Let me share a little secret with you: I play online text games. A lot of them.
But let me be completely honest; as much as I love text-based games, for a very long time I never recommended them to my friends, or even to my fellow gamers. The most I would ever do is admit to playing them with a sheepish smile, and then add to save face: "But they're not for everyone."
It bothered me even back then that I did not feel comfortable touting the merits of text-based games, but I never thought much about it until recently. While I never considered it a 'dirty little secret' – as an unfortunate amount of text gamers actually do – I always assumed that it was an odd, quirky little habit that nobody else I met 'IRL' would ever take the time to truly assist.
It's undeniable that gamers today not only demand graphics, but expect them. Virtually every game rating system has a category for graphics, as if they were as essential to a game as having an engine, or the use of a keyboard or mouse. The modern notice of what a computer game is, is almost inextricably intertwined with the idea that it has to have graphics. Moreover, graphics are seen as technologically superior to text, and so even some gamers who are able to separate the idea of computer games and graphics still do wonder why anyone would ever subject them to text games when perfectly good computer games with beautiful graphics are so available available.
Allow me to take a step back and look at the issue from a different angle.
Once upon a time in a land called 'the 1980s', there was a revolutionary text-based game called Zork. One of the most interesting things about this game (to me, at least) is that it was not, in fact, referred to as 'text game' in this wondrous and strange land of the 1980s. Instead it was referred to as interactive fiction. Zork enthusiasts have said in interviews that games like Zork are, "more like playing a book," and would enthusiastically describe it to friends as, "a type of literature [they] may or may not have seen before" (Get Lamp).
This is a far superior way to explain the genre to newcomers. Reframing text games as interactive fiction is one of the best things an enthusiast can do to 'recruit' for this lovely little niche for two very important reasons – it puts a positive spin on them instead of a negative one, and it conforms more closely to the kinds of expectations that a participant is most likely to develop.
Think about it; If you're unfamiliar with text-based games, comparing them to computer games can make them seem lacking because they do not have an expected component – graphics. This puts text games at a disadvantage from the very start. Explaining them as a type of interactive literature, however, makes them seem spectacular because it brings to mind all the appealing features of books and adds an exciting interactive element. This, by contrast, focuses on the inherent strengths of text games and makes them seem more innovative than outdated. It's like describing a donut as 'a bagel with frosting' instead of 'a cake with a piece missing in the center'.
Describing text games to newcomers as interactive fiction is also beneficial because it conforms more closely to their expectations, which allows them to have a smoother and more pleasant experience. One of the main arguments for the genre is that it can draw upon the imagination to create a more powerful and memorable experience than games with graphics will ever be able to, and this is a major selling point. But people are turning to games for the purpose of stimulating their imaginations less and less, while good fiction is still expected to do so. By putting newcomers in a position where they expect a more fiction-like experience, they are better prepared to work with the game rather than be confused or disappointed by it, and it ends up meeting the correct set of expectations.
I hope this article has shed some light on text games' place in the gaming community. Text games have a lot of fun and unique things to offer, as their players well understand, but they will never reach their potential if players remain quiet and ashamed. The key to spreading their joy is within our grasp; it is simply dependent upon our ability to express text games in a way that highlights their strengths and sets up new players to appreciate them.
By Lisa Ohanian
"Get Lamp: The Text Adventure Documentary." Dir. Jason Scott. 2010. http://www.getlamp.com/ .