Julialicia Case grew up in Germany, where she acquired a lifelong love for her Atari. She develops courses in digital creative writing and video games as literature at the University of Cincinnati, where she is a PhD student in fiction. She is a Fulbright Fellow, recipient of the Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and winner of the Masters Review Short Story Award for New Writers.
Video games and literature are not natural bedfellows, yet you are a vocal proponent of the positive influences of online gaming and argue that by dismissing videogame narratives we shut ourselves off from an opportunity to tell engaging, innovative stories. How so?
It’s interesting, I don’t see video games and literature as all that different from one another. I grew up playing a lot of different video games: the Infocom interactive fiction games like Zork, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Moonmist. These are text-based games, which give some description then expect the player to type in commands about where to go, what to examine, and what to say. Like the books I loved to read as a kid, storytelling is at the heart of these games: memorable characters, mysteries, and amazing worlds. The difference was that I was involved in the mechanisms of storytelling. I got to choose which room to investigate, and I had to pay close attention to the details so I could figure out, for example, whether to accuse the butler of murder or the chauffeur. Someone else had written the story, but I was in the middle of it, exploring and shaping it, and that was different to the feeling I got from reading books, where the words just kept marching onward with or without me.
There are a lot of different types of video games and a lot of different ways to study them, and I think players are drawn to the same things readers are in literature: captivating and complicated characters, intricate amazing worlds, and engaging experiences different from our own. Games, though, respond to us. The choices we make can impact the story, and by observing the consequences of those choices we learn something about ourselves and about the larger world. Often games ask players to step into a character’s shoes, to act on that character’s behalf, and this can be a deeply empathetic experience. Similarly, games can ask us to work with other players, and this collective experience of storytelling can be very powerful.
How has your educational and professional trajectory shaped the work you are doing around video games and literature in academe?
As a writer I think a lot about the mechanisms of storytelling. I am particularly interested in the ways that technological experiences shape the way we think about ourselves, each other, and the world. For example, if our online experiences emphasize collectivity and shared knowledge and encourage us to think of ourselves as part of a network of interconnected people, can writers represent that sense of identity on a traditional printed page? If video games offer new ways of experiencing and relating to story, can I use those techniques in my own work, and how do they change the ways that I approach and interpret contemporary literature? Right now, I’m working on a collection of short stories about the internet and popular culture, and one of my goals is to take subjects that might seem frivolous (like emojis, social media, and reality television) and explore them as important cultural forces that are shaping people in complex ways. Video games are such an influential cultural and economic force, and I’m always surprised when people, particularly teachers and academics, dismiss them as escapist or a waste of time. Often this comes from a discomfort with the violence that drives some games, or unfamiliarity with the medium or the technology. Games are not a perfect medium, just as books and film and music are not perfect media, but they are powerful tools of expression with strong cultural impacts across age, class, race, and gender demographics. As scholars, educators, and writers, I think we need to be able to engage with them and be willing to learn from them.
What do you hope your students will take away from your courses?
In my "Video Games as Literature" course it’s great to be able to talk with students about something that doesn’t necessarily get a lot of academic attention. Many students have a strong connection to video games, and I’ve been heartened by how many have expressed the sense that they are finally able to study and talk about something that matters deeply to them. Some students have minimal experience with video games but are taking the course to learn more about them, particularly as tools for education. I think this speaks to a growing respect for the opportunities that video games can offer and the potential young people see in them. In "Digital Creative Writing" I like to embrace the collective, collaborative opportunities technology offers for writers and challenge the traditional sense of authorship as individual and isolated. We work with the idea of choice in storytelling and write some interactive fiction. We also play around with incorporating different kinds of media (music, illustrations, video, etc.) into traditional forms and creating transmedia narratives.
What technology trends do you think will have the most impact on literature and storytelling in the years ahead?
I’m really interested in the ways digital forms will change how we experience and relate to story. In particular, the opportunities that augmented reality narratives such as Zombies, Run! offer for interweaving story with the physical world. If interactivity can intensify the experience of story and link to places in the physical world that encourage readers to move and travel in ways they might not otherwise, then it offers a lot of potential for really captivating narrative experiences. Virtual reality storytelling seems to have a lot of potential for similar reasons.
I’m also curious to see how an increasing reliance on digital platforms affects the ways stories are told. Device 6 is a great example of an interactive novella that incorporates things like puzzles, music, and graphics into its narrative. There are a lot of opportunities, too, for stories to move beyond platforms and take place on multiple levels. For instance, a transmedia story might include video elements while also incorporating reader feedback into its storyline, asking readers to travel to physical locations and to collaborate to solve puzzles. I’m sure there will be a lot of fascinating developments that I can’t even predict right now, and I am excited to see them!
Who are your literary heroes? Who inspires Julialicia Case?
I’m really interested in contemporary writers like George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, Chris Bachelder, and Kevin Brockmeier who work in unconventional forms and explore popular culture in new and unexpected ways. I’ve been amazed by the emotional depth and character complexity in video games like Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch and innovative approaches to narrative in games like 80 Days. Ian Bogost’s work in game studies has had a huge influence on me, and I think his book, Persuasive Games, and James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy should be required reading for any educator. Trent Hergenrader’s ideas about using collaboration and digital platforms to teach creative writing were life changing, and I am continually fascinated by the work that Henry Jenkins and danah boyd do with regard to digital culture and technological experience.
Who do you follow religiously on Twitter?
I’m not really a Twitter person, but I like to keep up with the Future of StoryTelling, Games for Change, and Electric Literature on Facebook, and Anonymouse MMX makes my Instagram feed much more fun.
Image: Courtesy of Julialicia Case