Quite possibly the quickest and easiest way to understand Aarseth’s ergodic literature genre is to quite simply look at the document itself. If you decided to do the readings this week, you went online, checked the syllabus, clicked the link, and were brought to a website: Sample Chapter from: Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Given the nature of the medium, you then were given two choices: print out the reading as a hard copy on paper, or simply read it off the computer screen. A simple choice usually dictated by personal preference (or sometimes even the economy of time) has the ability to change this reading from ergodic to unergodic literature.
Ergodic literature, as defined, is when nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. Basically, some sort of thinking, cognitive process, or act of agency is required to take reading further. I realized, once back at my apartment with my hard copy in hand, that I could only flip through the pages and read exactly what was printed in ink. All the underlined texts in the left margins (hyperlinks, means to gather more information –alter and/or expand my exploration of this reading) were completely inaccessible to me. I could only read through this unergodic text linearly. However, if I had chosen to read this assignment online, the very nature of hyperlinks and my ability to instantly click (or not click) them to explore and expand on Aarseth’s points would create a cognitive work path (which Aarseth explains via the metaphor of a labyrinth of thought processes). The nature of the online medium and cybertext, makes this a piece of ergodic literature only if read online.
However, Aarseth is not quite satisfied with the explicit segregation between online texts from printed texts (exemplifying this unjust segregation by explaining printed texts and more primitive texts were canonized together in academia). To prove a larger point, the definition of cybertexts is critical. Cybertext is text in which the intricacies of the medium are an integral part in the literary exchange, or texts in which its mechanical arrangement impact its reading. Just because the word cybertext didn’t exist hundreds of years ago, it does not mean that cybertexts, as a signifier -an entity, did not exist. This is Aarseth’s primary argument: cybertexts, and ultimately ergodic literature have always existed since texts and cognitive processes have existed, so must be studied academically alongside texts of all different media (while still recognizing their differences).
Clearly through the example of this actual reading itself existing ergodically and unergodically, we see how cybertexts, through their very nature, fall into the genre of ergodic literature. To find ergodic literature existing prior to hyperlinks and cybertexts, Aarseth references an improvisational Ayn Rand play where audience interaction influences one of two endings, an ancient Chinese system of rearranging the same characters to come up with different answers to prophetic questions, etc. One example of print ergodic literature that came to mind was the off-set of the Goosebumps series popular in the 1990’s called: Give Yourself Goosebumps. These books served as a literary game. When the reader reaches the end of the page he is given several plot options. Depending on the readers cognitive processes, a different choice in plot will be made, and the reader will be directed to a corresponding page (often dozens of pages ahead of the one he/she just finished reading). The books would feature several endings with multiple pathways to reach each ending. However, there is a twist. In all but one of the endings, the protagonist (and in this case, the reader, as the books were written in the second person) dies or is killed off. To “win” this literary game, the reader must make a correct choice sequence in plot decisions to reach the desired “happily-ever-after” ending. This textual game redefines the narrative in terms that are similar to primitive cybertexts used in computer games. With such obvious similarities in structure and ideology, Aarseth is correct to insist texts and narratives be explored in conjunction to online texts and narratives. Literary scholars and critics would obviously consider “Give Yourself Goosebumps” to be a text and a narrative, so naturally online text should be given the same weight and academic inquiry.
There is just one important difference between print ergodic literature and online ergodic literature: online ergodic literature has access to unprecedented resources through easily accessible databases. Literally infinite paths of exploration exist when looking at online ergodic literature as narratives. However, Aarseth likens this change in pathway to the post-modern re-defining of the metaphorical cognitive labyrinth. In online ergodic literature, the biviums of the labyrinth –pathways for expansion –are endless. When clicking on a hyperlink from this article, we are transported to more texts and information. While reading that, we may choose to click more links, open them up in new tabs to return to later, read them now, return to the initial text, or potentially even get lost in clicking through several links that catch our attention and prevent us from ever returning to and finishing the initial reading. These cognitive labyrinths of thought processes, or cybertextual narratives, become infinite, unique, and personal, tailoring our understanding and its parameters based on our personal choices. Through this textual and meta-textual analysis Aarseth is stimulating academia to alter the notions of texts and narratives to keep up with the times.