Why aren’t there more books about games?

Image: Gavin Lane/Nintendo Life

Soapbox features allow our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random tidbits they’ve chewed on. TodayMichelle is reading an incredible novel about games, and argues that books and games should get on the same page…

Two kids delve into Super Mario Bros. in a games room at the hospital. One asks the other: ‘What’s the secret to landing high on the flagpole?’ This is the beginning of Sam and Sadie’s friendship, the centerpiece of Gabrielle Zevin’s novel, Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

For anyone who’s tried and struggled to hit the top of the flagpole, jam buttons and sigh in frustration, it’s a nice nostalgic nod to the NES game. For all, it is the beginning of a deep friendship that will unfold within the pages of this epic book.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is the first book I had read that took games seriously and yet spoke to a general audience.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow charts the friendship between these characters from meeting as children, to college students making amateur games, to world-famous developers. It provides insightful and funny commentary on creativity and maturity. It is not a ‘gamer’s book’ but a book about games; you don’t have to be a big-G gamer to enjoy it.

Zevin proves that a novel can champion characters who play games and still be readable by anyone. But why is this so unique? Where are the books where a character comes home from a long day and relaxes with their Nintendo Switch? (Totally not basing this on my own life). Why aren’t there more books about games?

Google ‘books on games’ and you’ll see non-fiction books (Blood, Sweat and Pixels, Console Warsart books, encyclopedias) and novels that occupy the sci-fi space (Ready Player One, Snowfall).

Disco Elysium
Games like Disco Elysium take inspiration from literature and literary forms and engage players in the same way as novels – Image: ZA/UM

Novels that weave games into a narrative like T&T&T are few and far between. Ready Player One, the poster child for gaming novels, is filled with references that are embedded in the reader’s understanding. Its science fiction label is firmly affixed, and it makes no real attempt to make games accessible or appeal to non-gaming audiences. There is nothing wrong with that in theory. But it’s typically the first gaming novel that comes to mind, and this very fact means that when it comes to books, gaming still sits ‘elsewhere’, in an arena uninhabited by non-gamers.

the way mainstream media views games and ‘gamers’ hasn’t changed much since the Game Boy. Zevin pushes against this cliché

I’m sure plenty of aspiring novelists write scripts like T&T&T that reference games in a way that’s accessible to everyone. But publishers, like readers, can see such a script, think it’s Ready Player One-A, and toss it in the slush pile. The actual literature still does not reflect the way games are played and consumed in real life. Maybe that’s how filmmakers once saw games: a fine medium, sure, but one too otherworldly to be represented as real. But while filmmakers are improving their relationship with games (more on that later), writers are resisting. The ‘oldest’ media has not yet embraced the ‘newest’.

That’s exactly why tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow is such a — ahem – Game changer.

The literary world may hold its strongest shield against the gaming sector, but for whatever reason, its defenses should be lowered. Games are more popular than ever. Around 3 billion people play mobile games worldwide. Nintendo Switch sales have surpassed Game Boy and PS4. During the pandemic, Switches sold out and our favorite lockdown island escape Animal Crossing: New Horizons flew off the shelves. Non-gaming news articles may call it a ‘booming’ industry, but it’s already booming.

And yet the way mainstream media views games and ‘gamers’ hasn’t changed much since the Game Boy. Zevin pushes against this cliché. She gives player characters dimensions beyond their gaming pleasures.

Sam is raised by his grandparents and we are brought into this loving relationship as they look after him, guide him and give him life advice even as an adult. They run a pizza place which is the setting for Sam’s first (and ‘greatest spiritual’) gaming experience on a Donkey Kong machine. In Sadie, we see a child worried about her sick sister/best friend, even as she is ignored by her parents and forced to grow up at the ripe old age of 11. Games become one of the few comforts in her life, even if she can only play one hour a week. Sam and Sadie are more than gamers – they’re people.

In the world of entertainment, things have changed, albeit by inches. Games are more on screen and gamers are not just anti-social teenagers. IN 2010 Scott Pilgrim vs. World showed us that video game references could appear in a much-loved movie. Apple TV+ program Mythic Quest is a workplace comedy first and a gaming series second – it was made to be watched by non-gamers. Game customizations have improved and appeal to people who have never touched a console (think The last of us, The Witcher, Excitingand the future Tetris biopic and Super Mario Bros. movie).

Playing and reading also share a kind of intimacy. In T&T&T, Sam says: ‘There is no act more intimate than play, even sex’

Increasingly, games of all sizes are based on more complex narratives with multi-dimensional characters. I think plot is a big draw for play and purchase. For me, emotional investment makes achieving that final boss fight, that final quest, that evaluation from Grandpa even sweeter.

There are even games that mirror books, such as Disco Elysium (created by author Robert Kurvitz) and Beacon Pines. Both are largely text-based, sparking readers’ imaginations as a novel does.

Playing and reading also share a kind of intimacy. In T&T&T, Sam says, ‘There is no act more intimate than play, even sex’ (!) When you spend so much time getting to know characters and sharing their pursuits, it’s impossible not to care about their lives and ambitions .

That intimacy gives the consumer an active role in the progress of the story. If you leave the room while a movie is playing, it will continue. But books and games need you to move the story forward – whether by scrolling or pressing buttons. And game readers like me do this for both, right away just a little longer fervor.

Image: Gavin Lane/Nintendo Life

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is the first book I’ve read that took video games seriously while also speaking to a general audience. It also made me laugh, cry and google everything about it. The poignant story and broad appeal provide such a perfect union of the oldest and newest media that it could influence the broader conversation about games in the literary space. Now that its recognition is growing (and it’s being adapted into a film, of course), we could see a greater presence of games in literary worlds.

It’s one tomorrow I’m looking forward to.

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