I wonder if Northrop Frye played video games. It’s true that it’s difficult to imagine the doyen of North American literary criticism with his pouchy features shivering over the levers while the reflected white-line paddles of Pong tracked up and down his spectacle lenses; yet when it – the first true video game – hit the arcades, Frye was just sixty. Such was his longevity that before he died in 1991 he could have run through all the major platform games – Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros – and if he’d just taken a little better care of himself, and hung onto life a couple more years, his fingers might have twitched the course of Doomguy through the military base on Phobos, and manipulated him into killing the demons from Hell. I suspect Frye would have been more at home with Doom than with Pong. Doom was, after all, the first video game that featured immersive graphics, allowed for multiplayer gaming, and introduced the psychopathology of the first-person shooter to virtual reality.
Observing the garish vortices of debris, the laser gun flashes of his Doomguy persona and the ruptured torsos of slain and horned demons, Frye, I feel reasonably certain, would have felt that here was all the confirmation needed of his view that a true – and scientific – literary criticism should give rise to a typology of form and its mythic underpinnings. Video games, with their large resident population of evil archetypes, are ready made for Frye’s centripetal analysis, rather than a centrifugal one that might splatter their content onto the wider world of class, gender or ethnic particularism. It helps that the gamer’s proxy is always on a quest – for money, gold, any token that may have valuta if not intrinsic value. The numbers it’s necessary to lay waste to en route to these trinkets inflate according to the classification of the game, as do their character – poisonous spiders, hellhounds, Nazi zombies – and the graphic nature of their dispatch. Many games include as standard the ability to increase levels of blood-spatter and the volume of curdling cries, although if you want to incorporate simulated child-killing it will be necessary to download a pirate modification (or mod).
That I even know this can be done I owe to the good offices of my 15-year-old son, who has been an enthusiastic gamer for some years now. Every so often he’ll offer up these reports from the wilder shores of virtuality, in order, I think, to send me a message of reassurance: see what sick shit there is out there, obviously I wouldn’t tell you about it if I was actually doing it. In the same spirit he’ll retail some of the viler dialogue uttered by terminally arrested forty-year-olds slumped on couches from Seoul to Saskatchewan, but united by the glorious simultaneity of the multiplayer mode. That I am reassured is probably more a function of complaisance than complacency: it grinds you down, the rearing of boys, and in the end you just throw your hands up and take cover from the relentless fusillades of testosterone. With my three sons spread out over 11 years I’ve had a long time to get used to their professions of violence. I think the breaking point came when I found myself in the National Army Museum in Chelsea, for what felt like the thousandth time, yet again standing in front of the scale model of the Battle of Mons, and yet again futilely explaining to one of the little francs-tireurs that while war might look like a glorious thing, there was nothing remotely uplifting about the impact of .50 calibre machine-gun rounds on human flesh.
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[*] Prometheus, 325 pp., £22.95, January, 978 1 61614 501 9.