Canonizing Interactive Fiction…

Reading over some of our blog posts for this semester, I noticed a common struggle to define and label Electronic Literature.  More specifically, we’ve been delving into a great wealth of popular culture in an attempt to place our favorite media under the E-lit flag.

Now, there is certainly nothing with this.  In fact, it’s exciting to see people look at their every-day entertainment from a more literary perspective.  Nevertheless, I am left with numerous unanswered questions about what qualifies as “Elit” and what does not.  More specifically, I’ve been interested in what defines Interactive Fiction and what does not.  After all, video games are a common topic in this blog, and I was curious to see where they fell on the Elit spectrum.

So to answer this question, I went back to N. Katherine Hayles’ milestone essay Electronic Literature:  What is it? in hopes of gaining a clearer insight.   I was happy to see that she acknowledges the issue in question, noting that ” The demarcation between electronic literature and computer games is far from clear; many games have narrative components, while many works of electronic literature have game elements”.  Ultimate, however, she concludes that “we may say that with games the user interprets in order to configure, whereas in works whose primary interest is narrative, the user configures in order to interpret”.

An interesting thought.  The idea of control here is something we have also discussed as well.  What I believe Hayles is trying to suggest here is that, in most games, we are directed to perform a certain action.  For instance, in a game like Call of Duty, we are given some task or mission to perform and we direct ourselves according.  In Interactive Fiction, however, Hayles seems to suggest that we are the ones giving direction to the game (and not vice versa).

Certainly, this makes sense.  Red Riding Hood, Colossal Cave Adventure, and so on all relied on our input in order for the game to progress.  It is our directions that ultimately decide how the game is played and the order of events which occur.

The question still remains, though:  Where do games like Skyrim, The Sims, Tomb Raider, World of Warcraft, and the many other games we’ve discussed this year fit into the mix?  I would argue that a game like World of Warcraft does not fall into the line of Interactive Fiction.  While there may be a underlining story, its emphasis has always been on game mechanics and a player-directed orientation.

What are your thoughts though?  I know we’ve discussed this topic in class a bit, but I think it is something we should address again.  It’s certainly an interesting idea to consider…

  3 comments for “Canonizing Interactive Fiction…

  1. February 22, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    Glad to see this discussion. I have always tried to define elit as simply as possible: literature that relies on another element, usually via a computer, to convey meaning. You can see some ideas of this in Fundamentals (

    But then… what is literature? What is meaning? So the problem extends pretty far.

    I have, for the most part, given up entirely on trying to keep genres straight. So I’ve added games to my “webshelf” of electronic literature pieces ( And odd little videos. Let me know of any that you particularly liked, and I will look at them for my list.


  2. george
    February 22, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    What I believe Hayles is trying to suggest here is that, in most games, we are directed to perform a certain action. For instance, in a game like Call of Duty, we are given some task or mission to perform and we direct ourselves according. In Interactive Fiction, however, Hayles seems to suggest that we are the ones giving direction to the game (and not vice versa).

    I don’t think that’s quite right. Hayles says that with games we “interpret to configure”. In other words, we the player must understand — interpret — the rules of the model world of the game in order to further configure and alter our environment — that is, to make progress. In a FPS, if we shoot a monster, it dies and it won’t kill us. If we shoot a crate, it explodes and for some reason there’s something inside that’s useful to us.

    With narrative, Hayles says we “configure to interpret”. There are few or no rules we need to figure out to make progress. A good example here is a visual novel, where most of the user interaction is clicking on links. Once you master this single basic interaction nothing impedes further progress.

    However, whether or not we understand — interpret — this narrative satisfactorily is another affair. So, we must make — configure — the rules of the model world before we can satisfactorily interpret the meaning of the work. In contrast, with the rules of the FPS, it’s quite clear whether you can blow up a crate and shoot a monster or not. But in narrative the relationships between characters and concepts is not always so cut and dried.

    I think in the best IF the player simultaneously configures and interprets the work, on one hand learning the interaction rules of the model world in order to progress, and on the other hand constructing the conceptual rules of the narrative in order to understand the work. The game teaches the player how to play and in a subtle reversal how to be played. Ideally when the player fulfills both these conditions the game is over and they get a satisfactory result. In the real world things aren’t always so platonic of course :).

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