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Comparative Literature Studies 41.3 (2004) 404-423

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Strategy and Mimesis in Ergodic Literature

University of Arizona
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
On the sort of screen dappled with different states and impressions which my consciousness would simultaneously unfold while I was reading, and which ranged from the most deeply hidden aspirations of my being to the wholly external view of the horizon spread out before my eyes at the bottom of the garden, what was my primary, my innermost impulse, the lever whose incessant movements controlled everything else, was my belief in the philosophic richness and beauty of the book I was reading, and my desire to appropriate them for myself, whatever the book might be.
Marcel Proust

Proust's narrator, reading in his garden, unfolds his consciousness on a screen whose primary impulse, he tells us, is not simply a belief in the book's richness and beauty, but a desire to make those things his own. The appropriation, necessarily following on the belief, makes the latter both cause and effect of the former: because the narrator believes in the philosophic richness and beauty of the book, he appropriates them; because he wants to appropriate them, the book's richness and beauty become articles of his faith.

This movement back and forth between the book's beauty and the narrator's appropriation of it engages sensibilities both private and public. Whatever is to be appropriated (the richness and beauty) must be imagined in some space outside the individual experience of reading; that which the narrator makes his own through appropriation does not, initially, belong to him. Reading, here, is an act of ownership as much as it is an act of the imagination; in fact one might say that it is an act of ownership over the imagination. [End Page 404]

Is it too soon to ask that video games—the major subject of this essay—be taken as seriously as Proust's "dappled" screen, that we imagine that they allow readers or players to project upon their screens the full range of human experience, from the "deeply hidden aspirations" of their beings to "the wholly external view" of whatever horizon spreads itself out before their eyes? In what follows we take the "philosophic richness and beauty" of video games seriously, appropriating them for an analysis that aims to account for their aesthetic particularity as a medium, and to make broader claims about the relation between that particularity and ideologies of race or nation. We avoid along the way the trend toward utopian or dystopian takes on games or cybernetic culture, favoring instead a critical reading of the poetic strategies and structures of the games we discuss, a reading that connects "cybertexts and textual constructions of cyberspace to the major human, aesthetic, and intellectual concerns of contemporary culture" (Ryan 16); a secondary goal is to make prefatory remarks of this sort obsolete.

Games as ergodic literature

One of the complicated issues in the cultural study of video games involves their hybrid operation as both games and cultural texts. From one side, scholars have justified their interest in the subject by highlighting the connections between video games and other, better-established cultural forms, in the process arguing for the applicability of critical terms and methods imported from the study of literature, film, and television. Other critics have stressed the specificity of the video game form, insisting that new media mandate new modes of study. But attention to both elements of video games is vital, and the split between video games' function as texts or as games easily exaggerated. The cultural elements of games that are most easily recognizable to cultural studies, namely those elements of video games that are shared by other media (characters, musical scores, the framing of visual elements on screen), are by no means superfluous, but they are altered in important, yet-to-be-understood ways by their integration into cultural objects that take games as a primary structural model.

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