This year’s Book Festival has been concerned with the future of narrative, and of books themselves: with the publishing industry apparently taking a flaming nosedive at the hands of digital culture and participatory media, what can it learn from its inadvertent assassins?

It’s perhaps an overstated question, because books aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and the likes of McSweeney’s have shown that publishing, literature and storytelling can benefit from thoughtful innovation. However, there’s no doubting that digital culture is taking over, and games are at the forefront. In terms of financial turnover, games are bigger than movies; they’re bigger than music; they’re bigger than books or art. Yet, at the same time, they’re often still considered to be nerd territory: a form of culture far away from the mainstream, to be feared and questioned.

Tom Chatfield is an arts writer, most notably for Prospect Magazine. He participated in two events in order to promote his book, Fun, Inc: Why Games are the 21st Century’s Most Serious Business.

Chaired by play theorist Pat Kane, the first session asked many of the now-familiar questions about digital culture. Swathes of the conversation could easily have been subtitled: Video games: they’re not as good as going outside, are they? Despite this, Chatfield gave a good overview of gaming culture for the older audience in attendance, although he oddly concentrated his focus on the implications of World of Warcraft on sociological research and population modelling. Sure, participants’ activities in massively multiplayer online games can be measured and statistically modeled, but games have other things to tell us about who we are.

Like most people in my generation, games were my introduction to computers. I can readily remember when the term video games wasn’t a quaint anachronism. I stared in fascination at the Afterburner machine at my local swimming pool; was responsible for a series of horrific crash landings in Timex’s Flight Simulator on my ZX81; spent a year living in North Carolina coveting my neighbour’s NES. For my thirteenth birthday, I asked for a source code compiler, and for most of my teens I traded homemade computer games with my friends. We ran Spire Magazine, one of the first hypertext-based online magazines, which led to coverage in the Financial Times and in other places, which in turn led to my Internet career. Just as some kids learn to play the guitar and end up writing their own songs, I learned how to program. Code and games are arguably the new rock, for at least a subset of my generation; for me, Peter Molyneux and the Bitmap Brothers were every bit as cool as Kurt Cobain.

Games aren’t just about death, although there’s always been a heavy emphasis on bloodsport, which can be cathartic or unsettling depending on your point of view. Take The Secret of Monkey Island: released in 1990, this was part of an adventure series produced by LucasFilm. You can’t die, and there is no scoring; playing these games is about the experience itself, and the only thing you need to do to win is persevere. They crossed a line between movies, interactive fiction and game-playing, becoming ever more sophisticated. Portions of Monkey Island were written by Orson Scott Card, the science fiction author responsible for the classic novel Ender’s GameIndiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis was based on an unproduced movie script, but easily made the transition to a more interactive format. As you progressed, your decisions shaped the kind of gameplay you experienced; if you were more orientated towards action, you could fight your way to the end. If, on the other hand, you were more interested in puzzles or character development, those were also available routes.

The Dig was in some ways the culmination of this genre; it was based on a story idea by Steven Spielberg, and took a psychological, atmospheric approach to weaving a story. Backgrounds were hand-painted, and characters were sparsely animated. Dialogue and plot took a front row seat.

Unfortunately, as the games industry evolved and consumers wanted bigger bangs and fancier graphics, LucasFilm started to focus more and more on flashy, fight-centric Star Wars titles. Their adventure games – undoubtedly classics, both of storytelling and gaming – were discontinued.

All, however, is not lost. The indie games movement only got a brief mention in Tom’s talk, but similarly to the indie film movement’s role in the wider industry, this has become the new home for quieter, more artistically expressive gaming ideas – for example, the breathtakingly beautiful Machinarium.

The second session, Where’s the Fun? took over the Spiegeltent for a discussion about what fun is, how it’s evolved over time, and whether we’re having more or less fun than we used to. Barry Miles discussed the fun he had in sixties London, in underground clubs with the likes of the Rolling Stones, and wondered if the corporate influence on the culture of fun is having a detrimental effect. Digital culture in general, both authors noted, is largely owned by large corporations.

This is actually changing – by technical design as well as through the rise of the indie movement. Just as the corporate managers aren’t the people actually playing or composing music, they’re also not the people genuinely innovating in digital culture. This is still the domain of hackers, who treat it as more of an art or a political endeavour than business. (The open source blogging platform WordPress makes this point succinctly in its motto: “Code is poetry.”) In fact, many people responsible for games, social networks and platforms are unsettled by the corporate influence, and are actively seeking to do something about it. The likes of OStatus are specifically designed to ensure that Facebook and its monolithic ilk will be less relevant in the future than they are today. Similarly, we are likely to see decentralized massively multiplayer games, where different parts of the game universe are crafted by completely separate artists, hackers and designers. The gaming world is evolving, and it is as artistic as it is lucrative.

It’s become obvious that there is a generation gap that affects understanding of digital culture, but it’s not insurmountable. Like most things, you have to experience it to really understand it: Facebook and Twitter, for example, is a terrifying idea to people who don’t actively participate. I’ll fully admit that war games like Call Of Duty scare me, but I know that if I played them, I’d grok their significance and purpose.

Just as rock and roll was a new, envelope pushing culture in the fifties, sixties and seventies, digital culture is remaking who we are in the 21st century. Games are an integral part of that, and are an artistic medium to embrace and explore rather than fear and question.