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Literary Gaming

by Astrid Ensslin
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014
224 pp., illus. 21 b&w. Trade, $30.00
ISBN: 978-0-262-02715-1.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


Literary Gaming is a fascinating and detailed scholarly exploration of this fairly new field of academic inquiry. The book investigates the rather unique combination of literature, in its broadest sense, and games, especially digital computer games.

I was fascinated to learn that the computer games industry has a huge financial turnover, “By the second decade of the twenty-first century, computer games have become a well-established art form represented by a global industry whose turnover exceeds that of both Hollywood and the music industry” (p. 34). Apart from the financial importance of this startling fact, the number of individuals involved in programming, designing, creating and playing all types of computer based videogames is enormous. This alone justifies the detailed investigation that Ensslin has carried out and presented in Literary Gaming.

This book mainly looks at literary video games that combine substantial aspects of both the ludic and the literary. “They employ narrative, dramatic and poetic techniques in order to explore the affordances and limitations of ludic structures and processes” (frontispiece). Ludic, as used by Ensslin, “ranges from the kind of cognitive playfulness exhibited by ludic print literature to ludic mechanics, with the latter operating as an element of a ludic digital “book” ... or as the technological implementation of the rules of a literary game proper, that is, an artefact that has to be played, first and foremost” (p. 42). These games are different from conventional literary/word games, such as the long-standing and popular “analogue” game, Scrabble––and also from a conventional book that has been reset as an eBook, basically a book under glass.

In her research Astrid Ensslin developed what she calls the “L-L” spectrum by which to analyse and categorise the various and numerous literary video games available as both stand-alone or online, multi-user applications. Some games concentrate more on the literary side of things, others on the ludic; however, to be considered in this study both of these aspects must form part of the game.

The book is very well written and, considering some of the complex theories (communication, meaning, authorship and so on) discussed, is still accessible to the interested general reader. Literary Gaming is divided into two sections. Part I is an introduction and discussion of the theories and methodology involved. Part II, with seven chapters analyses the various aspects of literary video games using a number of actual games as case studies. This analysis includes: hypertext literature; ludic hypermedia fiction; anti-ludicity and ludic mechanics; and interactive fiction. Literary Gaming has a smattering of black and white images and concludes with excellent Notes; References; Glossary; and Index––very important inclusions in scholarly books. Examples of some of the games discussed include: The Princess Murderer; Blue Lacuna; The Path and Loss of Grasp.

In the introduction Ensslin outlines the basic aims of her research as presented in the book:


“However the past decade has seen a proliferation of [such] digital media hybrids, and it is against this creative and cultural backdrop that this book seeks to correct the widely held view that games and literature do not really go together. It aims to draw attention to a new form of experimental literary art that is closely tied to digital media as a productive, receptive, and participatory platform, and that requires entirely novel ways of close play and reading.” (p. 7)

Ensslin notes that the literary side of the “L – L” spectrum is more developed and detailed than the ludic at present, then describes types of applications using the “L –L” models.
(1) Kinetic digital literature

(2) Code works
(3) Interactive generative literature
(4) Literary 3D environments
(5) Literary hypertext and hypermedia
(6) Ludic hypermedia literature

It is interesting to note that as soon as a thing becomes mainstream and accepted as a standard, a counter process becomes active to “subvert the dominant paradigm;” this is already happening to video games. Those that are established and commonplace are being abandoned or “hacked” and newer, underground ones created to take their place. This is already happening even in this seemingly nascent field of literary games!

I have one minor criticism of this book in that it would have benefited from an appendix that contained a comprehensive list of all the literary video games available, especially those discussed throughout the book. These, together with up-to-date URLs of the games, would make it easier for readers and researchers to access the games via the Internet.

I think conventional books of poetry, short stories, and the novel will continue to be popular and important, perhaps in spite of the ubiquity of digital computers and new media. However, I also believe a genre such as the short story is in dire need of a makeover––digital technologies may afford this experimental and exciting new approach. Speaking of the hybridization of digital games and literature, “This fusion is urgently needed to grant creative writing a more contemporary, media-savvy outlook, as well as to expand and advance the artistic and critical significance of games” (p. 1).

I am sure Literary Gaming will become a core text in the academic fields of new media, digital gaming, and literature itself. I cannot recommend the book highly enough to be included in all of the relevant university curricula, as well as being an excellent resource and inspiration for experimental game designers and creative writers.

Last Updated 5th August 2013

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