Toolbox 23: Are Playing Video Games and Reading Stories That Different?

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The short answer IMO is no.

Long answer:

Last week, I was explaining why I found a particular game—Oxygen Not Included—so engaging. There were two main reasons. One, was that the challenges got harder as it progressed. And, two, I was the protagonist.

In both story and gaming, the protagonists confronted challenges and either succeeded or failed.

With each encounter, they would grow and see themselves differently.

I asked myself why time slipped away unnoticed when playing Oxygen Not Included?

Engagement on a grand scale.

I was so focused on my next task. Really, really focused that I thought of nothing else. This included all my personal problems.

If I didn’t know what to do in the game, I’d Google it. Once I succeeded, I’d look at what I accomplished and look for the consequences. If they were beyond repair, I’d start again.

It’s probably cheating.  Don’t care.

Here’s the thing: I may restart the world—they all have numbers—so I could start in the exact same spot.

Yet no two games are the same. When I played (enter number of tries here), my slightly different decisions cascaded into a brand new, never been here before, scenario.

I’ve never restarted frustrated or upset. I restarted because I thought of a new angle that might work better.

How this relates to Stories?

They—don’t ask me who—say all stories have been told already. Yet writers keep writing and readers keep reading.

So what’s the deal?

Now that I’ve played this game, I truly believe if I plotted the same general scenario once and wrote it out ten times, I would have ten completely different stories.

Think trope.

All readers have their own expectations. Some love specific plotlines: the friend to boyfriend trope, enemy to lover trope, retellings of fairy-tales, detective solves a murder and there are a million more.

As you can see I’m still wondering about engagement.

I think I’m getting closer.

Why did I start to play ONI? Because I lost interest in the game I was playing. I finished it and that was that.

But Oxygen Not Included is different.

I’m engaged.

My brain has been firing really, really well since. I feel great. No blues. No looking within and judging myself. I feel like I did before my depression hit. (But who knows if I’m remembering my past correctly. It has been over twenty years since it knocked my socks off.)

My emotional balance has lasted so long I’m wondering if I shed that black hole I called home.

Apparently engagement is not only—uhmm—engaging, it’s healing.

Today I smile. I know this wasn’t much of teaching post, but it is what it is. I hope you found something useful. 🙂

Have another opinion? Please share, all comments are welcome here.

46 responses to “Toolbox 23: Are Playing Video Games and Reading Stories That Different?

  1. I just had an epiphany! When I was young, I was addicted to both reading and Super Mario Bros.! OMG, I totally see what you’re saying.

  2. I’m biased because I’m a massive fan of role playing games and spent hundreds of hours playing Kingdom Hearts and Star Ocean growing up. They’re immersive. They’re fun, and they taught me a heck of a lot about story telling. They still do 😀

  3. Every time I read a post about people playing games, it makes me want to play again. I want to play more! 🙂

  4. This post is freaking brilliant! I could be biased as I work in website development, but I see Kidlit writing craft expanding to include UX and game design in the next 10 years or so.

  5. Oh that game sounds interesting. I may have to look it up. And yes, sure the ‘story has been told’ but it’s not been told by you. As writers we all have our own voice and that plus our lived experiences will alter that story and make it different from the next person. People are vast and complicated and the stories we tell even if it’s the same tropes, represent that.

  6. Time flies when you’re engaged and being engaged makes you happy. No wonder depression is getting squeezed out. Have fun!
    JQ Rose

  7. Sounds like fun. I use to play games more but it has been a long time since I did.

  8. I absolutely agree that there’s value in taking in other forms of stories. Because that’s what games are, interactive stories. I believe that there’s no experience (either passive or active) that makes for bad writing. Neil Gaiman talks about composting ideas in his Masterclass: everything that happens to you, everything you see and experience, goes into the compost heap and every now and again something beautiful will creep into your writing because of that fertilizer.

    Whenever I watch Netflix or read, regardless of what it is, I let those story structures, character arcs and quirks, settings, clever dialogue–all of it goes into the compost heap. Maybe this is just my way of rationalizing binge-watching West Wing *shrug* lol but I’ve noticed my dialogue is in fact snappier after watching a few episodes…

    Great post! Thanks for sharing!


  9. I’m with you on this. In my other world (as a teacher), I write about how to teach reading without really reading. Same ideas as you’re discussing.

  10. That’s why role playing games, computer or table-top, are so popular. We get to play a character, like in a book, and go on an adventure. Of course it’s engaging and yes, we loose time. That’s it’s healing is the icing on the cake.

  11. AuthorSarahKrewis

    I think this is an excellent comparison. It’s the same with TV shows for me. I mean, sure…I could probably sit down and read the book The 100, and feel something…but watching it puts me visually in the story when my mind wouldn’t be able to otherwise after a hard day, in a book. I get you. Very teachy 🙂

  12. Oh, I definitely consider playing games ‘soft writing time. I get so much inspiration from them. Our imaginations need playtime!

  13. I’m not a gamer, but both my daughter and hubby are. They both love gaming and reading, so there is definitely something to be said for this.

  14. First, I’m glad you’re in such a good place right now!

    And this reminded me a lot of a neat post from Chris Breechen at Writing About Writing. He has some very well articulated ideas about how gaming is actually very conducive to writing well. You might like to read it too:

  15. I’m not a gamer… but I often see games and think, “wow! this looks fun.” but then I go… “you don’t have time, you should be writing, you should be doing blah blah blah…” We live in a world where people watch other people play video games. There is a lot to learn about this next level of immersive/interactive entertainment. Would the streamer playing video games be a new form of a storyteller? Your post really got me thinking. Thanks!

  16. This was a great post. Engagement can do so much for people once used in a positive way. It’s great that you are happy and enjoying yourself.

  17. I guess that is what all writers seek, for the reader to be engaged and not be able to put it down. To feel uplifted or thoughtful. To escape this world for a little bit.
    Susan Says

  18. Definitely an interesting concept to think about! I’ve been immersed in tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons and in text-based adventure games like Jigsaw for hours on end, which I think is why this approach felt familiar to me. There’s something really fulfilling about playing a game where your choices impact the end result, and I wonder if that sort of engagement and personalization has been lost somewhat in literature. Back during the early Greek periods when there were still bards going around reciting the Iliad and the Odyssey, the story-tellers would change up bits of the story to fit the places where they performed. I’d like to see where we can improve within the publishing industry to re-attain that sort of engagement, especially with new technology!

  19. Great post – the connections between these different media are really true, and I think there’s some really interesting room for experimentation here, maybe through something like choose-your-own-adventure-type stories? Or games that amp up the storytelling (although a lot of them really do a lot of this already). Also, I really enjoyed your writing style. It was engaging. : ) Happy Thursday!

  20. Ronel Janse van Vuuren

    And here I thought I was the only one who found video games engaging and a lot like stories — and very healing, too 🙂

  21. Reading this, I’m wondering what your opinion is of books that have become video games (like The Witcher) or video games that have become books (Resident Evil)?

    • The game I’m referring to is all about building and planning to escape an asteroid–I think. One mistake in the early stages and its one disaster after another.

      ONI is not an RPG, so I don’t have much of opinion on games to movies. But I do believe most games are based on a story (or book) from somewhere. 🙂

  22. That sounds like an awesome game, and some of the best ones keep us engaged by telling us stories.

  23. As a gamer and a writer, I understand what you say totally. Playing role-playing games every day is another dimension in my writing life. Both feed each other. I even have a draft novel and its sequel with the MCs as gamers. I’d struggle without both writing and gaming. Fuel so play on.

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