At least once a year from when I was around ten years old until some time after I went away to college, I read through J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I read as much of Tolkien’s work as I could find in the local library. I loved the Silmarillian and delved happily into the history of Middle Earth, Valinor, and Westernesse. When Peter Jackson made his wonderful films, I was very happy, but the films didn’t kindle the same love for Middle Earth I remember from childhood. I enjoyed the films tremendously, but my enjoyment stemmed more from nostalgia than from fresh affection.
Recently, I have been playing the Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO), a computer game where thousands of players log into a computer-generated simulated Middle Earth and role play at being hobbits (or elves, dwarves or humans. I prefer hobbits.) I’m surprised by how much I enjoy immersing myself in Middle Earth. My enjoyment, both of the game play and returning to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, is real, fresh, and first hand. I’d like to figure out why my experience playing a game feels so different from watching a film based on the same source material. Perhaps trying to answer this question will tell us something about the nature of games as media.
It can be easy to dismiss games as literature or texts since it is rather difficult structurally to tell a story with a game. Books are a linear media, we start in the upper right-hand corner of page one and read left to right through the pages sequentially until we reach the end of the last page. Films start on the first frame of reel one and continue frame by frame in sequence until the last reel has played. Writers and filmmakers have to work very hard to escape the linear constraints of their media. Not so with games (or digital video). There is nothing in the structure of the media that forces a game to start at the beginning and move through a series of events in sequence until the end is reached. At least, not necessarily so. Certainly many games are linear or they use linear devices and techniques to tell a story. Perhaps this is because writers and creative talent have polished their art creating for linear media. Perhaps this is what audiences have come to expect. Traditional rules for creating a plot involve linear motion: introduction, conflict, climax, denouement. Stories happen in a certain order. Games don’t have to happen in a certain order. In fact, the interactive nature of games may make them a less-suitable vehicle for conveying a plot than traditional story-telling methods.
In many ways, this has been seen as a disadvantage for games. Creative minds have tried to tell stories with games and often when familiar stories have been re-told in games they have been less compelling than the books or movies that spawned them. If Peter Jackson had tried to make a game out of Frodo’s quest to destroy the ring, I have no doubt it would have been beautiful and technically impressive, but I am not certain it would have been fun to play. Being locked into the choices made by Frodo or the other characters doesn’t really take advantage of the freedom that interactive games offer. Game players have come to expect the ability to affect the outcome of their games. The story quite likely would have felt wooden and forced when it forces them to follow the pre-scripted plot.
This is where LOTRO shines and this is why I find the game version of Middle Earth so much more compelling than the film version. Instead of connecting me to Middle Earth by placing me inside of the story, the game allows me to create my own stories inside the world that Tolkien created. I can make choices and interact with an environment that feels true to the world I read about as a kid. Larger themes such as tragedy and loss from decline of civilization, the pleasures of rustic living, and moving forward by looking back come through much more clearly.
This is also where many points of contemporary art and thought converge. Textual critics have long asserted that literature and art are greater than the author’s intent. MMORPGs are a new kind of literature that move away from being determined by a single author and empower the reader to actively participate in creating the text. Web 2.0 is changing the mass media from one-way transmissions to global conversations. Games scenarios played online with other people do not play out the same each time. The audience helps write the script. Perhaps games, especially massive online role-playing games, are part of the logical progression of literature. I’m not ready to make that claim just yet, especially since the things that I love most in LOTRO are echoes of what I read in Tolkien’s books. I can say that interacting inside of a re-creation of Tolkien’s world is a much more satisfying experience than watching someone’s film recreation of the same world.