Functional Ludostylistics: Establishing an Interdisciplinary Language in Astrid Ensslin’s Literary Gaming


The hybridity of ludo-literary works are examined in Astrid Ensslin’s monograph Literary Gaming (2014). Ensslin’s text participates along a continuum of works which argue for the coalescence of literature and ludology in scholarship. Namely, she argues that a framework is needed to discuss the broad spectrum of works which blur the boundary between literature and gaming and she proposes to offer such a framework with her “functional ludostylistics,” which will be discussed in further detail later in this essay. The main research questions addressed in her work are: How can stories be approached in a way that reflects gaming structures? Conversely, how do games deploy literary strategies to entertain or engage the player?

By placing the notion of playfulness within the context of artistic movements and critical theories, Ensslin establishes a structure that can be understood by humanities scholars who might be well versed in the movements she names, such as the avant-garde. On the other hand, Ensslin’s text also provides a more practical tool kit which is based in application of her methodology and which picks up on the critical-theoretical basis which she establishes in the first section. In creating a system of analysis which merges both theory and practice, Ensslin deals with the problem of digital literacy in the humanities by grounding the unfamiliar in the familiar and adopting an interdisciplinary approach. I argue that Astrid Ensslin’s Literary Gaming offers a necessary initial step in providing a common language with which scholars can speak about this particular genre in a way that is efficient and codified, and that this can be useful in gaining literacy in regards to digital storytelling methods.

What is Ludology?

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Theoretical Approach:

The typology employed in Ensslin’s Literary Gaming is embedded within a framework of theoretical and critical movements which “have play at their core” while also engaging with the humanities (19). According to Ensslin, literary scholarship has not yet accepted the notion of play and games as forms of human interaction worthy of study (7). She is joined by others like, for example, Patrick Jagoda who similarly claims that even between the fields of digital humanities and digital media, which may appear to be quite closely related, “scholars do not share research methods, questions, or objects of study” (189).

The typology employed in Ensslin’s Literary Gaming is embedded within a framework of theoretical and critical movements which “have play at their core” while also engaging with the humanities

There appears to be a gap or separation between humanities-related (whether that be digital humanities or traditional literary, historical, or philosophic subject areas) and media-centered academic study which Ensslin and Jagoda both describe and which has begun to be addressed over the last 5-10 years with the growth of the gaming industry (Ensslin 27). Thus, the way in which Ensslin uses the first part of her text to ground digital media in a humanities context opens up a space to create a new standard in discussing games and demonstrates that literature and ludology are not completely antithetic.

One way that she dispels this notion of exclusivity is by pointing out that the potential for gameful experiences exists within the structure of literary print texts themselves. For example, she cites the “literary play with and on words which includes a range of conventional stylistic tools” (Ensslin 30) and shows literary scholars that certain aspects of ludology are implicit within the very texts that they devote their time to studying. In the late 20th century, a surge in playful literature occurred with the advent of postmodernism and the avant-garde approached playfulness with a political agenda in mind. The “typical” humanities scholar would be at least preliminarily versed in such movements which are seminal in literary studies, and may be able to better understand games when approached with these familiar frameworks in mind. For example, an English academic may understand that Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque applies to a variety of theatrical plays and hones in on the aspects of upturning social convention in literature. On the other hand, Literary Gaming presses them to imagine how the carnivalesque works as a subversive mechanism for emphasizing the turn against  dominant modes within the creative industries in something like Jason Nelson’s poetic game Evidence of Everything Exploding (Ensslin 134). I argue that Ensslin’s text takes literary concepts and maps them onto theories of play in the digital realm in order for interdisciplinary connections to emerge and for scholars in different fields to come together to study varying modes of digital play in both games and literature.

Ensslin further connects the two fields by placing playful literature under the title of “cognitive ludicity” as gameplay in such texts occurs mainly within the reader’s mind (28). Although she is not the first to explicate the gameful experience of print, Ensslin certainly provides a useful way of speaking about these texts in terms that cross-disciplinary borders and her vocabulary is valuable in systematizing literary gaming. She reminds us, however, that not all of these boundary-crossing artifacts are the same, and in fact, they exist along a spectrum. This spectrum is seminal to Ensslin’s ability to analyze a range of texts, though they all have some level of emphasis on literary or narrative storytelling aspects. The print texts which she describes as having some ludic features would certainly be closer to the “literary” end of the “L-L continuum” which is just one aspect of her typology in this text.

Practical Tool Kit:

Ensslin argues that games studies has been more or less confined to media and has not yet found its way into English departments (7). If this is true, her typology of functional ludostylistics certainly proposes to give humanities and literary scholars a method of integrating games studies into their own work. This occurs through codification and labeling using particular terminology which can be applied to a spectrum of works that Ensslin herself has surveyed. In this way, her text exemplifies Jagoda’s “practice-based research” by moving toward a model of scholarship that is undertaken through material experience and interaction with something (in this case games) that takes considerable technical skill to create (190-191). Her work proves to be an exemplar for other scholars who wish to venture into a more practice-based approach and in fact gives scholars and practitioners alike the tools they need to integrate such an approach into their own work.

Literary Gaming examines not only ludic electronic literature, like hypertext poems, but also literary computer games, which have a greater ludic component

One such tools is the “L-L continuum,” mentioned earlier in this essay, which expresses the author’s aim to fill in the gap which exists in literature that focuses only on specific subsets of this spectrum. Literary Gaming examines not only ludic electronic literature, like hypertext poems, but also literary computer games, which have a greater ludic component. In the fourth chapter, Ensslin carries her reader through an analysis of four particular works of digital literature, including Deena Larsen’s Firefly, typically defined as being playful or game-like, only to demonstrate that they in fact register quite low on the ludic end of the spectrum and engage more with cognitive aspects of “play”. This emphasizes the fact that a new, more flexible definition is needed and proves to her readers that a spectrum is far more functional than a static approach. Furthermore, although she presents Robert Kendall’s Clues as another example of digital literature like Firefly, she explicates the ways in which Clues actually employs greater ludic mechanics as it can be either “won” or “lost.” All this to say that the exact same theories and terminology can not be used to make generalized claims about works on opposite ends of the spectrum, let alone works that appear quite close in definition like Firefly and Clues.

Additionally, Ensslin separates the different kinds of gameful experiences even further into categories which progress along the L-L continuum: works which engage ergodic play (literary works that require non-trivial effort to traverse) are closer to literature, and works which make use of ludic mechanics (challenge, risk, objective, victory conditions) are closer to actual computer games (Ensslin 195-196). Yet, works are rarely so far to either the left or right that they can be easily pin-pointed as fitting neatly into a single category. I believe that this notion is also representative of the trajectory of digital humanities scholarship, as it increasingly traverses the line and, with the help of works like Ensslin’s, finds ways to venture further into the realm of digital media studies and helps academics do scholarly work in progressively creative ways.

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One of the many examples of this fluidity is the 3D literary environment, such as CAVES at Brown University, is not a video game per se due to the absence of challenge and winnable circumstances and thus does not employ ludic mechanics, but can still be “played” in a sense by users who physically enter the CAVE cube and move words around the screens (Ensslin 46). This means that users are mostly engaging with cognitive and ergodic aspects of play as they internally think through their actions and the meanings of the words which surround them, constructing the text as they go along. Though the terms Ensslin uses, such as ergodic, may not be newly invented, she does utilize them in such a way that demonstrates how we should not necessarily view digital media (which we assume to be connected to digital and ludic mechanics) and humanities studies (which we assume operates more through cognition) as binaries. Instead, we can view them more usefully as points along a spectrum which engage different aspects of play and gaming in nuanced ways. Both scholars and practitioners might find such terminology useful in facilitating conversation about literary gaming in that they can recognize their fields as interconnected and begin to address the issue of knowledge-sharing between the fields, something that Jagoda himself points out (189).

we can only speak of literary gaming if all four compartments are used

In order to address some of the other nuances of these various works, the author also gives us a typology including four components: ludonarratology, ludo semiotics, ludology and mediality (52). One of the downfalls of this text is that her typology is very much grounded in her own survey of specific games with which it is rather imperative to be familiar if one is to understand her analysis. However, she provides her reader with a number of graphic depictions of her methodology, which are meant to clarify her methodology. Table 3.1, for example, outlines the four components of her functional ludostylistics and explicates them through examples (53). I would argue that what she gives us here (essentially a cheat sheet) can be a useful guide for scholars to have on hand when examining digital games or playful literature. Furthermore, these four components help to codify the rather broad range of games that she sets out to define and examine, giving scholars distinct cues for what they must attune to in studying these works. As Ensslin points out, “we can only speak of literary gaming if all four compartments are used” (161). Thus, her typology can be given to those without formal training in the realm of playable literature and stories, and can allow them to speak about these texts in a critical manner.

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