Why you should care

This new trend might sound fictional — but it might just create a new wave of must-read authors.

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Little frightens a would-be novelist more than writer’s block, but Erin Hardee has found an almost foolproof way around it — on the Internet. No, she’s not muting her anxieties in Facebook updates or with mindless surfing, but playing a game that is really a novel-in-the-making, The Virago, about female pirates in the Caribbean. When Hardee gets stuck on, say, who should walk the plank, she activates special cards that tell her about a character’s built-in strengths and weaknesses. Other cards reveal obstacles that bring fresh turns in her tale. Take that, blank-page syndrome!

Hardee and her co-authors are hardly alone in “gamifying” their fiction. More writers and aspiring authors (and who doesn’t want to write a book these days?) are logging in to new storytelling games, such as Elegy for a Dead World, to jump-start their creative juices. There’s also Storium, the game Hardee uses and which attracted funding from more than 6,600 backers through a crowdfunding site last year when its founder wanted to create “a new kind of online game where you and your friends tell any story you can imagine, together.” Collectively, people pooled over $250,000 to bring it to life; new donors can pay $10 to test it out ahead of its fall release, at which point it’ll cost $25 a year. Now some of these games are rolling out improvements and additional features, including “rotating narration,” where a narrator’s role automatically gets passed among players, scene by scene.

Many of the folks who are dipping their quills into digital ink this way — they’re about evenly split between men and women — enjoy marrying the mechanics of traditional tabletop role-playing games with free-form writing, says Storium’s founder Stephen Hood. They include fantasy fiction enthusiasts, bloggers and professional writers, as well as high school and college students who draft stories to explore all sorts of historical topics. Framing storytelling as a game doesn’t just make the process more fun, Hood argues. It also loosens writers up. Collaborative games give them “permission to tell those crazy stories and to express themselves in a way that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise,” he says.

Today’s premier video games can’t approach the imaginative experiences of even the lowest-tech role-playing game.

Of course, writing in a group can be a tricky process, susceptible to mishmash plots, ego wars and the perils of “too many cooks.” Yet storytelling lends a new, intriguing depth to video games. Gaming researcher Michael Mateas, who created the video game Façade (subtitled “a one-act interactive drama”), has looked into the possibilities of incorporating storytelling into games so that they can express more complex ideas than they usually do, such as human rights issues, for example. Both he and others argue that today’s best-selling action-oriented games, like Assassin’s Creed, are elaborate but can’t approach the imaginative experiences of even the lowest-tech, pen-and-paper-based role-playing game. “Computers simulate things, whereas humans improvise,” says Hood.

Indeed, the roots of these programs date back to the role-playing games that have been around since the 1970s, when the most famous of the bunch — Dungeons & Dragons — became a phenomenon. Growing up, Hood played games like these with his friends, where they would sit around a table and draw up an outline for the story they wanted to tell together. Years later, while pursuing a career in tech, Hood craved something more creative, so he started an online network of storytellers that borrowed elements of gaming mechanics from his youth.

For Ichiro Lambe, imaginary worlds constructed out of the works of Romantic poets such as Byron and Keats became the setting of choice for Elegy for a Dead World, a game that he co-created and which costs $15 to purchase. It was created so that everyone could write, he says, and aspiring writers spent more than $72,000 in a crowdfunding campaign to support it. Today, the visually and auditorily rich game boasts post-apocalyptic and psychedelic landscapes that serve as muses to a person’s poetry, a delicate ambient soundtrack and challenging writing exercises like ad-libbing well-known poems. Writers can even print their work in a glossy book afterward.

But while these sites are trying to cultivate social networks among their users, both have kinks to work out. When Storium was first released, users couldn’t private message each other, though its developers have since enabled new messaging features and forums. Still, commenting on someone else’s work is one of the few social aspects built into the site. And while you can comment on a fellow writer’s work in Elegy for a Dead World, there’s no way for authors to collaborate on making a single story.

The biggest challenge in this space, perhaps, is that co-authors may face legal challenges when it comes to determining who, exactly, owns the intellectual rights to a communal story. Storium, for its part, says its writers and not the site itself would own the material. But Hood admits he’s unsure who would ultimately own a work’s copyright: “It’s tricky — we’re still working it out.”

For her part, Hardee doesn’t intend to sell The Virago. She’s trying to “stretch myself, to work on areas that I’m weak on, like description, and to try new things out.” She’s also hoping to crack the secret to creating a story that people might contribute to forever, “but that may be an unsolvable puzzle!”

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