Ludicism: Playing the Game of Literature (Part 2)

(Pictured: a typical page from S., a novel by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams that models many of the principles of ludicism outlined below. All of the writing in the margins is part of the book.)

Picking up from where I left off in Part 1, there are a number of tasks still to go. Namely, we have to define the goals and mechanics of literature and show how these can be used to evaluate and interpret literary works. This is where the real theoretical part kicks in, so I apologize if it gets a little dry.

Defining the goal of literature is, in fact, rather straightforward, and can perhaps best be described as a combination of completion and comprehension. One must read the work in its entirety and achieve at least some level of understanding thereof. This goal can be seen quite readily in the efferent and aesthetic reading stances proposed in Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of literature, outlined in a book titled The Reader, The Text, The Poem. Rosenblatt uses the label “efferent” to denote reading “in which the primary concern of the reader is what he will carry away from the reading” (24) – reading for which comprehension is all that matters, as may be the case when reading a textbook or newspaper article. Rosenblatt continues: “In aesthetic reading, in contrast, the reader’s primary concern is with what happens during the actual reading event” (24, emphasis original). This focus on the process requires completion, yet it is crucial to remember that aesthetic reading requires completion in complement to comprehension.

It should here be noted that the author has the same goal: namely, that the reader completely read and understand the literary work. This has some ramifications for whether or not the intentions of the author matter, but I’ll return to that later on.

With the goal of reading therefore established, we can shift our attention to the mechanics of reading, for it is in this regard that ludicism is perhaps most useful. Recall the definition provided for mechanics in the previous post: they “define the options for interaction in and with a game” (Elson et al. 526). The most basic option for “interaction in and with” the game of literature is, quite simply, reading – or more to the point, the rules that govern the traditional reading process, from the linguistic precepts of left-to-right and top-to-bottom to the rules of grammar and syntax, though these are obviously dependent on the culture and language in which a literary work was created. However, mechanics extend far beyond this basic level, incorporating the physical form of the work, narrative perspective, paratext, literary devices, and much more.

I have broadly split these mechanics into three main categories: foundational, content, and peripheral mechanics.

Foundational mechanics refer to the most basic precepts that are required for the reader to interact with the work. For example, books require an awareness of the linguistic, syntactic, and grammatic precepts described, as well as physical interaction with the book as an object. Crucially, foundational mechanics are typically form- and medium-specific: audiobooks, e-books, and physical copies of the same work may differ greatly in the foundational mechanics required for their consumption, but different works within the same medium tend to share most of their foundational mechanics.

Content mechanics, as the name suggests, refer to anything within the artistic or aesthetic content of the work. For most literary works, this is generally comprised of the text and possibly (as with much of William Blake’s work, for example) a variety of images. Content mechanics encompass all the techniques used within the work, including literary devices, narrative perspective, and stylistic and rhetorical techniques. The use of such mechanics will often differ greatly from one work to another and sometimes even within the same work, as when narrative perspective and reliability shift over the course of a novel.

The third category, peripheral mechanics, is the most loosely defined, but lies somewhere between the previous two designations. Peripheral mechanics generally denote anything contained within the work that is not part of the artistic or aesthetic content, most obviously including paratext like footnotes, marginalia, front matter, and the like. The line between peripheral and content mechanics can be somewhat blurry when such paratext is used to augment the aesthetic content of the book. This is increasingly a hallmark of recent postmodern works, such as Danielewski’s aforementioned novel House of Leaves, and the distinction between peripheral and content mechanics should be continually evaluated as time goes on.

Nonetheless, there are three key characteristics that unite all of the above mechanics. Firstly, they all require the reader’s active recognition and interaction. Put bluntly, pages do not turn themselves, and a metaphor requires that the reader recognize it as such and subsequently parse its meaning rather than simply assess it literally.

Secondly, each of these mechanics can be created and used deliberately. It is the author or creator’s choice to include a specific symbol or adopt a particular perspective, and it is this choice that first allows for the creation of meaning – not any specific intention on the part of the creator, but merely the fact that there was some intention at all. At this point, a return to the chess analogy used above may prove useful. A chess player may not know precisely what their opponent intends with a particular move, but the player knows that there was some intention behind it, a purpose or plan that moves the opponent closer to the goal of checkmate.

I’ll digress for a moment here, because the question of authorial intention deserves some more discussion. Remember that, as outlined earlier, the author and the reader have the same goal: namely, that the reader completely read and understand the literary work. With this common goal, we can think about the “strategies” that both author and reader deploy to achieve the goal. Theorist Paisley Livingston proposed an idea that he called “reciprocal expectations” which is quite useful here. He explained the idea as follows:

. . . a reader, in thinking about the meaning of a work, considers not only that the meaning depends on what the writer had in mind but also that what the writer had in mind involved specific expectations about what the reader would expect, and so on. Similarly, writers form expectations about the public’s background beliefs and modes of response, but they also can anticipate ways in which the reader will be trying to take into account those very writerly expectations, and this higher-level expectation can shape the writer’s strategy.

(Livingston 102)

Put simply, authors create works knowing that they will be read, knowing that there will be a reader. They use the mechanics at their disposal deliberately and to the best of their ability in an attempt to achieve their goal. The reader then navigates these mechanics to the best of their ability to achieve the same goal. The author implicitly knows that the reader might arrive at a different understanding based on the mechanics that are used, but insomuch as the reader’s understanding is supported by the mechanics and content, the author’s specific intention is irrelevant.

Thirdly, as follows from the above, any of these mechanics can be used to assist in the creation of meaning by the reader. Most literary theories have attended to content mechanics alone, and have thus done a reductive disservice to the reading act. The sheer acts of holding a book and turning pages, swiping a finger across the screen of an e-reader, or listening to an audiobook can have profoundly different effects on the reader’s experience and the meaning that they find therein.

I also want to briefly outline that mechanics are useful not only for interpretation, but also for the evaluation of literature – that is, the critical assessment of a work’s quality. Ludicism raises a rather direct question: do the mechanics used in a literary work fit and supplement its content? Recall once more the example from House of Leaves described above, in which the physical form of the book and the layout of text on the page both contributed to the feelings of horror and anxiety evoked through the story itself. Put another way, ludicism asks if this story would be better told through another medium, such as film or theatre. If the mechanics don’t contribute to the work’s meaning, then it’s possible the work would function better in another medium. This last point is frequently demonstrated in film adaptations of popular books, which are trying to fit the same content to different mechanics.

This is a very cursory and preliminary overview of the principles I seek to propose with ludicism, but I want to underscore one critical characteristic – alluded to earlier. All of the above principles are, to admittedly varying degrees, broadly applicable across different media. The concepts of foundational, content, and peripheral mechanics can be equally applied to film, theatre, music, and video games – and in all cases, they are used by the media consumer to create meaning. This will prove to be an incredibly useful criterion for assessing theories in the coming years, as the boundaries between our purportedly disparate forms of media are already starting to blur.


Works Cited

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. Remastered Full-Color Edition, Pantheon, 2000.

Elson, Malte, et al. “More Than Stories with Buttons: Narrative, Mechanics, and Context as Determinants of Player Experience in Digital Games.” Journal of Communication, vol. 64, no. 3, Jun. 2014, pp. 521-42. Wiley Online Library, doi: 10.1111/jcom.12096. Accessed 19 Dec. 2016.

Livingston, Paisley. “From Text to Work.” After Poststructuralism: Interdisciplinarity and Literary Theory, edited by Nancy Easterlin and Barbara Riebling, Northwestern UP, 1993, pp. 91-104.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. 1978. Southern Illinois UP, 1994.

Suits, Bernard. “What Is a Game?” Philosophy of Science, vol. 34, no. 2, Jun. 1967, pp. 148-56. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Dec. 2016.

Author: Mitchell

I'm 24 and currently pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Toronto.

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