Playable Books at Electronic Literature's Interface

panel / roundtable
  1. 1. Katarzyna Maria Bazarnik

    Jagiellonian University

  2. 2. Kathi Inman Berens

    Portland State University

  3. 3. Zenon Fajfer

    Independent Poet

  4. 4. Susan Garfinkel

    Library of Congress

Work text
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For DH2016 with its theme of “Digital Identities: The Past and The Future” we propose a four-person panel in which we present the history of playable books (Garfinkel), the theory of playable books (Bazarnik), the artistic practice of playable books (Fajfer) and bookish aspects of digital literary games (Inman Berens).  Together, we aim to demonstrate the procedural affinities between analog and digital modes of reading a literary interface.  
This panel approaches the notion of play from the vantage of the physicality of books and what Johanna Drucker calls “performative materiality” (2013).   When Espen Aarseth said in his 2015 keynote at the Electronic Literature Organization’s conference that “games are the most important form of digital literature,” it ruffled a few feathers.  Here, we take Aarseth’s provocation as a starting point from which we examine the past and future of what we call playable books. We will perform examples of digital and analog playable books, offering critical reflection toward developing a common language for methodological approaches across national languages and traditions, across analog and digital reading practices. The Digital Humanities 2016 conference is a unique opportunity to put global perspectives of ergodicity dynamically in dialog with each other.  We expect, in other words, that our various types of expertise will co-mingle emergently as we “play” the works, isolate attributes, and foster conversation among the panelists and audience in this international venue. Liveness and co-presence are required to advance this form of cross-cultural communication.
All reading is situated and embodied. Throughout the history of the book, whether manuscript or mechanically reproduced, we see an ongoing tension in the moment of a reader’s encounter with written work: between the abstract ideal of a text that stands on its own
sans manifestations, and the actual instantiations of texts as books without whose affordance of interface the encounter would not be possible. Building on Aarseth (1997), Kirschenbaum (2008a; 2008b), Wardrip-Fruin (2010) and others, we note that the procedurality of playable books becomes newly and uniquely visible through the lens of computational materiality, that is, the turn to the digital.  Books have always been random access portable storage devices.  When Kirschenbaum argues that “new media cannot be studied apart from individual instances of inscription, object, and code as they propagate on, across, and through specific storage devices, operating systems, software environments and network protocols” (2008b: 23), we understand that such approaches prompt attention to the physicality of books.  Jessica Pressman coined the term “bookishness” to describe “novels [that] exploit the power of the print page in ways that draw attention to the book as a multimedia format, one informed by and connected to digital technologies” (2009: 456).  Zenon Fajfer (1999) describes “liberature” as literature which, in response to the digital media, foregrounds the shape and structure of the physical book as its semantically charged constituents. Hayles (2008) and Florian Cramer (2016) have separately written about the “post-digital” book, that is, printed books that manifest the aesthetic of Web and networked technologies, such as Mark Z. Danielewski’s
House of Leaves (2000).

As part of the first electronic literature showcase at the U.S. Library of Congress in 2013, Kathi Inman Berens and Susan Garfinkel selected sixty-nine books to contextualize the exhibit’s twenty-seven featured works of electronic literature. This wide-ranging curatorial reach culled books that revealed various states of playfulness with the book’s material form.  While well-known examples such as
Choose Your Own Adventure books and shaped poems (“concrete” poetry) emphasize unique aspects of playfulness and materiality, it was only through curating a set of books spanning hundreds of years and genres--and juxtaposing such books alongside the expressive interfaces of electronic literature--that a logic of playable books and electronic literature emerged.  Not only did the books contextualize electronic literature, but the obverse happened as well: electronic literature’s human/computer interface defamiliarized the book.

In the last years of the twentieth century, the printed book began to manifest attributes of digital art.  In 1999 in the wake of “Booksday,” an exhibition of unconventional books curated in Krakow by Polish writers and poets Zenon Fajfer, Katarzyna Bazarnik and Radoslaw Nowakowski,  Fajfer suggested that books defying editorial conventions, whose linguistic content is inextricably bound with their material (printed) embodiments deliberately shaped by their authors, could be called “liberature.”  Initially juxtaposed with artists’ books, liberature stresses the literary attributes of book-bound works, exploiting their semantically charged materiality. Although it began as a theory describing the codex form, liberature has strong links with electronic literature, through, for example, Fajfer’s playable poems that are hybrid works combining the printed and digital interfaces, and Nowakowski’s hypertextual, multimedia online narratives.
Also in 1999, N. Katherine Hayles published
How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, a book that built the case for an interactive dynamic between seemingly disembodied information and the material substrates that convey them. These twin moves toward embodied experiences of reading suggest a parallel track between Polish and North American conceptions of reading abetted by experimentation in digital and networked environments. This is in tune with Jerome McGann’s observation that “[t]he ‘composition’ of poetry is not completed--indeed, it has scarcely begun--when the writer scripts words on the page; and even at this initial moment of the imagination’s work the scene is a social one. What kind of instrument is the writer using, what kind of paper?,” which could be expanded to reflections about platforms, softwares, and mobile devices. These questions are central to understanding and interpretation of any work of verbal art, he continues, as they “are entangled with every textual network of meaning” (1993: 112). Each of the panelists will bring a specific focus to the history and future of playable books in theory and practice.

Susan Garfinkel will discuss examples from book history that display the mutability of the book as a version of Bakhtin’s dialogic “world in the making” (1981). Laurence Sterne’s
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, for example, as early as 1759 made use of visual pastiche and typographic play along with its unusual plot, digressive presentation style, and literary borrowings. In 1804 and again in 1820, Thomas Jefferson famously cut apart and pasted up the Christian bible (Edwards, 2012). Working at the intersections of literary studies, media studies, and the digital humanities, Lisa Gitelman (2008) and Kirschenbaum (2008b), among others, have prompted media scholars to revisit the history of book materiality. Lori Emerson suggests that “by revisiting older media, we can make our current media visible once again” (2014: 130), while Kirschenbaum and Sarah Werner describe the digital within book history as “a frankly messy complex of extensions and extrusions of prior media and technologies” (2014: 408). Such awareness is enhanced by new scholarly attention to materiality, to the vibrancy of matter and the role of interpretation as mediation in the physical world (Trettien, 2013; Bennett, 2010; Appadurai, 2015). Looking back across decades and expressive genres for the precursors of electronic literature, we soon recognize an awareness of the dialogic mutability of the book itself, of its playable affordances that significantly predate the computer.

Katarzyna Bazarnik and Zenon Fajfer will focus on liberatic works and theory by exploring and expanding architecture of the codex, for example, in Oulipian
Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes by Raymond Queneau (1961), and their own
, triple dos-à-dos of
Oka-leczenie (2000, 2009), the book instrumental in defining the concept of “literature in the form of the book” in the central European context. However, liberature has also responded to digital technologies in various, subversive ways. In Fajfer’s
ten letters (2010), the poetic volume combining print and digital animation, it is paradoxically the material book that invites the reader to engage with the poems’ visuality, to handle and manipulate the pages in a way reminiscent of Mallarméan ‘espacement of reading,’ ‘
un espacement de la lecture’ (1998: 253). Its digital part, “Primum Mobile,” accessible through the CD interface, is a piece blocked from the readers’ intervention--they are only allowed to contemplate texts that infold and unfold in front of their eyes as an animated movie. In the spirit of playfulness its final section, “Spogladajac przez ozonowa dziure” (“Detect Ozone Whole Nearby”) announces its further remediation as a “poem-in-the-bottle,” with its text printed on a transparent plastic sheet placed in a glass container. Thereby, Fajfer’s bottle-book seems to look back to the beginnings of book history, by taking on the form of the scroll.  Lastly, his
Powieki (Eyelids) (2013) is another bi-medial work that seemingly, it returns to the traditional codex, yet textually is a densely linked hypertext that can be accessed via the printed or the electronic interfaces, offering readers radically different experiences of exploring the same cycle of poems.

Kathi Inman Berens will investigate the literary/ludic continuum in theories of ergodicity by Aarseth (1997), Ryan (2006), Laurel (2013) and Ensslin (2013) and examine how touch in electronic literature and playable books prompts new dimensions of liberatic engagement.  Saleen and Zimmerman’s
Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (2003) and the team of Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek’s MDA approach [Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics] developed theoretical frameworks and critical language to unify conditions of play from board games to sports to computer and video games. Literary games don’t figure in these discussions because they were developed before serious games initiated the hybrid literary game form. Jesper Juul’s work on failure in games (2013) adds new analytic dimension to discussion of narrative, catharsis, pain, and reward systems pioneered in the work of Janet Murray (1999; 2012).  Can one “lose” when playing a work of literature?  Serge Bouchardon’s “Loss of Grasp” (2010), winner of the 2011 New Media Writing Prize, has elicited scholarly studies among Polish literary critics applying liberatic theory and English-speaking literary critics examining literary games.  A comparison of these methods could frame cross-cultural ways to analyze new works such as Inkle Studio’s
80 Days (2014), a tablet game based on Jules Verne’s
Around the World in Eighty Days, and Steve Tomasula’s
TOC (2009, 2013).  
80 Days was
Time Magazine’s 2014 Game of the Year and also, tellingly,
The Guardian’s 2014 Novel of the Year. This generic slippage between book and game is likely to become more common as book publishers venture into gameful environments, such as Doubleday’s
Bats of the Republic (2015), a playable novel featuring haptic elements.  Berens analyzes the material book’s ludic dialog with tablet-based digital stories.

Following a presentation of these varied approaches to the questions of playability and interface in books past and present, we plan a dialogue between ourselves and the audience. We conceive our conversation around the concept of playable books as a fertile starting point for thinking toward an expansively multiple understanding of agency and affordance in reading-playing, centered in acts of encounter for both the author-designer-creator and the reader-user-player. The ludic, performative materiality of all books, analog or digital, opens up inquiry across a broad range of hybrid instantiations: from children’s digital literature including the Sony Wonderbook works,
The Sailor’s Dream (Simogo, 2015), and the
Mrs. Wobbles series (Marino Family, 2013-present); to hybrid mass market haptic books like
Tree of Codes (Foer, 2010),
Nox (Carson, 2010) and
S. (Abrams and Dorst, 2013); to app-based artists’ books such as
Between Page and Screen (Borsuk and Bouse, 2012), 
Abra (Borsuk, Durbin and Hatcher, 2014) and
Pry (Tender Claws, 2013).  

Primary sources

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Borsuk, A. and Bouse, B. (2012).
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Conference Info


ADHO - 2016
"Digital Identities: the Past and the Future"

Hosted at Jagiellonian University, Pedagogical University of Krakow

Kraków, Poland

July 11, 2016 - July 16, 2016

454 works by 1072 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (11)

Organizers: ADHO