Playing Stories and Reading Games

In the introductory chapter of her book Critical Play, Mary Flanagan provides a quote from Greg Costikyan’s “I Have No Words” that touches on the difference between stories and games (Flanagan 7). Stories, according to Costikyan, are linear because the characters do the same things every time you reread them. Games are non-linear because player agency and decision-making possibilities are built into their design. While Flanagan continues to chronicle the intersections of art, games, and play throughout her book, she does not expand on these ideas about the separation of stories and games beyond to call them both “mediums of expression” for artists, and that “noticing the ways language plays with culture, especially language as used by artists, can help designers find methods of consciousness raising, too for social commentary” (118).

For the sake of the Stories in Play Initiative[2] it is worth taking the time to fill in this gap between stories and games by problematizing the idea that they are such dissimilar creatures. Costikyan’s conceptualizations are, perhaps, rather conservative. His approach does not seem to take into consideration the playfulness of stories nor the power structures intrinsic to games. “Agency” has for some time been a buzzword in literary studies, and it seems that it has likewise been taken up within digital humanities. The aim, I suppose, is to insist that the person at the bottom of traditional power structures has power by telling them that they have agency. Look! This female character made a decision by herself! Women have agency! Look! This orphan child made it through an adventure without his parents! Children have agency! Look! This game is designed to let players choose between sending their avatar left or right! Game players have agency! It is all rather simplistic. Is it really agency if the choices are pre-crafted for generic consumption?[3]

Moreover, to call a story linear and a game non-linear is a bit presumptuous. Structurally speaking, a story is not a straightforward depiction of a series of events in the order in which they occur.[4] A story is a complex confluence of progression and regression, of character and theme, of reality and psyche, of form and content. To discuss a concrete example, would anyone[5] call Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves linear? The novel, a horror story of sorts, partly takes the form of a scholarly text[6] that analyzes an inexistent documentary[7] about what, for simplicity’s sake, I will call a haunted house.[8] A large chunk of the story is, however, formatted as footnotes.[9] There is also extensive variety of archival material, some of which is actually missing from the book. While reading the novel, the academic text will often direct you to either the footnotes or the appendices. Likewise, the footnotes may direct you to more footnotes. As the story proceeds, the page structure begins to “disintegrate,” in correlation to the experiences of the characters, which forces the reader to alter their reading, and even the way they hold the book. In other words, Danielewski intentionally disrupts notions of literary linearity, and at the same time[10] achieves an unconventional amount of reader interactivity.[11] The reader can elect to ignore directions towards the footnotes and appendices[12], or to pick and choose what they read from each. Any choice you make will alter your experience of the text.[13] The reader also has the option of interacting with the text outside of the book itself, by confirming or disproving certain statements that Truant makes.[14], [15] Yet, even if the reader attempts to read just The Navidson Record sections of the book, for instance, the reader will still have to physically rotate the book to read the upside-down portions; they will have to keep pace with the pages that only bare single words; they will have to adjust their eyes every time the word house appears. The structural subversion and terrifying playfulness of the novel forces the reader to abandon their preconceived notions of what a novel is meant to be.[16]

Frankly, while House of Leaves is an extreme example[17], all good literature should aim to accomplish subversion in some way.[18]

Part II

Literature plays and is played,[19] but games, for the most part, are only played. What Flanagan seems to want, is for game designs to play, too.[20] Her discussion, in Critical Play, centres on the concept of subversive play, the idea being that, by using play as a method of undermining traditional power structures and conventions, it enables both the creator(s) and the player(s) to engage in thoughtful, reflective, critical dialogues, ideally about important human/life-based issues. The play, whatever form it may take, ought to be at once disruptive and offer a safe space, distanced enough from reality so that a dialogue might take place without repercussions. Flanagan calls on the artists and activists of today to turn to digital games as a productive “medium of expression” to achieve their goals.

Her reason for focusing so closely on literary-based artists is to establish the strong historical correlation between games, literature, [21] and subversion, and to show the possibilities of digital games to continue to enact such subversion. But, the possibilities do not lie solely in the content. Just as House of Leaves is a labyrinthine novel about literal and metaphorical labyrinths, so too must the form and designs of digital games match their content.[22] The ways in which the games are designed to be played[23] and even the very methodologies that structure their design processes, ought to emphasize diversity and human-based concerns.

One important thing to be learned, then, might in fact be the constant challenging of norms in literature. There seems to be a tendency in digital game design to continually reproduce designs, gameplay, and content that are already familiar to the public, and to create such games within a hierarchical system of production. And as Flanagan discusses,[24] these games continue to reproduce – and thus enforce – the power structures of the culture in which they were created. How is it possible to have a great game – or a critical game – if you abide by all the norms? A videogame might be fun in the same way that Harlequin romances and paint-by-numbers fantasy novels are fun, but entertainment value does not imply greatness. What is normal is rarely great.

So, look to literature – the best of literature[25] – for inspiration in the most sincere sense. Digital game designers ought to achieve in games what writers achieve in books. After all, why not? There are always limits that can be pushed, and possibilities that can be exploited. If a novel can be a labyrinth, then what can a digital game do?





Works Cited

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. Toronto: Random House, 2000. Print.

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT

Press, 2009. Print.



[1] Or, The Method, the Madness, and the Minotaur

(Can scholarly essays be written in a pseudo-stream-of-consciousness format with “light touches” of humour? Why or why not?)

(Regretfully, and perhaps ironically, Microsoft Word’s footnote design does not allow me to embed footnotes within footnotes. Apparently the designers do not assume that their users will wish to use their product in even just slightly unusual ways. Hence these bracketed sections.*) (Update: it might be possible to embed endnotes within endnotes in WordPress, but that’s an adventure for another day. This system is still generally less fun because it seems to assume that all endnotes will serve a certain type of citation-based function…)

* There might be some asterisks as well.

[2] And because I enjoy subversion

[3] The idea of a generic audience is, of course, misleading. Largely, the average gamer is understood to be white, male, heterosexual, and bourgeois. Games are designed by/for humans who checkmark such boxes. So we must ask: how can a person who does not fit that mould have agency within such a system?

[4] If a story was wholly linear, we would most likely refer to it as a list of plot points. It wouldn’t be very fun to read.

[5] In their right mind

[6] The Navidson Record

[7] Also called The Navidson Record

[8] A dark hallway appears in the house, and, as the Navidson family – particularly the photographer husband/father, Will – begins to probe its depths, it transforms into an elaborate series of completely black rooms and hallways which becomes increasingly more difficult to escape. A labyrinth.

[9] Some of the footnotes act as conventional footnotes, providing citations, historical/contextual information, and translations. Other footnotes tell the tale of Johnny Truant, the young man assembling The Navidson Record, after having discovered the rough draft as a trunk of papers in the apartment of a dead man.

[10] Or because of…

[11] Now, I am not convinced that reading, even traditional reading, is not an interactive experience to begin with. A story cannot read itself, after all. A book is only an object when it is not being read. Both the writing and the reading of a story are essential* to its existence – reading is part of the process of creation. Though, yes, it may be said that the interactivity occurs more in the reader’s imagination, or in discussions with other readers, or in things that are created due to the inspiration of the book…I could go on.

*Nothing is ever truly essential, however. There are plenty of books that exist only as titles that appear within other books, imaginary novels that a character reads, and that the reader in turn reads as an aspect of the characterization of the character.

[12] As you can now.

[13] And we can assume there is no such thing as a proper/complete experience of House of Leaves.

[14] For instance, there are numerous quotations from other books and writers that appear within The Navidson Record, and Truant tells us on many occasions that, either such a book doesn’t exist, or the writer never wrote such a thing. But, he is a very unreliable narrator. So, do we trust him? Do we do some of the work ourselves?

(For a bit more reader interaction with this essay, you may search for all the corresponding page numbers for my references to House of Leaves. I promise you, they do exist. But then again, am I a reliable narrator?)

[15] It is also very common to find copies of the text completely marked up by readers who attempt to trace every theme, symbol, etc. I myself prefer to press leaves and flowers within the book.

[16] The book about a labyrinth takes the form of a labyrinth. A dark, inescapable labyrinth. You do not leave it when you put the book down. You have become a part of the game and you do not ever get to leave. You cannot forget what you have seen. The labyrinth is inside of you.

[17] And is an example of ergodic literature, a term which refers to both digital- and non-digital texts that incorporate interactive narration.

[18] If all good books are labyrinths and all labyrinths are games, then are all good books also games?

[19] Subverts and is read/experienced

[20] As well as for discussions about games and game designs to play, in a sense. That is, to subvert expectations of what those discussions should entail (in terms of both form and content), as Flanagan does by forging connections between art and games, which, in part, refutes or at least undermines the focus on technology and commercialism common to game design and analysis.

(It might also be asked if games can be read (metaphorically as well as literally). People read books, read images, read movies, but can you read games? If there is gaming/computer literacy can there also be game reading?)

(Why do scholars not psycho-analyze game developers in the same way that they do other creative people? What would be a Freudian or Marxist reading of Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft? How might the theories of Foucault be applied to the internet-based interaction and games surrounding reality TV shows like Big Brother? What not further unpack the capitalism and consumerism inherent in The Sims franchise?)

[21] Or, at least, language.

[22] Match the method to the madness.

[23] The different learning and playing styles that might be incorporated, for instance.

[24] “…as a cultural medium, games carry embedded beliefs within their systems of representation and their structures, whether game designers intend these ideologies or not” (223).

[25] By which I do not mean the novels or books of poetry or what-have-you which sells well, though a great book may also sell well, but the best in that it pushes the limits of language as far as it can go, that makes use of all the possibilities of the form, that comments on human life in such an unique and odd way that the reader cannot help but say “of course! That is life exactly!”

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