With the rise of the reader-response discourse during the late 1960s and 1970s, in literary theory, the reader became the most prominent figure to create meaning from a text. Prior to this discourse, the meaning from a text was distilled from the author, who was seen as the voice of their work, endowing the work with a single truth that the reader had to decipher (Barthes 1967). Michel Foucault (1969) describes the author as a function that serves to bring together a group of works under a single discourse that imply “homogeneity, filiation, reciprocal explanation, authentication, or of common utilization” (19). Within this discourse, the author has an almost holy status as the figure who determines the actual meaning of their work. However, reader-response theory came as a critique against the author, and instead scholars such as Roland Barthes (1967) argued that the place where meaning distilled from the text is made is the reader. As the emphasis shifted from the author to the reader, the text became less important on the account of the reader who holds different paths of which the text can be constructed (1967, 6). Following up on his critique against the author, Barthes (1974) made a distinction between “writerly” and “readerly” texts. The former refers to texts written in such a way that they are open for interpretation, that they can be reinterpreted by the reader however they want. The latter refers to texts that are easy to consume but difficult to interpret from different perspectives (1974, 4) so that the meaning of these texts is easy to decipher and clear-cut, but the readers themselves have less interpretative agency over the text.
In the reader-response discourse, the relationship between text and reader plays an important role to the reader’s interpretative agency over a text. Initially an empirical reader in the early stages of the discourse, Louise Rosenblatt (1938) asked an active awareness from readers to critically assess how they came to a certain interpretation. But, in the late 1960s, the reader became a model defined in accordance to the text, when Wayne Booth’s “implied” reader (1961), as the image of the reader the author had in mind when writing, was used by Wolfgang Iser to consider it a structure of the text (Iser 1978; Schmid 2013). The implied reader became a model that had all the requirements for the text to exercise its effects as demanded from the text itself (Iser 1978, 34). In response, Umberto Eco constructed a “model” reader, resembling the implied reader, but one that also acknowledges an actual reader’s intertextual knowledge of other texts (Eco 1979, 7–8). Their knowledge of other texts gives empirical readers an intertextual frame to overcode the text’s meaning as originally intended by the author. In that sense, the relationship between the model reader and the text can be understood as one where empirical readers are constantly in dialogue with the text, comparing it with other texts and their own experiences in life to derive meaning from it.
The dialogue between author, text, and empirical reader is still prevalent in our current age where many have a constant connection to the internet. Thomas (2019) explains that more than before people negotiate and rewrite the meaning of texts in “hybrid multimodal and multilingual constellations” across “asymmetrical trajectories” (154). Thomas’ work can be placed among a line of studies on participatory culture consisting of scholars who describe the negotiation between fans and the texts of their fancy (such as Jenkins 1992; Evans 2008; Lamerichs 2018), with her focus being on black readers’ re-imagination of popular cultural works specifically written for and by white persons. One of her examples is writer J.K. Rowling’s tendencies to announce aspects about the identity of her characters from the Harry Potter
universe in peripheral situations, outside of the main story line and mostly through social media, such as Dumbledore’s queer sexuality, Hermione’s racial and ethnic identity as possibly being black, and Rowling’s doubt about the characters’ romantic relationships. The response to Rowling’s control over the text and the empirical readers’ interpretative agency comes in the form of a readerly versus writerly dialogue, namely that while Rowling offers a readerly text, whereas readers negotiate this aspect, transforming it into a writerly text for them to rewrite as they want.
Nevertheless, texts such as the Harry Potter
books and film series are nonergodic texts, that is, readers of these books and films only have to make trivial extranoematic effort to traverse them and derive meaning from them (see Aarseth 1997, 1). However, nowadays, there is an abundance of work where the structure of that work is such that users have to put in non-trivial effort to traverse and interpret them, and end up in different paths depending on how they traverse the product, such as videogames (ibid.). Within participatory culture, players engage with the interpretation, reconfiguration, and construction of games as any other popular media text (Raessens 2005). Responding to the importance of the relationship between the reader and the text, Aarseth had already written back in 1997 that in games the user becomes a more integrated figure than the reader in reader-response theory. For the latter, the meaning-making process takes place in the head of the reader, but in the former, players will see and experience something else than other players depending on how they engage with the game (1997, 62).Footnote 1 In contrast to nonergodic texts, in games, the user does not only have an interpretative function, but also has a configurative function because of all the decisions they make within the text (65), thereby the text embodies Barthes’ concept of the writerly text. The position of the player in relation to the text is, as Mortensen (2003) states, one of influence: “computer games do not presuppose a consuming user, and not even an actively understanding reader, but a manipulating reader who is part of the player” (92). Just like nonergodic texts have an implied reader, games have an implied player as a structure of the text itself to exercise its full effect (Aarseth 2007). That is to say that the implied player is the optimal player to fully exercise the effect of the game, giving the impression that the author is fully in control as they are the ones who decide the implied player of their game. However, empirical players have different play skills and different intertextual knowledge of other texts. Although players are subject to the type of players the developer has in mind for their game(s), players will display various degrees of going along and counteracting against the developer’s ideas of what players should and should not do in their game (see, e.g., Mortensen and Jørgensen 2020). As such, even for the implied player we should take into consideration that the model can have different skills and knowledge as well, adding to the model’s configurative function, which determines what they will see and how they interact with it, thereby affecting their own meaning-making process both on the level of the game and on the level of their own imagination. In other words, two players of one game may end up interacting with diverse content due to their different choices, skills, and knowledge.
Yet, although the structures of games (see Aarseth and Calleja 2015) are discussed as dynamic, where the content players engage with depends on their choices, the debates I have sketched above seem to assume that the text is finished by the author—that the author cannot touch the work anymore. However, most videogames that we currently play have an online nature, enabling developers to regularly adjust the game when necessary, or add content to the game’s narrative world. A game such as Overwatch is constantly updated and changed by the product’s developer. Blizzard Entertainment introduces new characters and new stories and adjusts play modes and character moves on a regular basis. This allows Blizzard Entertainment to expand Overwatch’s narrative landscape as a whole so that players gradually learn about the new and existing characters’ motivations, fears, hopes, and lives surrounding Overwatch as a fictional task force. At the same time, the constant connection to the internet, required to play Overwatch, also gives Blizzard Entertainment the possibilities to update existing characters. In the case of the hero Mercy, they even went as far as adjusting her mechanics because Blizzard Entertainment did not like the kind of behavior Mercy players maintained during competitive matches. As a result, we should not think of Overwatch as an ergodic or nonergodic text, rather, I propose to call it a “fluid text,” which I consider a text whose structure the author can directly change. In the case of Overwatch, Blizzard Entertainment has an almost god-like power over the game, directly affecting how the implied player relates to the game, how they traverse the game, and thereby influence the player’s understanding of Overwatch’s construction of its characters, narrative landscape, and gameplay. In the next pages, I will provide several illustrative examples to show how the fluidity of Overwatch affects the player’s agency over the interpretation of and engagement with the game and its characters.