The pedestal and the niche: interactive fiction, electronic literature, and the symbolic movements of the text adventure game

Bibliographic details

Allington, Daniel (2013). ‘The pedestal and the niche: interactive fiction, electronic literature, and the symbolic movements of the text adventure game’. Paper to be presented at Mobile Stylistics (annual conference of the Poetics and Linguistics Association), University of Heidelberg, 31 July.


Works of interactive fiction (that is, text adventure games) are claimed by the Electronic Literature Organisation (?-2012) as a form of ‘electronic literature’. However, this categorisation is evidently somewhat problematic: its principal advocate berates other scholars of electronic literature for their lack of interest in (and knowledge of) interactive fiction (Montfort 2005, 9–12); the very few works of interactive fiction included in the Electronic Literature Collection (Hayles et al. 2006) are virtually ignored in the accompanying book (Hayles 2008); and a formal canon for the most canonical genre of electronic literature, i.e. literary hypertext, excludes interactive fiction on the grounds that it forms an unrelated canon that ‘ought to be examined independently’ (Ensslin 2007, 165). In common with other forms of cultural expression, interactive fiction must be understood historically and socioeconomically, which is the approach this paper takes to the question of its relationship to electronic literature. Given such an approach, it becomes apparent that the categorisation of interactive fiction as electronic literature is purely tactical.

Beginning as a Dungeons & Dragons-inspired diversion for computer programmers and those close to them, interactive fiction was successfully commercialised in the late 1970s, playing an important role in the early videogames market before reverting to amateur production and free distribution following a loss of profitability in the late 1980s. Thus, while interactive fiction can, like literary hypertext, be said to have moved from a commercial model of distribution to what Rettberg calls a ‘gift economy’ (2009, para. 18), this has been achieved not through an embedding of production and consumption in the academic system (as with the mainstream of electronic literature), but rather through a return to the genre’s hobbyist roots. This means that, while interactive fiction can perhaps lay greater claim to what Bourdieu (1993 [1987]) calls ‘autonomy’ than can more canonical forms of electronic literature, it is likely to remain distant from them, having left the commercial marketplace not for the pedestal upon which ‘serious’ art and literature are placed, but for the niche to which amateur production is confined. This is arguably apparent in an increasingly manifest affinity between interactive fiction and the hobby that provided it with its essential formal characteristics, i.e. fantasy roleplaying. Yet as I shall show in a reading of Treasures of a slaver’s kingdom (Ross 2007), it may be in the expression of such affinity that the literary potential of interactive fiction is most audaciously fulfilled.


Bourdieu, P. (1993 [1987]). ‘The historical genesis of a pure aesthetic’. In The field of cultural production: essays on art and literature, 254–266. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Electronic Literature Organisation (?-2012). ‘About the ELO | Electronic Literature Organisation’. Accessed 18 November 2012.

Ensslin, A. (2007). Canonising hypertext: explorations and constructions. London: Continuum.

Hayles, N.K. (2008). Electronic literature: new horizons for the literary. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Hayles, N.K., Montfort, N., Rettberg, S., and Strickland, S. (eds.) (2006). The electronic literature collection. Vol. 1. 1 vols. College Park (Maryland): Electronic Literature Organisation.

Montfort, N. (2005). Twisty little passages: an approach to interactive fiction. Cambridge (Mass.) / London: MIT Press.

Rettberg, S. (2009). ‘Communitising electronic literature’. Digital Humanities Quarterly 3 (2).

Ross, S.J. (2007). Treasures of a slaver’s kingdom. Inform 7. Cumberland Games.


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