How Video Games Changed Our Science Fiction Fantasy

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Roger Ebert has said that video games cannot be art. Similar judgments have been made over the decades and centuries about novels, plays, movies, television, comic books, and of course science fiction.


Now, videogames are up in front of the Supreme Court. Once again a new and innovative form of art and entertainment is being put through an almost ritualized process of legal justification.

My take? The Supreme Court will decide video games are protected speech. And video games are definitely capable of being art.

It's been almost sixty years since the opening chapter of Arthur C. Clarke's THE CITY AND THE STARS launched readers into a new idea—a couple of new ideas, actually: virtual reality, and computer games. That prescient adventure in the Caves of the White Worms left the novel's hero, Alvin, curiously unsatisfied, and soon he was exploring more concrete aspects of the far-future city of Diaspar.

It hasn't taken anywhere near a billion years to realize Clarke's vision.

Back around the same time, Ray Bradbury introduced us to "The Veldt," the dangerous, lion-haunted product of a 3D environment that reflects the inner psychology of a pair of unpleasant children... to the distress of their parents.

Science fiction has long been intrigued by the notion of virtual environments, of living out adventures in media more direct and sensual than text—in short, in video games.

Not that science fiction readers are any less enamored of text! Far from it. But all along, it's been inevitable that written sf would influence not just movies and television, but electronic games. For almost twenty years now, the size of the gaming market has expanded to the point where games earn more than major motion pictures on a regular basis—and of course far exceed the revenues usually expected from the sales of books.


I've never been shy of acknowledging that visual media influence my novels.

Given I was raised in the age of television, lived much of my life in Southern California, and love movies, that influence was inevitable. More interesting still is the realization over decades that moviemakers and TV writers have in turn read my novels, and been influenced by them.


Which brings us to Roger Zelazny, Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, and my new novel, HULL ZERO THREE. Once again, we're in giant starship territory—with the added fillip that this is one way travel to the stars might very well get done.

My character, Teacher, wakes up on a giant construct where things have gone very, very wrong. He's pulled from a wonderful dream of exploration and conquest into a nightmare existence where his profound ignorance is matched only by a high degree of unrelenting danger.


If the story bears some similarities to a computer game, it's likely no coincidence.

Even down to the narration— told from a first person perspective-readers get to experience and discover the nature of the ship through Teacher's eyes. They're right there with him as he puzzles out his environment, survives monster attacks, solves a few zero-g platforming challenges, and uncovers mysteries with nothing but his wits.


That said, one of my conscious stylistic choices in writing HULL ZERO THREE was to bring in a healthy dose of classic SF like Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny, to spice up the obvious parallels with Heinlein and Clarke. Dick and Zelazny are naturals for gamers, with their recursive puzzles and layered plots and gorgeous way with language.

So what's been more influential—games, or books?

Illustration for article titled How Video Games Changed Our Science Fiction Fantasy

Greg Bear is the author of more than thirty books of science fiction and fantasy, including FORERUNNER: CRYPTUM, MARIPOSA, DARWIN'S RADIO, CITY AT THE END OF TIME, EON, and QUANTICO.

He is married to Astrid Anderson Bear and is the father of Erik and Alexandra. His works have been published internationally in over twenty languages. Bear has been called the "Best working writer of hard science fiction" by "The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science Fiction."


He is also collaborating with Neal Stephenson and a group of writers and swordfighters on THE MONGOLIAD, a serialized novel delivered through electronic media. His latest novel is HULL ZERO THREE, on sale November 22.

Along the way, while writing HULL ZERO THREE, I was also called upon to help explore the deep universe of HALO. It was my honor to be invited to help the current masters of Halo, Frank O'Connor and Kevin Grace, and 343's excellent writers and artists, to realize the game's origin story: the tale of the Forerunners, mysterious intelligences who built the Halos and used them to lay waste to much of the galaxy. This January, the first volume of that trilogy will appear. It's called CRYPTUM.


Did gaming structure seep into HULL ZERO THREE? No doubt! Literature has never been isolated from the arts. And gaming is indeed an art form—albeit young, barbaric, and extraordinarily vigorous. Its technologies will soon change the nature of all graphic media, and of course, books will be swept along as well.

Perhaps we'll open our virtual Kindle while taking a breather in the Caves of the White Worms, and pause for a refreshing dose of Arthur C. Clarke—or Larry Niven, or Robert Heinlein... Texts creating personal worlds within virtual worlds within real worlds! Where will the nested realities end?


As for Teacher and his beleaguered companions in HULL ZERO THREE, perhaps they'd prefer to take a time out from text and relax in a good video game.

That might be less stressful.

Illustration for article titled How Video Games Changed Our Science Fiction Fantasy



Sadly I've come to find out (from every art school junkie that I've ever had dealings with) why "art" people think games can't be art, and sadly, if this is the view held by those that claim it, I can understand the point. As it's come to be explained to me (or yelled at me for playing games when I could be enjoying some "other media",) the reason games can't be considered art is the definition of art: Something can only be art if it can exist only as art, that is to say, something can be art if, regardless of it's medium, you could simply "art" it. The problem with games is that, by gaming's definition, you HAVE to play it. Whether or not it elicits an emotional response has nothing to do with something as art. The fact that, to get through it, you have to play through it, you're doing something other than "art"ing it. Do I enjoy The Godfather? No, it's a dull movie that I could care less for. Can I see why people raise it to the pinnacle of movie art? Probably. Therefore, since I can sit through it without any joy or movie experience and appreciate it as art, it's art. The problem gaming faces in that front is, even if you hate the battle or story in a game, you HAVE to battle to get to the story of the game. Therefore, you can't just art it. If that's the view the people who raise that "anti-game art" flag then I guess I can give them that one.

Also, why do so many people care? Eliciting an emotional response is nothing new, and definitely not art worthy. Sad moments shouldn't be elevated to art forms simply because we feel something, and if we can care for a character's safety, well being, and in the end, their story why do we care if Roger Epert or the kids from SCAD don't think we're art worthy? It's them who are losing out on the joys of story telling. We're definitely not losing out by not being branded something other than amazing tales, great characters, and wonderfully complex ideas that even the best artists have trouble rendering. Games can be wonderful and complex stories, so let the arguments for art stay with those who really care. We know why we enjoy it, we don't need someone else telling us what it is.