Video Games & Literature 2

At The Faculty Lounge, Professor John Kang is, rightly I think, disturbed by “Justice Scalia’s suggestion [in Brown, et al v. Entertainment Merchants Association] for the Court that these vile video games are like. . . literature.”  Kang responds to this analogy as follows:

“What?  Maybe I’m missing something here but that can’t be an analogous description for the violent games prohibited to minors by California.  In these games, you—the player—are besieged by people trying to kill you and thus you have to kill them before they do you.  You thus don’t have time to ‘identify with the characters’ and ‘judge them and quarrel with them’ or ‘experience their joys and sufferings as the reader’s own.’  The enterprise of the game, made unequivocally clear before you even have thought about purchasing it, is that you either kill or are killed. 

And the action is relentless and heart-pounding.  For you are not reading about someone else killing enemies, raping women, and shooting up a mall.  In the video game, you are killing your enemies, raping women, and shooting up a mall, or risk the danger that you will be targeted.  And there is no time to reflect on why you’re doing these things other than to stay alive and indulge your most atavistic impulses.   

There is no time to think, reflect, deliberate, and, most certainly, there is no time to ‘judge the characters and quarrel with them.’  In short, when you are busy killing people who are trying kill you, you don’t do those conventional things you do for literature.    

Scalia points to violent scenes in Homer, Dante, the Lord of the Flies; violence has been part of our best literature, he insists.  But these works do invite the reader to do those things that Posner recognizes about great literature:  identify with the characters, invite him to judge them and quarrel with them, to experience their joys and sufferings as the reader’s own. 

The violent video games don’t [do] any of these things.”

As Kang notes, others things might be said about these games (or the analogy for that matter), as well as the constitutionality of the California law, but the analogy is indeed troubling for at least the reasons he identifies.

Image found here.


  1. Actually, I wonder about the the statement that “you-the player” directly participate in games, whereas there is aesthetic distance between “you” and the “character” in fiction. It’s not at all clear what aspects of videogames this claim is based on; every time I think of a plausible candidate, I can immediately think of games in which it’s absent, or books in which it’s present. I think you’ve edited out the part of John’s post that most precisely diagnoses what’s wrong with Scalia’s metaphor: the unwarranted assumption that “interactivity” means the same thing for games and for fiction.

  2. James,

    I see your point about “interactivity,” although what I copied from John’s post was that aspect of the analogy that struck me as clearly troubling, leaving open the possibility that other parts, like the assumption “interactivity” has a common meaning in both cases, may be problematic as well (hence the final clause in the last sentence): indeed, perhaps as you say, even more fundamental in that regard. I simply had not thought enough about that to make the claim with the confidence you do here (if only because of my very limited experience with and knowledge of video games!).

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