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Video Games and Mythology

There is a very interesting conversation happening in a comment thread on David Peak’s blog about video games, mythology, nostalgia and personal narrative.

In particular, I liked this comment of Matt Bell’s:

I was on a panel on “derived stories” at &Now and read my Super Mario Bros. story that was in Barrelhouse a few years back, and talked very briefly (and not as well as I would have liked, thanks to being a bit hungover) about the “blankness” that’s in the middle of all these old stories, that makes them ripe for our retellings. I see them somewhat as containers, with their spare stories ready to hold certain kinds of fictions and essays if we fill them right. It’s really the same thing you do when you retell a myth, or use the structure of a fairy tale or other archetypal story (the taboo, the contest, etc.) to structure your own work.

It’s obvious just from the number of people and the excitement level in this thread that these video games–the games themselves, the stories and art, the experience of playing them with friends or in “constrained” situations at friends’ houses–is part of our generation’s shared myths. I know I’m being a bit grandiose, but–speaking at least for myself–video games have been an important part of my life long before literature was, and so I respond to this sort of work pretty readily.

So… thoughts? About video games as mythology? As derived from mythology? As creating their own mythology? As containers? As personally formative?

12 thoughts on “Video Games and Mythology

      1. oh gosh, that’s amazing. thank you tim. now i feel better about having had that long and mind-numbing experience. but i don’t think i could ever play something like world of warcraft again and maintain even a casually lived life. great material for fiction, though. i haven’t read it, but doesn’t dennis cooper’s “god jr.” do something with the MMO format?

        1. Alec, will you get this comment?

          I just randomly stumbled back upon this post and saw it, and have since read God Jr, and yes, the video game stuff is the best part of the book.

  1. A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a friend and she made a Leeroy Jenkins* joke. Correctly, and appropriately. She’s never played the game from which the reference came. If that doesn’t suggest that video games have taken hold as contemporary folklore, I’m not sure what would.

    Reading that thread on David Peak’s blog reminded me again that there is a rift between console and computer gaming…and that the way I thought about story had something of a reboot when I finally bought a PlayStation. I think the Internet did a lot to force PC gaming into perhaps not catching up, but rethinking toward massive multiplayer and open ended play. Had the Internet arrived on consoles first, I think things would be VERY different for console gamers now.

    I’m not surprised to see Matt refer to video games as prospective containers. He and some other writers have a real knack for presenting stories that are accessible to everyone…and yet, are also pleasingly familiar to those who know how the guts work.


    1. Good old Leeroy Jenkins. I taught a class on ‘Digital Folk Culture’ for a couple of years, and read some great student essays about Leeroy.

    2. Do you feel then like the kind of narratives consoles provide are more claustrophobic and… interior, or something? (And possibly more linear, or at least geared toward a resolution)… whereas computer narratives are more… spacious?? Does anybody else remember Jimmy Chen’s theory of indoor writers and outdoor writers?

      (Um, I found it, and no wonder I remember it: http://htmlgiant.com/?p=5695)

  2. Game designer Jason Rohrer said, “I now see ultra-low-res pixel art as a kind of digital cartooning. It stands right on the line between the symbolic and the representational, leaving plenty of room for viewer interpretation. Why draw sideburns when the viewers can imagine sideburns on their own? You just need to give them something to pin their imagination on, something to guide them a bit—cartoons are perfect for that.”

    That notion of players imagining for themselves the complexities of in-game stories also applies, I think, to work inspired by games, like Matt’s Super Mario story. The rich ambiguity of the games, plus their formative impact because of the age of many players, gives them resonance at the same time it invites creativity and imagination. I have too admit, though, that calling games “myths” extends that genre’s definition a bit too far for me.

    1. I haven’t read it. Is Matt’s story fan fiction? I mean, is it set in Super Mario Bros world, or does it have Mario as a character? The fan fiction section Opium 9 I curated includes a piece written as a letter from an invading alien in the game Spore, to an earth child.

    2. from a 1991 interview with Shigeru Miyamoto:

      Q. What were some of the things you thought about when you created Mario?
      A. We had to work under technical constraints including the number of pixels and number of colors the Famicom can display. There are many reasons why we drew him the way we did. We gave him a mustache rather than a mouth because that showed up better. We gave him a hat rather than hair because that looked better, too. Mario wears overalls because that shows the movement of his arms, and he’s wearing white gloves because the white contrasts better with the colored backgrounds. These are the technical reasons we made him look the way he does.


      (Miyamoto is, IMO, the best pop artist working today. He’s simply brilliant! One can learn so much about elegant design from him—he’s like the avatar of Elegance.)

  3. Whether or not video games are “mythology,” they’re a powerful common referent among many-many. What North American 20-something/30-something doesn’t know who Mario is? And something of his story? I’d be surprised if writers and other artists didn’t want to make use of that shared knowledge. (I’ve indulged, too: one of the chapters in my first novel is a Super Mario parody. As well as a parody of Kobo Abe’s “The Woman in the Dunes,” which is perhaps a slightly less widely-known work.)

    Add to it the fact that Mario is amazingly well-designed (see those Miyamoto interviews!), and well… People aren’t busting out all over to write “Deadly Towers” fan-fiction. But Mario, Zelda—sure. (Miyamoto is a genius.)

    That all said, video game-based fiction is becoming rather ubiquitous, IMO. It’s like zombies. Once, zombies were fairly cool and underground; now they’re the kind of thing that makes me want to reach for my pistol. (I suppose zombies always have a way of making one reach for a weapon.)

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