Wednesday, June 3, 2009

YA: Evolve or Die

This post contains graphic violence and is rated R by the Hack Writer Association of Snark, Vim and Vigor (HWAoSVM™).

Kids today are intense and dynamic--more so then when you were growing up.

How does that impact your writing, and what are you going to do about it?

Today I present unto you three videos.

I culled these videos from three video games past their prime. They contain spoilers, but because of their age, if you have not played them yet (finger wag), then it is probably safe for you to dive right in. For the most part, they are actual game footage: about 90%. As you watch the videos (each is about four minutes long), I want you to keep that in mind. These are not simply static videos.

Young adults are playing these video games. Teens.

The first video is from a science fiction first-person shooter, Gears of War. This video contains violence. This is a fan created video set to music.

The second video is a genre-bending action adventure game, Assassin’s Creed. This video also contains violence. This is also a fan created video set to music.

The third video is direct game footage from a science fiction action role-playing game, Mass Effect. This video does not contain violence, but is simply creepy as Hell. As you watch this video, keep in mind it is an interactive cinematic. Note the player is making choices, and it is not simply “choose your own adventure” type choices either. I won’t go into the role-playing aspects of Mass Effect, but you can see how the player is choosing to emote and speak, and the game is responding to those choices.

Ready? Here we go! Isn’t this exciting?

This is not an essay about violence, although I will assert (having played all three of these games), that, in the context of the story, the visceral reality presented to the player is completely appropriate. That is, the story is such that the violence depicted fits.

But I digress.

These videos are intense and dynamic. The games are not composed completely of that intensity level, but then again there are portions more intense than what you see.

I am going to use these videos as bullet points to common misconceptions and inaccuracies ported about as facts. But they are not facts. They are unsubstantiated inaccuracies, at best; false conclusions presented for nefarious purposes at the worst.

I hear: Kids today have short attention spans.

Oh Really? Me thinks people have been saying that since the dawn of civilization. This is adult weasel-speak for “I don’t understand kids”.

Here’s what I think: Kids are progressively able to parse and process raw data faster than the generation previous. Technology today gives your typical teen a significant empowerment advantage: they can network with their friends and query faster than some people can blink (and I only exaggerate slightly).

I hear: Kids who play video games do not read books.

There is no real evidence to support this statement, nor have I seen it. All the kids I know that play video games are avid readers. They treat video games as books. That is, they play the game until they finish it, and then they move on. Much like reading a book.

Massive Multiplayer Online games do carry a culture of obsession. This seems to be a non-age specific phenomena.

What does seem true is kids who play video games watch less TV.

I hear: Video gamers are boys.

Ah, no. These three games the videos are from? I personally know more girls and women who play those games than I know men or boys.

Sure, more boys than girls do play video games, but every year it is less and less. As the plotting for these games improves beyond the cliché, so does their audience widen.

The three things I hear are bad, not because they are simply untrue, but because they are repeated often. They lead one, particularly a writer, to conclude that video games are competition for books. And that has not been my experience. When I was a kid, I personally knew peers who simply would not read a book. Today, I know other kids who will not read a book. I also know of kids who play these games who do read books, just as I know kids who play video games and do not read unless asked to do so.

Those video playing young adults? These teens expect good writing. They expect forward-moving plots and a high-degree of entertainment. They expect realism in the context of the world presented. They are not looking for a video game on paper. They are looking for something intense and dynamic.

How does that impact your writing, and what are you going to do about it?

I can’t answer that question, but I can make a general observation:

  • If you are writing for teens
  • At some point in the not so distant future
  • If you do not play these types of video games
  • It will be the same as a writer who is not reading what her audience is reading

In other words, you’re screwed.

Don’t believe me? Watch those three videos again and tell me not how you are going to compete with that, but how they don’t impact your readers.

Lastly, I present to you another video.

These are the games teens, your readers present and future, are playing.

Evolve or die.


  1. I never play video games. Mostly because I'm not a fan, slightly because I'm not willing to fight the three boys in my house for a turn.

    My answer is to turn my book into a video game for girls. I'll be a millionaire!

  2. I don't write in this genre so I can't provide first hand experience as an author, but I can provide first hand experience as once being a kid, and a casual gamer.

    I have played the demo versions of Gears of War and I used Ghost Recon as research for my military thriller novel.

    Kids have always acted out violence, whether it is in the real world, or in video games. When I was a kid we didn't have video games so we terrorized the neighbors, or found other ways to get into trouble. You could argue that keeping the kids in the house playing games keeps them from getting into trouble, but it also keeps them from exercise, fresh air, and hanging with their friends.

    The vast majority of kids understand the difference between the real world and play. In every generation there were always those that didn't, picked up their dad's gun, and got into serious trouble. There's not much you can do about that.

    I never stopped my son from playing video games, and never set hard limits on how long he could play, etc. But what I did do was talk to him, read books to him, and took him outside to play baseball or football.

    As with anything, the key is balance.

    I agree with Anthony. Kids don't necessarily have a shorter attention span, but they do expect things to move faster, mainly because the pace of life is faster.

    When I get a new gadget the first thing I do is scan through the manual and pick out how to run it. My son tosses the manual aside, and starts punching buttons. More often than not, he's figured it out way before I have.

    Does that mean that one way is better than the other? I don't think so. It points out generational differences that kids have to use to survive.

    Would I write differently if I was writing for YA? You bet I would.

  3. @Amber - Many multiplayer games out there will split the screen four ways. The Wii seems to have the most fun ones.

    @Doug - What a thoughtful reply, thanks!
    In my self-imposed word limit, I did not have enough space to explore a related theme: as social networks multiply with the aid of technology, the distinction of age categories becomes less of a barrier to discovery.

    What I mean is this: my son reads teen fiction, but he is not a teen.

    There are some teen books I will not let him read. For example, Unwind. There are many others he can handle.

    What does that have to do with you? Well, my son is nine. When he is fifteen, he will be reading adult fiction. Sure, he will still read the YA title, the good ones, but clearly he has moved on. He is a potential reader of your novels in a mere six years (or earlier!) Thus, this post is relevant to all writers if you look at it from a certain point of view.

    Looping back to discovery: networking and searching knocks down barriers to the discovery of books labeled a certain way.

    Pure goodness for an author who has his pulse on audience appeal. I’m not just talking about pacing and intensity, either, but also of appealing themes, commonality and voicing.

    But I digress.

  4. I read your post on my phone and felt compelled to grab my laptop to comment. I'm a parent of a tweener girl who is an avid reader and casual gamer. No TV. She has a super long attention span for anything she likes.

    I see video games evolving to include richer stories. Action, visuals, and game play are important, but add a great story and original music and you could have a blockbuster game.



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