gaming books shaping desires

Gaming Books Shaping Desires

Trying to escape his miserable life, Mattia Pascal seeks refuge in Monte Carlo, where he wins a small fortune playing roulette. But, on his way back home, the protagonist of Luigi Pirandello’s The Late Mattia Pascal (1904) learns that a man’s dead body was found in Miragno, his hometown. The people think it’s him who committed suicide because of his financial troubles. Mr. Pascal takes advantage of this turn of events, acquires a new identity under the name of Adriano Meis, and moves to Rome where he starts a new life with the money he won in the Principality of Monaco.

Here’s the 1926 French version directed by Marcel L’Herbier.

Here’s the 1985 Italian version directed by Mario Monicelli, with Marcello Mastroianni.

Thanks to his recklessness, Mattia Pascal can become Adriano Meis and bet on having a second chance in life. Gaming, thus, allows Pirandello to set in motion his narrative engine and explore an issue that’s concerned most of his work: our identities.

In exploring the meaning of gaming, Saugata Bhaduri highlights the aspects of collectivization, enjoyment, and excess characterizing this practice. (Peters 140) Gaming extends and opens games’ structures, making them indeterminate while promoting “the formation of social groupings” (Peters 142). Connections among people emerge from “interacting with a game design in the performance of cognitive tasks, with a variety of emotions arising from or associated with different elements of motivation, task performance and completion” (Lindley, Nacke, and Sennersten 2008, 9 in Peters 142). Moreover, games feature a provocative, rebellious nature, providing players “the possibility of subversion, strategy, and manipulation, while sports and play invoke mostly rule-bound action” (Peters, 143).

Choose Your Own Adventure Books

Knowing gamers tendency to cheat, Edward Packard designed his 1982 choose-your-own-adventure book in a way that was impossible for readers to fulfill its goal unless they broke its rules. His Inside UFO 54-40 features a page spread inaccessible through any of the reading paths. Therefore, to reach the miraculous planet Ultima it described, readers need to break the rules. (Borsuk, 173) Packard’s design reveals that choices live both within and outside the book, and readers are offered the opportunity to participate in either one of these scenarios. However, readers have to ask themselves if they’re comfortable with doubt and loss or only with certainty and victory.

Cover of Edward Packard's 1982 choose-your-own-adventure book Inside UFO 54-40.
Cover of Edward Packard’s 1982 choose-your-own-adventure book.

Thirty-seven years later, readers are still complaining about Packard’s trick and turn the tables on him by disclosing the hidden page spread. Inside UFO 54-40’s enduring life through the Web 2.0 not only reveals the act of collectivization that these game-books generate but also confirms Badhuri’s idea that within “cosplay, fanfiction, machinima, and the like […] gaming becomes a collective act of tactical reappropriation and creativity, excess and subversion” (Peters, 145). By subverting Packard’s narrative machine twice by both breaking the rules and by revealing the secret, readers have both fulfilled their desire to reach the text’s goal and shaped their identity as gamers/readers.

Experiments involving the reshuffling of books’ elements have been going on for a while. However, as these techniques percolate from avant-garde art to mass-produced products, authors have the opportunity to ply their creativity with different genres. Jason Shiga’s graphic novel Meawhile (2010) provides readers with almost endless entertainment with 3,856 possible readings, thanks to “pipes that extend from a sequence of panels off the edge of the page to create a kind of tabbed thumb index by which one can leap to other points in the book.” (Borsuk, 174)

Cover of Jason Shiga’s graphic novel Meawhile (2010).
Cover of Jason Shiga’s graphic novel Meawhile (2010).

(Digital) Interactive Fiction

 Inspired by Shakespeare’s play, Ryan North’s Romeo and/or Juliet: A Chooseable-Path Adventure (2016) constitutes another fun example of the endless possibilities offered by this genre.

Banner of Ryan North's choose-your-path book/app To Be or Not To Be (2013).
Banner of Ryan North’s choose-your-path book/app To Be or Not To Be (2013).

North is not a newbie with these experiments. He’d already succeeded with an e-version of a choose-your-own-adventure. Released by Gamebook Adventures, his To Be or Not To Be (2013) earned more than $580k during its crowdfunding campaign.

Cover of Ryan North’s Romeo and/or Juliet: A Chooseable-Path Adventure (2016).
Cover of Ryan North’s Romeo and/or Juliet: A Chooseable-Path Adventure (2016).

By being copyright free and already popular, classics provide interactive book producers not only plenty of free resources but also easily marketable products to introduce new reading experiences. Living a Book released Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as an app with multiple narrative lines and endings readers can enjoy.

Cover of the interactive book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea published by Living a Book.
Cover of the interactive book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea published by Living a Book.

Multiple Paths and Points of View

Having decided to embark on a more challenging narrative project, Iain Pears wrote Arcadia, a book that’s also an app readers can use to navigate the text. But Pear’s innovative approach doesn’t consist in creating a book-app, a project that took him several years to complete. Rather, it’s the possibility to follow each character’s specific narrative line that which makes this product appealing and disruptive. Pears points out that one of the main benefits of this approach is that

Minor characters can become major ones at will, and central characters become bystanders equally easily.

By choosing which character’s storyline to follow, readers realize not only how narratives and points of view develop and intertwine but also the disruptive, subversive impact this approach may have on other kinds of narrative. From this perspective, micro-history scholars have made convincing attempts with print monographs. But what would happen if history textbooks were written this way? What if, instead of reading about Napoleon’s multiple ups and downs, we were given the opportunity to study that period of time through the eyes of one of the soldiers who made it back from the Russian Campaign?

Charles Minard's 1969 infographic of Napoleon's disastrous Russian campaign of 1812. His two dimensional representation encompassed six types of data: the number of Napoleon's troops; distance; temperature; the latitude and longitude; the direction of travel; and location relative to specific dates.
Charles Minard’s 1969 infographic of Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign of 1812. His two-dimensional representation shows six types of data: the number of Napoleon’s troops; distance; temperature; the latitude and longitude; the direction of travel; and location relative to specific dates.

Naturally, while producing such books concerns mostly authors, distributing them to students concerns educators and cultural policy makers.

Although all these genres have reaped the benefit of strong storytelling techniques, thanks to the Web 2.0 storytelling has morphed into something new.

Storytelling’s the name for any design able to provide facts with the aerodynamic profile necessary to get moving. (Baricco 194)

Italian writer Alessandro Baricco looks at information and data moving (almost) at the speed of light through social media e the Web. And, in highlighting the key characteristics of the new storytelling applied to digital narratives, he focuses on:

  • ease of access.
  • cost.
  • opportunity to manipulate environments and rules.
  • interoperability.
  • share-ability.
  • independence from geographic boundaries.

Finally, he emphasizes the independence from authors, excluding “developers, who, however, stay hidden in the shadows and don’t bother anyone.” (Baricco, 194) However, teams of UX/UI designers and full-stack developers work tirelessly to provide readers with seamless, as immersive as possible reading experiences. Therefore, they do set boundaries.

Let’s look at one example. Introducing it as “the future of storytelling,” publishers of launched into the market a chat-fiction app. Readers need only to install the app on their devices and start following the narrative, which develops like any other chat we’re all really familiar with thanks to several apps on our phones. The whole story is generated on the spot by algorithms, providing users with endless development possibilities.

Their product reminds me of Andrew Plotkin’s Redwreath and Goldstar Have Traveled to Deathsgate. This story was his entry to the contest NaNoGenMo 2013 and was entirely generated by a computer program, available through the Plotkin’s website.

So, if we look at what the market as a whole offers us as readers today, as we move away from paper and into the digital world, it seems we face an increasing number of different options in terms of products, narrative structures, and points of view. However, if we take a closer look at specific products, how much are these book-apps different from their paper counterparts in allowing readers to subvert the rules? What kind of expertise would readers need to perform the digital equivalent of thumbing through Inside UFO 54-40 to find the hidden solution to the story? How many chances do we have to explore and game these books? And what does this say about our identities as readers?

The contents of this post, including the featured image, are published under CC BY-NC license.


Baricco, Alessandro. The Game. Torino: Einaudi, 2018.

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press, 2018.

L’Herbier, Marcel, dir. Feu Mathias Pascal. 1926; France.

Monicelli, Mario, dir. Le due vite di Mattia Pascal. 1985; Italy.

North, Ryan. To Be or Not to Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure. Gamebook Adventures: 2013.

—-. Romeo and/or Juliet: A Chooseable-Path Adventure. New York: Riverhead Books, 2016.

Peters, Benjamin (ed.). Digital Keywords. A Vocabulary of Information, Society, and Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Pirandello, Luigi. Il fu Mattia Pascal. 1904. The novel’s whole text in Italian with intra-textual references.

—-. Il fu Mattia Pascal. The novel’s whole text in Italian with commentaries for free.

—-. Il fu Mattia Pascal. The novel’s whole text in English with commentaries for free.

Plotkin, Andrew. “Zarfhome.” Accessed May 1, 2019.

Shiga, Jason. Meanwhile. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2010.



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