Can a Game Be Literature?

We believe that textual virtual worlds are an emerging form of literature. Cambridge University agrees with us: TriadCity is cited by The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism as its culminating example of "Postmodernist" literature. Our experience with TriadCity has taught us that virtual worlds do a better job of fulfilling the formal and thematic agendas of Postmodernist literature than forms confined to print are able to do. Borrowing from Brian McHale's fascinating Postmodernist Fiction, here's what we mean.

Modernism was about epistemology. Modernist authors employed fictional strategies emphasizing questions such as, "How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? What am I in it? What is there to be known? How is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of reliability? What are the limits of knowledge?"

By contrast Postmodernism is about ontology. Postmodernist authors ask, "Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it? What is a world? What kinds of worlds are there? How are they constituted? How do they differ? What happens when different kinds of world are placed in confrontation, or when the boundaries between worlds are violated? What is the mode of existence of a text, and of the world(s) it projects? How is a projected world structured?"

These are exactly the questions which virtual worlds pose. The problem is that before TriadCity, they've tended to be naive. While graphical worlds such as Second Life seem to be largely about simulating dance floors, textual worlds have almost universally been trivial kill-the-dragon style games for teenagers. What happens if you take them seriously as a literary form, exploring more sophisticated themes?

Here are some of the ways TriadCity does this:

  • Player subjectivity. We use the computer to dynamically decide how to show the TriadCity world to its visitors. Room contents, descriptions, conversations can all vary subtly or radically depending on character attributes and histories. We can change the tone of room descriptions to create varied emotional resonances, or we can model schizophrenia by engaging your character in conversation with people who aren't "really" there. These dynamics are substantially under the control of world authors, placing unique and very powerful narrative tools into their hands. We know of no previous sustained narrative which has attempted anything like this.

  • Nondeterministic causality. Our experience with TriadCity has taught us that literary forms are dependent on their modes of distribution. Works distributed in bound form inevitably have a linear structure, indeed whole genre such as mystery fiction or picaresque novels exist to exploit the effects made possible by this inevitability. TriadCity offers a very different experience, where fixed sequences of events can't be imposed. Traditional linear fiction is based on and explores deterministic causalities; in TriadCity the causalities explored are structural, probabilistic, stochastic. Yes, that's a mouthful. Players aren't required to worry about this. Authors, maybe a little.

  • Borrowed characters. A Postmodernist literary convention, borrowed characters break the walls between textual worlds, providing an economical, condensed way to compare them. There's more at The TriadCity Authors' Blog.

  • Overlaps between fictional worlds. We can create gateways between and share content with other games or works of interactive fiction - either sub-worlds from within TriadCity itself or external worlds on the Internet. Without giving too much away, we'll just note for now that we do in fact do this, and there's more coming.

  • Universal city. Instead of deriving from the traditional MUD sources — DnD and Tolkien — we've based TriadCity on the "universal city" idea of Modernist literature, especially Eliot's The Waste Land. In TriadCity all cities of western culture and all historical epochs are present simultaneously, along with fantastic and surreal elements, blended together inside a framework which is essentially satirical. The setting is urban, non "medieval", and you'll find cowboys, Greek philosophers and astronauts together in the same mag-lev subway. The fun of this is that we can ambitiously set out to take snotty satirical pokes at pretty much everything, and have a reasonably coherent structure for doing that.

  • Voice, point of view, juxtaposition, interior monologue, unreliable narrators, language games, more. We borrow the usual techniques from conventional novels, poetry, satire; the worlds of writing we're all already familiar with. But we also love to play. It's a game, after all. We have zones written as haiku; lipograms; Anguish Languish and other homophonic games; cut-ups; Cockney Rhyming Slang; Pig Latin; hypertext fiction. Thematically, TriadCity is predominantly satire, and we make fun of absolutely everything, even the things we're serious about. Our Authors' Blog elaborates.

Specialists in emerging literary forms agree with us. TriadCity is taught in university courses around the world. The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism cites TriadCity as its culminating example of Postmodern literature.

Does this mean you have to have a Ph.D. in literature to enjoying playing our dumb game? Nah! If you like to read interesting fiction; or you like to play multi-user games; or you like to role-play; or you're simply a smart and curious person; we think you'll have a lot of fun in our big play world for grownups. And Postmodernism be damned.


Intrigued by this games-as-literature business? Have a look at Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, by Janet Horowitz-Murray of MIT. This is a fine book which discusses many of the technical practices we employ.

For more about Modernism and Postmodernism, check out Brian McHale's Postmodernist Fiction.

In October, 2003, SmartMonsters' Gary Smith and Mark Phillips gave a talk on games and literature at the Richard Hugo House Sixth Annual Enquiry: Games in Seattle. We thought it was really fun. If this interests you, here's a condensed outline of our lengthy yack yack yack.

Dr. Allen Webb used TriadCity in his Spring 2005 course, English 597: Literature on the Web at Western Michigan University.

The Winter 2005 issue of the Bay Area Library and Information Network Newsletter includes an interesting article on TriadCity and literature by BayNet President Steven Dunlap.

TriadCity was used in the Summer 2012 course at UC Santa Cruz, DANM 132: Literary Games: The Intersection of Writing & Play.

The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism cites TriadCity as its culminating example of Postmodern literature.

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