M]any a gamer has died in an encounter with an end-level boss only to respawn at the beginning of the battle to quickly fight it in largely the same way again. A better timed button press here or better dodge of an incoming attack there may mean the difference between success and failure, but little is learned besides something along the lines of: muscling through a tough challenge will eventually equate to victory; more simply, persistence pays off.
In discussions with fellow beginner-writers, I’ve found many who write in a similar manner to the way these many-a-gamers game. They get inspired by the idea or task before them. They persist, laying down words as quickly as possible and plowing towards that end-level boss: the first draft. Realizing they haven’t fully hit the mark, they return to battle, but instead of reformulating their strategy, they simply alter some grammar here, some punctuation there. Maybe, they delete a line or two. The end result being that the writer learns very little from the rewrite. Instead, by muscling through their piece, they convince themselves through various rereads that these subtle adjustments hit the mark, when in reality, they haven’t. Their perception of the draft has shifted from that of an end-level boss to that of an end-game boss. On occasion, I’m guilty of this myself; I sometimes submit pieces to We Put Words On Paper, hoping they won’t notice the unfinished game, but they always do. As will most readers.
Williams furthers his discussion, bringing into focus the main subject of his article, Jordan Mechner’s games, specifically The Last Express, in which “at any time during play, the player can slip from the confines of the train’s reality into the load screen and rewind time”.
*A Review of The Last Express, feat. gameplay footage*
In Williams’ view, this unique alteration in the machination of gameplay creates a different and more immersive strategy in the gamer, writing:
[T]he dominant strategy in this game concerns time itself and knowing the timing of certain events so that Cath [the player’s avatar] can take advantage of these events to learn something important . . . or to act on hunches . . . Since the player may not realize when or where an important event is taking place or how to take advantage of the location of a character at a given time on an initial exploration . . . the ability to manipulate time becomes an essential mechanism to achieve success in the game.
You know, if you replaced the words ‘game’ with ‘draft’, ‘Cath’ with ‘character’, and ‘player’ with ‘writer,’ Williams’s quote seems incredibly applicable for you and me, the writers. I wonder if I could let Williams’s argument argue mine? Maybe I should just play a little Mad Libs with key pieces of his conclusion. Instead of muscling through the piece:
[L]ook at a problem to see why you failed, how it could be done better, and then how to enact a better outcome in a more clearly informed way . . . there are events and locations in space and time that are inevitable, the [writer] needs to be aware of this inevitability, learn it, and then move on after he has looked at the situation from as many angles (and from as many places in time) as is necessary to take the best advantage of the way that a situation is laid out. The [draft] doesn’t offer a fresh challenge, but it does offer a fresh chance to reconsider a challenge and to try again after some reconsideration . . . Starting over is less a punishment [and more] an opportunity to appreciate an experience in a new way, to progress in a new way, and maybe see something that you would have otherwise missed in what often becomes an effort to rush to the end of story instead of lingering over its details from various perspectives.
Yikes! I think I just learned something about writing from a video game. You know those times when you know something, but you don’t always put it into practice? It takes a simple metaphor to draw your attention before you really act on it? If you’re one of those writers who occasionally allows their work to be finished after only one draft and a few tiny cosmetic adjustments, this is one of those times.
Next time you think you’ve finished a piece after only one draft, dive back in, observe the details, and force yourself to experience it in a new way. View it as a new challenge and try again after reconsideration. I guarantee you that you will see your piece expand, not necessarily in length, but in depth, moving it from the end-level to the end-game.
You do that. I’ll do it, too. But first, I’m gonna go play a video game with my wife.