Gaming and the Novel

Marianne Corrigan

In ‘Postcards from the Posthuman Solar System’, Scott Bukatman argues that ‘The body is no longer simply the repository of the soul; it has become a cyborg body, one element in an endless interface of bio-technologies’ (Bukatman 98). Bukatman’s argument aptly summarises the process of digitally re-configuring and re-staging the body to create a hyper-real, virtual self, which simultaneously exists alongside the organic body in the cybernetic spheres of Facebook, Twitter or the online gaming world. This complex bio-technological symbiosis of organic self and virtual self has emerged as the prevalent social and cultural norm, meaning that our daily interactions with virtual worlds result in a doubling or duality of the body and the self, whereby we occupy two positions simultaneously, straddling seemingly polarised worlds which are becoming increasingly blurred.

In this article for Alluvium, I will examine how two twenty-first century writers, Salman Rushdie and China Miéville, have sought to register the fusion of the organic world with the virtual by incorporating links to the narratology, structure and gameplay of audiovisual texts into the narrative framework of their fiction. With reference to Luka and the Fire of Life and Railsea, I argue that both Rushdie and Miéville’s concerns with exploring multiplicity and inter-connectivity, both textually and thematically, emerge in these novels via examinations of posthuman identity and gaming, as well as through the transcendence of existing genres and forms to produce works identifiable as what we might term post-genre. In turn, the consideration of post-genre texts introduces a demand for fresh critical perspectives and interdisciplinary theoretical approaches, therefore, this article shall analyse both the novel in light of the computer game, and evaluate the computer game as a fictional form.

Are multiplicity and inter-connectivity changing the novel as a literary form? [Image by CRASH:candy under a CC-BY-NC license]

In Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, Alexander Galloway insists that ‘[a] video game is a cultural object, bound by history and materiality’ (Galloway 1). Galloway’s description invokes an implicit textuality in its registration of the game as a cultural object, which is also explored by Barry Atkins in his excellent book More than a Game, where he argues: ‘As a form of fiction the game-fiction demands that it be ‘read’ and not simply ‘experienced’ (Atkins 154). Atkins’ central line of enquiry, that the video game is a fictional form and as such, demands the level of critical and theoretical scholarship awarded to other fictional forms such as film or the novel, is developed in More than a Game through an in-depth examination of topics ranging from the audiovisual properties of the video game to the narrative plots of contemporary games such as Tomb Raider, Half-Life and SimCity.

Interestingly, Atkins points out that as an independent form of narrative fiction, the computer game has received comparatively little critical consideration than other cultural texts such as the novel or the film, and reasons that ‘If this is a form of fiction, then it is still perceived as a form of fiction for children and adolescents, with all the pejorative associations that such a classification carries with it’ (Atkins 5). What is interesting about Atkins’ observation is his argument that if the computer game can be discursively regarded as an example of fictional form, then it exists so by occupying a position which is inferior to other forms of cultural text such as the novel or the film. In effect, the computer game is not ‘high brow’ enough to be considered as a fictional form alongside the novel. Atkins examines various contributing factors to this widely-held optic, amongst which is the fact that both the consumers and the designers of the games concentrate ‘on genres that are fairly low down the literary pecking order (war, science fiction, fantasy)’ (Atkins 6). However, as this article seeks to highlight, there are an increasing number of literary writers producing texts which engage with the aesthetics and materiality of gaming in order to register aspects of twenty-first century culture, society and identity. Furthermore, these writers produce work which interrupts conventional genre boundaries: Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, China Miéville and Jonathan Lethem, to name but a few, have all examined posthuman identities, other virtual worlds and tropes of gaming in their fiction, and more significantly, all hail from different corners of the literary canon. Clearly, as Atkins identifies, there is a growing demand for inter-disciplinary scholarship which is prepared to transgress cultural prejudice against the concept of the computer game as a fictional form, and in turn, interrogate the ways in which the novel is increasingly interacting with the aesthetics of gaming.

The novel is increasingly interacting with the aesthetics of gaming [Image by Fantasy Art under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]

Clearly, the intersection of magic with technology to form virtual narratives which engage on a political level with events unfolding in the ‘real’ world, is a problematic area of discourse in terms of genre. How, as critics, do we evaluate such a text? Miéville argues:

genre has ‘radical potential’ in the same way a hammer has radical potential – it depends what you want to do with it. But of course it’s not that simple… Because the cultural baggage of genre is so strong that I’d say *any* even remotely thoughtful, let alone critical, work within a generic tradition, cannot fail to have a self-consciousness of its relationship to that tradition. [1] 

Miéville identifies both polemic and possibility in approaching the matter of genre. Both the materiality of the text and its conceptual or theoretical properties are defined by that which they are not, as well as that to which they correspond. In terms of cultural period, any discussion of the twenty-first century post-postmodern will implicate a theoretical and historical relativity to the discourses of late twentieth century postmodernism, despite simultaneously positing both an ideological and historical departure from that discourse. Gary K. Wolfe develops this argument in his discussion of the post-genre text, articulating it as ‘recombinant genre fiction: stories that effectively deconstruct and reconstitute genre materials and techniques together with materials and techniques from an eclectic variety of literary traditions’ (Wolfe 13). Wolfe’s argument effectively summarises the complex textuality of Rushdie and Miéville’s fiction: in terms of genre, the boundaries become notably more blurred due to the intertextual aesthetics and cross-genre tropes of magic, fantasy and the grotesque, which populate each author’s work. Gregory J. Rubinson has argued that ‘Rushdie’s mix of genres is so variegated that it frequently appears to have Joycean dimensions’ (Rubinson 228), whereas Miéville has termed his own novels ‘Weird Fiction’: a form of writing comprised of the three sub-genres fantasy, science fiction and horror. When we add into this complex mix the aesthetics and narrative structure of the video game, the task of categorizing writers such as Rushdie or Miéville becomes especially problematic: novels such as Luka and Railsea simultaneously occupy the spaces between literary genres, whilst hovering at the intersection of the novel and the video game. In this sense, we can argue that they are post-genre texts, plagued with ambiguities and anomalies, which retain an historical and discursive relativity to received definitions of genre, whilst at the same time seeking to form new patterns of meaning through the re-configuration of existing theoretical boundaries.

Weird fiction: blurring the generic boundaries of fantasy, science fiction and horror [Image by seriykotik1970 under a CC-BY-NC license]

The disruption of established patterns of meaning through the re-appropriation of narrative material is of particular interest to both Rushdie and Miéville. Railsea is an intertextual, dystopic exploration of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and like much of Rushdie’s writing, is identifiable as metafictional in terms of its narrative strategy, frequently foregrounding its own intertextuality: ‘Some such stories are themselves about the telling of others. An odd pastime. Seemingly redundant, or easy to get lost in, like a picture that contains a smaller picture of itself, which in turn contains – & so on (Miéville 95). Whilst Miéville’s plot differs from that of Luka in its lack of explicit foregrounding of the gaming experience, the novel thematizes the rhizomatic, interconnective networks of the online world through its cartographic imaginings of a dystopic future, structured around an online gaming-esque quest narrative. The ‘railsea’ itself is a complex system of train tracks which link a series of islands and continents, all inhabited by intimidating, grotesque creatures, who co-exist alongside the train crews, some of whom attempt to survive through trading, whilst others are more identifiable as the labour force who prop up the global economic system through their work repairing wreckage. Whilst the materiality of the railsea itself registers the interconnective properties of online networks through its aesthetics of cartography, the plot also thematizes 21st century consumer capitalism through its attention to labour and debt.

Comparatively speaking, Rushdie’s explorations of the gaming experience are perhaps more explicit in Luka. The novel employs the fictional form of the computer game as a means of expanding Rushdie’s textual and thematic explorations of the ways in which culture travels, connects and is commodified in the twenty first century. The novel is maintains significant intertextual ties with Haroun and the Sea of Stories through shared characters, plot structure and narrative content, with Luka, Haroun’s younger brother, journeying to the magical world of stories in order to save his father’s life, before returning home to be reunited with his family. The significant difference in the two texts being that Luka takes the form of a computer game, with its protagonist progressing through various different levels and collecting ‘lives’ in order to survive the quest. Luka seeks to interrupt Haroun’s more linear form of narrative by thematizing the posthuman cybernetics of simultaneously occupying two spaces: that of the organic world and the virtual, whilst moving between levels in the environment of the game.

Using the aesthetics of cartography to thematize 21st century online networks in fiction [Image by Calsidyrose under a CC-BY license]

During Luka’s quest, he is accompanied by the character Nobodaddy, who exists in the form of a virtual, holographic replica of his father, Rashid. As Rashid’s health deterioirates, Nobodaddy becomes visually less transparent and more opaque in his aesthetic form, his appearance becoming an embodiment of the original character from whom he takes his form. Through this bio-technological re-staging of corporality, the novel intersects with both the material and narrative properties of the gaming environment by registering the cybernetic doubling of the self discussed earlier on. Consequently, Luka highlights the anxieties which exist over concepts relating to the original self and the replica, as Rebecca Schneider argues ‘The fear is that the copy will not only tamper with the original, but will author the original’  (Schneider 96), thus blurring the boundaries to the extent that the cybernetic self becomes primary, and the human self its other.

Whilst the blurring of the boundaries between the virtual and organic self is of particular interest for twenty first century writers addressing the intersection of gaming and the novel, it is also important to register how the aesthetics of an adaptive and transformative cybernetic landscape are registered by writers such as Rushdie and Miéville through their rhizomatic, inter-connective narratives. As this article has sought to argue, Railsea and Luka are more appropriately evaluated as post-genre texts, which maintain an historical and discursive relationship to received genres, yet seek to map new patterns of meaning by juxtaposing such genre-tropes with gaming aesthetics. Interconnectivity is central to the growth and existence of both political and cultural movements, therefore it is particularly interesting to examine the ways in which 21st century authors are registering the various rhizomes which enable the circulation and connection of culture, such as the internet, or online world, in fictional texts. Whilst the fictional forms of the audiovisual text and the novel differ in terms of their material properties, novels such as Luka and the Fire of Life demonstrate how the intersection of the two provides exciting possibilities for the emergence of new fictional forms in the 21st century.

CITATION: Marianne Corrigan, “Gaming and the Novel,” Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 July 2012,

Marianne Corrigan is a final year PhD student under the supervision of Dr Nick Bentley at Keele University. Marianne’s research examines globalization, discourses of inter-connectivity and narrative migrancy in the later novels of Salman Rushdie.

Works Cited:

Atkins, Barry, More than a Game (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).

Bukatman, Scott, ‘Postcards from the Posthuman Solar System’ in Posthumanism, ed. by Neil Badmington (London: Palgrave, 2000), pp.98- 111.

Galloway, Alexander R. , Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

Miéville, China, Railsea (London: MacMillan, 2012).

Rubinson, Gregory J., The Fiction of Rushdie, Barnes, Winterson and Carter (MacFarland Publishers, 2005).

Rushdie, Salman, Luka and the Fire of Life (London: Jonathan Cape, 2010).

Schneider, Rebecca, ‘Hello Dolly Well Hello Dolly’ in Psychoanalysis and Performance, ed. by Patrick Campbell and Adrian Kear (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 94-114.


 [1] Long Sunday, Interview with China Miéville: (accessed 1 May 2012).

Please feel free to comment.

5 Replies to “Gaming and the Novel”

    Hi Marianne,
    I really like your reading of these two texts in relation to computer games.
    I'm currently thinking about how hard it is to situate games and game-literature outside of the conventions of postmodernism, though coming at this from a slightly different angle to your post-genre approach. Following Aarseth, we tend to theorise games in the terms of pomo theory e.g. the interactive hyperfiction through which the reader crafts their own route is the logical endpoint of the "death of the author." 
    I wonder if you think a similar problem seems to pertain in writers like Rushdie and Mievelle? Are they really doing anything differently to those postmodern concerns and epistemologies with which they have always been involved? I read Luka on the back of your essay, and it didn't seem to me that we can really say the novel is about games or even posthumanism per se in any strong sense. The game here is surely just a metaphor of the sort Rushdie has always used to explore the boundaries between real and fictional selves, worlds, representations. I've jotted some thoughts in a pretty cursory review at <a href=""></a>. I'm by no means as well-informed as you will be on Rushdie's work, so would be interested to hear what you think of this. Isn't Rushdie in Luka just continuing his postmodern interests first, with games happening to be one optional metaphor among many rather than the main focus?
    As I say, I liked your essay very much, and it's been a helpful starting point for my current article on modernism and computer game studies.

  2. Hi Alistair, great to meet somebody else working on the intersection of the computer game and literature! I’ve had a look at your site: it’s excellent, and I’m really excited to read about your forthcoming monograph; there is not much existing theory in ‘our field’, so it will be great to read and hopefully employ your research on this.
    I can certainly see why you’re raising the question of postmodernism, particularly given that Rushdie’s writing has been held up as an example of literary postmodernism in view of the way his textuality mirrors the seemingly random collocation of images, text, material goods or culture in one space or system. However, I’ll admit now that I’m not a big postmodernist, and that I find postmodernism problematic in its failure to adopt an identifiable stance on issues relating to the legitimacy or validity of knowledge, specifically with attention to the political economy and consumer capitalism, preferring instead to perpetuate a seemingly endless debate on such issues. I find that in postmodern discourse, the aesthetics of consumer capitalism and the surface relations of a commodity culture are the more common sites of discursive interrogation, which in turn results in a failure to probe the forces of labour and production which are required to support such a postmodern society. I suppose that, taking Lyotard’s argument that ‘one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and “retro” clothes in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games.’, I would fall in with somebody like Alex Callinicos, who registers an elitist, bourgeois element in Lyotard’s description, through his argument that  
    It all depends, of course, on who ‘one’ is […] it is a bit rich that Lyotard should ignore the majority of the population even in the advanced economies to whom such delights as French scent and Far Eastern travel are denied. To whom then is this particular combination of experiences available? What political subject does the idea of a postmodern epoch help constitute? – Alex Callinicos, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (Cambridge: Polity, 1989)  
    I’ve found that much of Rushdie’s later fiction, such as Fury or The Ground Beneath Her Feet, interrogates this dichotomy between the ‘artistic value’ of a cultural object (such as the text, music, art etc) and its economic value as an object of commodity culture. My theoretical approach to reading Rushdie’s work seeks to move away from some of the more ‘infuriating’ (sorry!!) aspects of postmodern discourse, and more towards theories of globalization and global political economy, with specific attention to Deleuze/Guattari’s rhizome, and intertextual and cross-cultural cartographies.
    I completely agree with you on the tropes of boundary crossing/fictional selves present in his work: what I’m interested in is how this can be read within a theoretical framework which pays attention to the virtual world and posthuman identities in the 21st century, particularly with reference to two areas: commodity culture and simulacrum. So, the virtual identities who inhabit MMORPGs; avatars; profile photographs used on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter, are all identifiable as second order representations of the living human subject to whom they relate. They are simulacra: hyper-real, representational signifiers who figure in a complex dichotomy between idealized identification with an on-screen persona, and the extent to which this corresponds to material reality. My research at the moment is looking at how writers such as Rushdie, Jonathon Lethem, Haruki Murakami have sought to register the aesthetics of this dualism of the natural and cybernetic by constructing narratives which thematize the space in between: the theoretical concept of the borderline, or the suspension of the subject between two opposing discursive systems, but with specific attention to cybernetics, both textually and thematically. Sorry for that long reply! I’m really happy to meet somebody else working in the same field, look forward to following your work 🙂

  3. Hi Marianne,
    Don't worry I'm not a big postmodernist either. In fact, I really think postmodernism is our problem in theorising games, in that it's become such a dominant episteme it just swallows those more specialised, ludological approaches we would like and ought to try to apply both to games and literature.
    For example, you talk about post-genre, which is great. But the postmodernist comes back and says that they already got there first, that not only do postmodern texts use multiple discourses and problematise the subject, but in fact all texts do to a certain extent. And I guess, to be fair, this is what I'm doing if I see Rushdie as a postmodernist primarily, and only engaging with games as a proxy route to explore that interest further.
    Similarly with game studies. I'd like to think about games as a process of ludonarrative and some higher-order narrative structures, such as frame narration or cut scenes, which might in turn be used by contemporary literary writers trying to rethink style. But trying to do this seems very diffcult. Simplifying, of course, but one goes to JSTOR and types in "games" and "literature" and all that comes back is Foucault, Derrida, Bakhtin as ways of reading games, or for that matter literature inspired by games. Postmodernism gobbles up games as a metaphor for things it was already theorising about text, when they ought to be seen as fundamentally different forms.
    Your thinking about globalisation and the economy is another a case in point. Try to look at this in novels which are interested in games and hey, checkmate, the postmodernist got there first. Hence, for example, this reading of Neuromancer ( totally ignores the fact that Gibson was immediately inspired by watching arcade gamers and all the problems of the posthuman subject you describe, and instead the novel is read as a response to capitalism in paid–up postmodern terms. Which it is of course, in part. But isn't looking for the clues and cues about Gibson's ludic (i.e. game-like) style just as important, his chopped up grammar and streaming sentences, for example? This is why I find the effort to think beyond postmodernism by using different terms – such as post-genre – really important. For my own part, I'm currently writing a conference presentation/article that wonders why it is that in relation to modernism, we're able quite easily to track the ways in which writers were inspired by painting, but find it much harder to track the ways in which literary writers are inspired by games in our own period. As in the example of Gibson (or Rushdie) it comes down to the fact that postmodernism gets there first, whereas modernism is very much making up both theory and practice as it goes along so that we can much more easily discern the relations between the two media (lit and art) than we can those of the immediate moment (games and lit).
    For all the frustrations, though, it is good to work at the frontier, both in terms of changing times and in terms of changing theories and genres through which we think about them. We've not stepped out of the postmodern yet, but we're heading there. It sounds like you've got lots to say about the new borders, this time between the physical and the cybernetic subject.
    Cheers for the correspondance,

    1. Yes, you raise some great points here, good to know we're singing from the same sheet! I completely agree on the need to form new theoretical discourse which moves beyond postmodernism. Look forward to following your research! 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.