Review by Jacob Euteneuer, Oklahoma State University
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016. 206. Non-fiction.
Astrid Ensslin's exploration of the intersection between literature and digital games, Literary Gaming, attempts to formalize a system of tools termed functional ludostylistics which can be used to analyze digital texts ranging from hypertextual literature to literary auteur games. In defining and utilizing the many different approaches to the toolkit of functional ludostylistics, Ensslin argues that current standards for closing reading and deriving meaning from literature fail to accurately identify how texts with elements of play in them create meaning. Similarly, a player based approach to digital games offers little chance for close reading, meaning-making, or repeatable experiences. As a result of these shortcomings, Ensslin's puts forth an argument that the blending of games and literature, literary gaming, can be read across a spectrum unique to each text. She calls this the ludo-literary spectrum, and by placing each artifact on the spectrum, a reader/player can see which aspects of functional ludostylistics would be best suited for analyzing a text.
In the first three chapters, Ensslin establishes the framework for functional ludostylistics, defines her terms, and makes a case for what should be considered true play, and thus influenced by the field of ludology, and what is merely playful. In chapters four through nine, Ensslin provides several case analyses of different artifacts on the ludo-literary spectrum. She concludes her book with chapter ten which looks forward and briefly examines ways in which her analyses offer new paths of exploration and meaning making in games, literature, and literary gaming.
Chapters One to Three: Defining Play and Ludostylistics
From the start of her book, Ensslin makes it clear that current techniques and methodologies for addressing digital artifacts that blend elements of literature and games are inadequate. While not directly confronting the long standing debate in game studies between formalists and narrativists, she does touch on the many ways both schools of thought fails to fully articulate the ways in which the artifact being analyzed creates meaning. Using the technique of close reading and applying principles of narratology fail to get at the procedural nature of games and the multiple paths and experiences presented to the reader/player. Focusing solely on the rules and options available to the reader/player neglects the deep, contemplative nature of literature and the way it depicts the world. Because neither technique is adequate, Ensslin expands Marie-Laure Ryan's methodology of ludonarrativism into an all encompassing methodology she terms ludostylistics. As put forth by Ensslin, ludostylistics consists of four main areas: ludology, which focuses largely on rules, agency, play, risks, and victory/termination conditions; ludonarratology, which focuses on the explicit story put forth by the artifact as well as the experience put forth by reader/player as they progress through the artifact; ludosemiotics, which focuses on the text's procedural rhetoric, user interface, text and discourse, and multimodality; and finally mediality, which focuses on the platform, input controls, hardware, software, and ergodicity. Analyzing texts in regard to these four schools of thought allows for consistent, meaningful interpretation of a vast array of texts. While eschewing hard and fast definitions between "literature" and "game", Ensslin does make use of the cognitive psychological terms deep attention and hyper attention. She aligns deep attention more closely to literature as it relies on a strong, singular focus. Hyper attention allows for multiple sensory inputs and requires attention to be spread across the object being analyzed, and thus is more closely related to games. The tension between these two modes of thinking is part of what makes literary gaming distinct from literature or games taken on their own.
Chapters Four to Nine: Analyses from Hypertext Adventures to Commercial Videogames
Over the course of the next six chapters, Ensslin provides detailed analyses of a varied range of texts that span the ludo-literary spectrum. She begins by examining several hypertext fictions through the lens of functional ludostylistics. The conclusion she draws is that genre distinctions, such as hypertext fiction, poetry games, or interactive fiction, are largely simplifications of the ways in which specific texts construct ludic and literary elements. By placing each of the hypertexts on the ludo-literary spectrum, Ensslin is able to determine the range in approach and mechanics embodied by these texts. She then moves on to examining hypermedia fictions. The texts she examines show a wide disparity between the way they incorporate ludic and literary elements. When texts tend to rely on literary elements such as evocative language, meditation, and deep attention, the elements of play tend to be more cognitive and ergodic. On the other hand, texts which employ ludic mechanics such as victory conditions or scoreboards most often attempt to disrupt the hyper attention induced by modern gaming in order to call attention to the more literary elements of the text.
After close readings/playings of these texts, Ensslin moves into territory that more closely resembles games than literary texts. Her examination of poetry games and literary auteur games, some of which are available via commercial systems such as the Playstation Store or Steam, show the ways in which hyper attention and deep attention can be manipulated in order to expose existing power structures and tropes in modern gaming culture. As texts become more and more ludic, they often rely on the reader/player to do more optional interpretative work as not to disrupt the game's mechanics. Of course, designers and authors can twist these mechanics in order to question practices and long standing traditions.
Ensslin brings her book to a close by restating the purpose of functional ludostylistics: a way to bring ludologists and literary scholars into a closer, more harmonious collaboration. The tools she defines and describes can be used to create repeatable analyses of how these new, digital artifacts construct meaning from words, images, sounds, and ludic mechanics.
While the study is vast, Ensslin is the first to admit that it is but a start. Her prose in the book is strong, though at times it becomes bogged down in esoteric terms and philosophical musings which make her book less reader-friendly than it perhaps needs to be. The strong point of the book is the close readings/playings of the text and the breadth and depth she gives to the study of digital media. Literary Gaming has many admirable qualities and should be sought out by scholars interested in new media, digital media, multimodal composition, and game studies. While each field of study has its own idiosyncratic methods and problems, Ensslin has attempted to show the common ground between these fields and how each can contribute to a larger discussion of the role of games and literature in our increasingly digital society.
Jacob Euteneuer is a PhD candidate in creative writing-fiction at Oklahoma State University. His research interests include play, creative writing, settler colonialism, writing about place, game studies, and video games and composition.
© 2016 Jacob Euteneuer, used by permission