Ergodic literature is a term coined by Espen J. Aarseth in his 1997 book Cybertext—Perspectives on Ergodic Literature to describe literature in which nontrivial effort is required for the reader to traverse the text. The term is derived from the Greek words ergon, meaning "work", and hodos, meaning "path". It is associated with the concept of cybertext and describes a cybertextual process that includes a semiotic sequence that the concepts of "reading" do not account for.
Aarseth's book contains the most commonly cited definition of ergodic literature:
In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.: 1
In addition to the above definition, Aarseth explained ergodic literature as two-fold: a normal text and a machine capable of producing several manifestations of a text. One of the major innovations of the concept of ergodic literature is that it is not medium-specific so long as the medium has the ability to produce an iteration of the text. New media researchers have tended to focus on the medium of the text, stressing that it is for instance paper-based or electronic. Aarseth broke with this basic assumption that the medium was the most important distinction, and argued that the mechanics of texts need not be medium-specific.
Ergodic literature is not defined by medium, but by the way in which the text functions. Thus, both paper-based and electronic texts can be ergodic: "The ergodic work of art is one that in a material sense includes the rules for its own use, a work that has certain requirements built in that automatically distinguishes between successful and unsuccessful users.": 179
Cybertext is a subcategory of ergodic literature that Aarseth defines as "texts that involve calculation in their production of scriptons".: 75 The process of reading printed matter, in contrast, involves "trivial" extranoematic effort, that is, merely moving one's eyes along lines of text and turning pages. Thus, hypertext fiction of the simple node and link variety is ergodic literature but not cybertext. A non-trivial effort is required for the reader to traverse the text, as the reader must constantly select which link to follow, but a link, when clicked, will always lead to the same node. A chat bot such as ELIZA is a cybertext because when the reader types in a sentence, the text-machine actually performs calculations on the fly that generate a textual response. The I Ching is likewise cited as an example of cybertext because it contains the rules for its own reading. The reader carries out the calculation but the rules are clearly embedded in the text itself.
It has been argued that these distinctions are not entirely clear and scholars still debate the fine points of the definitions.
The concepts of cybertext and ergodic literature were of seminal importance to new media studies, in particular literary approaches to digital texts and to game studies.
Examples given by Aarseth include a diverse group of texts. All these examples require non-trivial effort from the reader, who must participate actively in the construction of the text.
|Format or description
|(No specific example or location is identified)
|Stone wall inscriptions of the temples in ancient Egypt that are connected two-dimensionally (on one wall) or three dimensionally (from wall to wall or room to room)
|The I Ching
|China, as old as 900 BCE
|A divination text in which bundles of yarrow stalks are arranged to form numbers
|A poem or series of poems whose words "are spread out in several directions to form a picture on the page, with no clear sequence in which to be read"
|Choose Your Own Adventure
|a set of children's novels written in the second person in which the reader makes choices throughout, leading to a number of different possible endings
|Composition No. 1, Roman
|a novel with shuffleable pages
|One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems
|A set of ten sonnets, with each line on a separate card strip. All ten sonnets have not just the same rhyme scheme but the same rhyme sounds, so any lines from a sonnet can be combined with any from the other nine.
|B. S. Johnson
|"book in a box," 1969. A first and last chapter are specified; 25 remaining chapters are designed to be read in any order.
|A novel, published in folio format with 1,334 pages, told mostly in three shifting columns, presenting the text in the form of notes, collages, and typewritten pages.
|Dictionary of the Khazars
|Three cross-referenced mini-encyclopedias, sometimes contradicting each other, each compiled from the sources of one of the major Abrahamic religions. Additionally, a ballet adaption was staged at Madlenianum Opera and Theatre.
|Landscape Painted with Tea
|described as "A novel for crossword fans"
|A 999-line poem titled "Pale Fire", written by the fictional poet John Shade, with a foreword, lengthy commentary and index written by Shade's neighbor and academic colleague, Charles Kinbote.
|an early natural language processing computer program created from 1964 to 1966 at MIT
|William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter
|an artificial intelligence program that generates English language prose at random
|Afternoon: a story
|electronic literature, published by Eastgate Systems, known as one of the first works of hypertext fiction.
|Multi-User Dungeon (aka MUD1)
|Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle
|text-based multiplayer real-time virtual world
|text-based multiplayer real-time virtual world
|The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy
|Three stories, told through a series of letters and postcards between the two main characters. Every page features a postcard or a letter enclosed in an envelope.
|J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst
|Composed of the novel Ship of Theseus (by a fictional author), hand-written notes filling the book's margins, and loose supplementary materials.
|House of Leaves
|Mark Z. Danielewski
|A novel with very unusual layout, presented as a story about a manuscript about a movie about a strange house
|simultaneously a novella, a poem, and a journal, as a sequence of fragmented diary entries
|a stream-of-consciousness novel containing riddles, puzzles, anagrams, palindromes, and a considerable amount of word play.
|a stream-of-consciousness novel which can be read according to two different sequences of chapters
|999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
|A Japanese adventure game on the Nintendo DS which is told through two simultaneous perspectives, each displayed on a separate screen
|A science fiction novel told in part through ephemera such as declassified documents, artworks, graphics, and a novel within the novel
Aarseth's concept of an ergodic text is important to game studies. For example, a printed Dungeons & Dragons adventure can be considered an ergodic text because it must be played as part of the act of reading it.
- Aarseth, Espen J. (1997). Cybertext—Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 1–2. ISBN 978-0801855795.
- Gendolla, Peter; Schäfer, Jörgen (2007). The Aesthetics of Net Literature: Writing, Reading and Playing in Programmable Media. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers. p. 71. ISBN 9783899424935.
- Eichner, Susanne (2014). Agency and Media Reception: Experiencing Video Games, Film, and Television. Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media. p. 112. ISBN 9783658046729.
- Wardrip-Fruin, Noah (August 12, 2005). "Clarifying Ergodic and Cybertext". Grand Text Auto.
- "The Case of S., or, the Metatextual Pleasure of Ergodic Works". The Believer Logger. March 10, 2014. Retrieved March 15, 2017.
- "Recensione: Poena Damni di Dimitris Lyacos". 18 January 2023.
- White, W.J., Arjoranta, J., Hitchens, M., Peterson, J., Torner, E., Walton, J., 2018. Tabletop role-playing games, in: Zagal, J.P., Deterding, S. (Eds.), Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations. Routledge, New York, pp. 63–86.