Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




In this dissertation, I analyze the way that gameplay, considered broadly, both facilitated and informed representations of agency in the nineteenth century. In effect, games were archives of possibility made procedurally discrete, rendering modes of action and agency legible in ways that are suggested, although differently engaged, in their somewhat less ephemeral cousins: books. Understanding that both games and books emerged from within similar fields of cultural production and often marketed themselves to the same audiences, I argue that taking a technical and materially historical approach to games helps us to explore major literary works of the period to startlingly revealing effect. Examining the figures and forms of mid-nineteenth-century games in the United States--avatars, state machines, and practices of targeting and configuration--allows us to understand literature in conversation with a complex and evolving media marketplace, a conversation that facilitates one of literature's core functions as historical repository. To find meaning in literary objects, critical scholarship must reconstruct the contexts that allow them to signify; yet it has often proven difficult to track a context that is based on motion and spatiality and operational possibility using primarily non-procedural forms (novels, poems, autobiographies). As a result, critical methodologies fixate on the immobile, the institutional, and a historiography of increasingly obliterated time. These perspectives are crucial, and yet they risk leaving out the temporal local activities of daily life that are represented by gameplay and reading (or coding that activity as simple "resistance"). To get at a deeper understanding of the interactive medial shift that was occurring across the nineteenth century--corresponding to a shift in the possibilities of the literary--games offer models of emerging procedural grammars, drawing attention to the increasingly algorithmic structures enabling the civic agencies that have been represented by American literary studies.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.