Controllers, smartphones, and remotes welcome.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

There’s a small, old fashioned part of my soul that gets fussy about books.

It’s the smell, I think. Or perhaps the reverent quiet and stillness of libraries is my version of sacred.

This corner of my soul, while full of admirable dignity, tends to be snobby and petty about its stories. Only holding a paperback in hand will do.

(No, hardcover books do not count. Only paperbacks, short, thick, mass market versions preferred. Hardback lovers can fight me in the comments. Though they’ll probably win, because they have more durable weapons.)

I think this is my least progressive attitude.

No, not the prejudice against hardcover novels. Sorry, I know that was a particularly diverting tangent. My attachment to the printed page puts me years behind my peers, who have rapidly moved on to audiobooks, ebooks, podcasts, blogs, and every other digital media under the sun. And I’m certainly not here to invalidate any of those options. I don’t think my average number of words read per day has decreased since I was a middle student teaching myself how to simultaneously walk and read, so I didn’t have to stop reading when I got off the bus. My ability to read, whether it be reading speed or obscure vocabulary, hasn’t suffered, despite how pitifully few novels I read these days.

The longer this goes on, the more I am sure that there isn’t a story shaped hole in my life. I’m not missing out on anything - I’ve simply substituted.

And I know what you expect me to say next. “It’s the evils of smartphones!” “Social media and clickbait is rotting our brains!” And I do see that, to a less extreme extent. When I try to read a story, it’s harder for me to get absorbed in it, to take on the length of a full book. Maybe it’s my advanced age of twenty-five, but more likely my brain is simply adjusted to reading short blurbs, all the time. Even on articles or blog posts, I’ve started to skim, getting the general idea of news articles instead of reaching for every word, one at a time.

But if I missed books, why would I not grab one of the hundreds I’ve collected around my house? Where are my daydreams, my creativity, coming from if not from the stories I’ve ingested turning over in my head?

I’m a firm believer that nothing will ever fully replace books. Just like campfire stories didn’t stop when Gutenberg invented the printing press, I never thought ebooks would eliminated the printed word. But there’s no denying that how we consume stories has changed in the last couple decades, and faster than ever before. Even before ebooks, I would argue that tv started to enthrall our story-orient brains, and before that movies. They’ve got everything we usually associate with books - characters, plot, dialogue, genres, themes, tropes.

But, believe it or not, I think the biggest way I read is by playing video games.
From platformers like Mario to first person shooters, every genre of video games seems to be embracing story-telling roles. In fact, there’s a whole category of game referred to as “visual novels”, dedicated to telling stories. As a lifelong reader and gamer, I adore seeing both my favorite escapes collide. Nothing makes me smile to myself more to see someone who “hates reading” play a game for hours, thousands of words suddenly appealing when wrapped in text boxes and pixels instead of pages and ink.
And honestly, I don’t entirely blame them. Even the best books have a degree of separation to them. Tell the story in first person all you want, but the static nature of books makes it hard to really feel you are the protagonist. Make one choice the reader wouldn’t agree with, no matter how much you explain it, and this is a story about someone else. A good one, but about someone else.

Games don’t have to do that. If done well.

And yes, many, many games are not done that well. Too often we feel the box we’re trapped in. Many “choice-based” games, which change your experience based on the choices you make, will only offer two extreme choices, or will drive you to the same destination in the end no matter what. Still, the potential is there, to remove the barriers between you and the screen, to immerse you completely in a character’s shoes. Particularly in the fledgling VR systems, where you physically can move around the virtual environment, we see games marketed as “experiences”. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to play in some, though briefly, and I found it incredibly powerful. In one I was an astronaut, floating above the Earth in awe, terrified of accidently letting go of the bar I was holding onto for fear I drift away into space. Another put me in the shoes of someone who lost their job, and has become homeless. I had to choose which of my possessions to sell, which to pack, and slept overnight on a bus, guarding what little I had from thieves. It’s hard to explain the power that has, even in its current, unpolished form. I’ve always been a person of great empathy, but there is no substitute for living through a situation, walking the story being told.

And I wish I read more books. I do, even if just to train my attention span back to the shape it used to have. It’s harder now, but I still love it. Still, I can’t bring myself to mourn the direction the future brings. There may not be as many books, but we still tell stories.

And that’s good enough for all but the fussiest parts of me.

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