Playful Literature: An Annotated Syllabus (Part 1)

July 6, 2020

This is the sixteenth in a series of posts dedicated to works of gameful literature and theater—not games that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?

This post is the first in a series that describes the graduate course I taught in the Summer of 2020 on the subject of “Playful Literature.” In this post, I describe the big ideas, questions, and topics of the course.

Jorge Luis Borges, a cat, and a labyrinth

Building the backstory

 Though there may be a few curmudgeonly holdouts among us who ask, “Is that really literature?” the majority of those who teach and study in English departments are tolerant of texts that aren’t printed on paper or that use more than words to tell a story, create a memorable image, or provoke a feeling. Personally, I’ve always thought about literature in expansive terms. I was never into “literature” when I was a kid, though I was a voracious reader and watcher. As an undergraduate English major in the late 1980s, I took courses on film, feminism and popular culture, and romance novels, and I freely mixed creative writing with theory. Meanwhile, outside of the classroom, I played Dungeons & Dragons and videogames and played and watched sports.

The kinds of texts that counted for me as “literary” continued to expand during my years in graduate school, where I studied drama, the avant-garde, and Black American literature and culture. Each of these traditions complicate in one way or another what is conventionally understood as the “literary text.” To be an effective reader of dramatic literature, for example, you need to know theatre history and what it takes to stage a play. You need to go to the theatre and watch the players play. To understand the avant-garde, you have to engage with texts that don’t work in normal ways. You’re trying to figure out how to read Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance) . . .

A page from “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (1897)

. . . parole in libertà, the closet dramas of Gertrude Stein, concrete poetry . . .

Mary Ellen Solt, “Forsythia” (1966)

and Fluxus event texts.

Yoko Ono, “Lighting Piece” (1955)

If you study Black American literature, you study the full range of Black American literatures—not only the novels of Toni Morrison, the plays of August Wilson, or the poetry of Langston Hughes, but the blues, spirituals, stand-up comedy, and the diverse oral traditions of the African diaspora.

More recently, I’ve grown interested in the literatures associated with digital and computational technologies: interactive fiction, digital poetry, and, especially, videogames. I’ve taught undergraduate and graduate courses on videogames as literature, written a few essays, co-authored a book on technology and theatre, and am developing an anthology on literary representations of videogames, videogame players and designers, and videogame cultures. To do all that, I’ve had to learn a lot about games, including the history of boardgames and card games, game theory, and the principles of game design.

Meanwhile, I’ve been playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons—as a player, gamemaster, and teacher. I’ve had the opportunity to observe Olivia Maderer incorporate roleplaying games in their composition classes. And I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that big stack of boardgames that my family and I acquired over the last couple of decades, many of them heavy on worldbuilding.

So, what does all this add up to?

What if we included in a single genre literary works that represent games and the people who play them (for example, Pope’s The Rape of the Lock), works that incorporate game strategies into their formal structures (“Choose Your Own Adventure” novels, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch), and games, especially games that tell stories?

That’s exactly the question I wanted to answer in the graduate course I designed for the Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Literature & Criticism 2020 graduate summer program. And I named that question “Playful Literature.” (Well, actually, the original name of the course was “Playable Literature,” but my thinking evolved during the run of the course.)

Designing the game

Game designer Eric Zimmerman has declared the 21st century the “Ludic Century.” He argues that our world is increasingly shaped by information systems that require forms of playful interaction, though often without our consent or the opportunity to understand the implications of our play. For example, I play a (thoroughly unenjoyable) game with my insurance provider. The rules are simple: If I complete a certain number of health-related tasks (such as getting a physical or completing a mental-health survey), I pay less for my healthcare. Gamification is increasingly common in industrial design, marketing, labor management, and education, but also in less savory fields, such as recruiting young people to extremist political organizations.

Zimmerman believes that one way to increase consciousness and agency within these kinds of playful information systems is to develop and teach multiple kinds “gaming literacy”; in other words, knowing how games work and how they shape our intellectual and emotional engagement. But games are far more than rules and mechanics. Games are fictions—they represent ideas, people, places, social relations, and ideas. Games are embedded in culture—indeed, being a skilled player of games is often one of the ways we decide who is in a group and who is not (as anyone who’s ever been chosen last for a ballgame understands). Not surprisingly, games enjoy an enduring presence in literature—think of chess in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, card games in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock or Austen’s Mansfield Park, croquet in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, roulette in Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, and videogames in Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge and Gibson’s The Peripheral, to name only a very few. And, finally, there are the many genres of literature that require the audience’s active and playful engagement: collaborative storytelling, dramatic literature, surrealist poetry, interactive fiction, videogames, postmodern fiction, and tabletop roleplaying games.

Is it possible to think of all these things as a single genre of literature? If so, how would we define it? What would be its boundaries? How might a concept of playful literature expand and complicate our understanding of literacy, both the literacy we associate with traditional reading and writing activities, but also the literacy we associate with games and play? For example, how would an improved understanding of how games work and how people play them help us be more sensitive readers of traditional literary texts? Or vice versa: How would an improved understanding of how games and game players are represented in literary works help us be more sensitive players and analysts of games, whether board games and role playing games or the gamified systems of the early twenty-first century?

I think these are fascinating and important questions. And that’s why I designed this course.

 I focused the syllabus around three questions:

  1. What is “Playful Literature”?
  2. What are the best methods to analyze, historicize, criticize, and evaluate “Playful Literature”?
  3. How can “Playful Literature” be effectively incorporated into the classroom?

I designed the course to fit within two significant constraints. First, it had to be taught online, as we were still in quarantine. This meant less time to meet and discuss, as only a sadist would require students to spend two and a half hours, four days a week on Zoom. And it meant that our weekly small-team play sessions had to happen virtually, rather than around a table. My choice of games was shaped by that constraint. Second, the course was taught in four weeks as part of our summers-only masters and doctoral program curricula. Were I to teach this in a standard twelve-week, face-to-face format, I would have made different choices concerning primary texts and added at least three more units. At least one of those would have been focused on queer texts and queering strategies, whose absence from this syllabus became increasingly annoying and embarrassing as the semester progressed.

I divided the course into six content areas:

  • Defining games and play
  • The histories of playful literatures
  • Games as literature, including boardgames, tabletop roleplaying games, Surrealist poetry games, and collaborative worldbuilding games
  • Literature as game, focusing on the “open work” and interactive fiction
  • Games in literature
  • Playful literature in the classroom

Before the semester began, I surveyed the twelve students, half of whom were enrolled in our masters program, half in our doctoral program. In addition to practical questions concerning their access to reliable wi-fi, their learning goals for the course, and so on, I asked about their experience with games. Almost all were familiar with board games, 75% with card games, about half with tabletop roleplaying games, a third with interactive fiction, and about three-quarters with videogames. The level of familiarity with each game genre was varied. For example, three of the students who were familiar with tabletop roleplaying games were active Dungeons & Dragons players, and one of them had experience as a game master. The other two had played it in the past. This meant that I needed to approach each game text with the beginner in mind—but with expert peers available to help.

Not wishing to waste valuable Zoom time with lecturing, each week, I recorded one or two short, thoroughly charming introductory videos that provided critical context, explanations of key concepts, brief overviews of readings, and core questions. We met as a whole group twice per week for an hour and a half on Zoom. I divided the group into four-person teams, which met once a week on Zoom for two hours for “playful praxis sessions” during which we played games and developed ludonarratological analyses of them. Students wrote brief responses to each unit’s readings on collective Google Docs and responded to each other’s writings on the same. For their semester projects, they wrote a conference-length essay, curated a ten-item annotated bibliography, and designed a lesson plan that integrated Twine storygame design into literary instruction.

The students made the course a success. They were everything a teacher could want, providing energy, preparation, engaged thoughtfulness, intellectual generousness, out-of-the-box critical angles, and diverse responses to our texts. The quality of their participation was all the more remarkable given that we took this course during the COVID-19 quarantine, so everyone was balancing the intensity of the course with the many personal and existential challenges caused by the pandemic. My tentative answers to the questions of the course evolved significantly as we worked together, and I will be citing many of them individually in these posts, and in the work that emerges from this in the future. My thanks to Olivia Faiad, Maria LaRotonda, Emily O’Donnell, Jesse Rice, Danielle Rishell, Sarah Cheatle, Kevin Ellis, Emily Griff, James Irby, Zebadiah Kraft, Christopher Shenk, and Allen Shull.

The strategy

For this series of blog posts, I will annotate each of the eight course units and four playful praxis sessions, detailing the questions, summarizing and critiquing our readings, describing the key discoveries and critical problematics that we explored, and reflecting on texts and issues that we might have explored if we had had more time.

The course units are as follows:

  1. What is a game? What is play? And what does this have to do with literature?
  2. The histories of playful literature, part 1
  3. The histories of playful literature, part 2
  4. Literature as game, part 1: The open work
  5. Literature as game, part 2: Interactive fiction
  6. Games in literature
  7. Playful literature in the classroom, part 1: Expanding our conceptions of literacy
  8. Playful literature in the classroom, part 2: TPACK and SAMR

And our playful praxis sessions:

  1. Boardgames (Catan)
  2. Tabletop roleplaying games (Dungeons & Dragons)
  3. Twine
  4. Surrealist writing games
  5. Collaborative worldbuilding (The Quiet Year)

I welcome your comments and suggestions, and would be thrilled to collaborate with you on future versions of a Playful Literature course!