Ergodic literature

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This article is about titles where the narrative is driven by interaction. For titles where the plot is determined by, rather than driven by interaction, see Interactive narrative. For the branch of mathematics or the postulate of thermodynamics, see Ergodic (disambiguation).

Interactive narration refers to works where the narrative is driven by the users interaction. In such titles there is only one possible narrative, whether it is linear or nonlinear, the plot lacks depth or does not progress in a meaningful way without user interaction. It is this lack of multiple narratives or ending which distinguishes it from interactive narratives, such as gamebooks, or video games with nonlinear gameplay, in which the user actively chooses the direction of the story.[1]

The concepts of cybertext and ergodic literature were of seminal importance to new media studies, in particular literary approaches to digital texts and to game studies.


Ergodic literature is a formal term coined by Espen J. Aarseth in his book Cybertext—Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, and is derived from the Greek words ergon, meaning "work", and hodos, meaning "path". Aarseth's book contains the most commonly cited definition:

In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages. [2]

This definition has been criticised for being too vague. As the terms literature, effort, reader and traverse are too vague in themselves. Literature implies that the narration is text-based, triviality is an arbitrary term, reader is not appropriate is many examples, and traverse implies the possibility that the narrative arc may not be completed.[3]

One of the major innovations of the concept of interactive narration is that it is not medium-specific. New media researchers have tended to focus on the medium of the text, stressing that it is for instance paper-based or electronic. Aarseth broke with this basic assumption that the medium was the most important distinction, and argued that the mechanics of narration need not be medium-specific. Ergodic literature is not defined by medium, but by the way in which the text functions. Thus, both paper-based and electronic texts can be ergodic: "The ergodic work of art is one that in a material sense includes the rules for its own use, a work that has certain requirements built in that automatically distinguishes between successful and unsuccessful users." [4]

Examples by Genre[edit]


Examples given by Aarseth include a diverse group of examples including: wall inscriptions of the temples in ancient Egypt that are connected two-dimensionally (on one wall) or three dimensionally (from wall to wall or room to room), and Apollinaire’s Calligrammes in which the words of the poem “are spread out in several directions to form a picture on the page, with no clear sequence in which to be read”. The definition owing to the reader having to 'piece' the information together rather than the element of choice (either the direction in which to read or the order to read them in).

The I Ching is likewise cited as an example of interactive narration because it contains the rules for its own reading. The reader carries out the calculation but the rules are clearly embedded in the text itself.


The process of reading most printed matter, involves "trivial" extranoematic effort, that is, merely moving one's eyes along lines of text and turning pages as is not ergodic literature. It has been argued that these distinctions are not entirely clear and scholars still debate the fine points of the definitions.[5] For example, under the definition above, Finnegans Wake, the Critique of Pure Reason, and Being and Time are considered nonergodic literature as they require only "trivial...effort to traverse the text[s]." Whilst others debate whether a stack of stained and mouldering newspapers is ergodic literature.

Notable works include:

All these examples require non-trivial effort from the reader, who must participate actively in the construction of the text.[6] Some other contemporary examples of this type of literature are Nick Bantock's The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy, S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, Night Film by Marisha Pessl, and House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.[7]

Interactive Fiction and Video games[edit]

Interactive Fiction is a form of fiction in which the user is able to type simple commands which are followed by the protagonist within the narrative. Many modern video games, in which a player controls one or more avatars within a virtual world, use a narrative storyline.

Again the distinction between interactive narration and interactive narrative need to be considered. Whilst the player has an element of choice in what they can do, some works of interactive fiction and video games only have one plot, which is driven by user interaction and can be described as ergodic, i.e. the player does not have a choice in regard to the plot. It can be hard to distinguish between truly ergodic and non-ergodic titles, because in many of these stories, the plot may seem to branch but will then converge upon some inevitable event, giving the impression of a nonlinear gameplay through the use of nonlinear narrative, without the use if interactive narratives and may still be considered as interactive narration.

Notable works include:

Interactive storytelling[edit]

Interactive storytelling is a form of self-generated narrative, which can be influenced in real-time by the actions of users, relying on software that is capable of intelligent behaviour, to create their own storylines.

A chat bot such as ELIZA is a cybertext because when the reader types in a sentence, the text-machine actually performs calculations on the fly that generate a textual response.

Notable works include:

  • James Meehan’s interactive storytelling Tale-spin
  • Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern's Façade

Hypertext and interactive novels[edit]

Similarly, some interactive novels, and some hypertext sometimes refereed to as Cybertext, only use a single plot but still require the user to interact with the medium to uncover more the narrative (i.e. interactive narration), and are defined as ergodic literature. Aarseth defines these as "texts that involve calculation in their production of scriptons." [8]

Thus, hypertext fiction of the simple node and link variety is ergodic literature but not cybertext. A non-trivial effort is required for the reader to traverse the text, as the reader must constantly select which link to follow, but a link, when clicked, will always lead to the same node.

Notable works include:

Other Examples[edit]

Other examples include; Jenny Holzer’s LED art installation I am Awake in the Place Where Women Die.


See also[edit]