The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Formal Response 3 – Gaming and Leapfrog

There is little doubt that the written word has undergone significant changes since its inception hundreds of years ago. The continual shift of design and words promotes both cultural changes and is an indication that nothing is ever stagnant or unchanging. Jay Bolter in his book “Writing Space” indicates that “print today is continuing to remake itself in order to maintain its claim to represent reality as effectively as digital and other visual media” (Bolter, 2001, p. 47). According to Bolter, print has undergone a transformation of reverse ekphrasis in which the visual image now embodies words. Bolter also contents that print has undergone a visual renovation that appeals to all the senses in order to represent a more “real” application of reality. This notion of competition or restructuring of print establishes a situation to further examine Bolter’s contention that print has undergone both reverse ekphrasis, evident in visual media and Sparkline, and a sensual revolution, as indicated by online role playing games and technologically advanced learning toys. The “modernization” of print implies an attempt to stay current in contemporary, technical times.
The Greek term Ekphrasis has been used to describe the act of envisioning a description as if it were physically present. Bolter challenges that print has reformulated itself in a type of reverse ekphrasis in which the image portrays or explains words (Bolter, 2001). The origins can be seen in Rebus forms of communication, where pictures (or symbols) are utilized for their sounds to represent new words. Rebus systems were common in Egyptian writings and used as a tool for children to learn reading in the 19th century. Rebus systems indicate that the visual representation of words has been present throughout history. Perhaps Bolter suggests that print has reverted back to picture depiction of words due to the need for a more accurate symbol of reality. This is evident in the USA Today “Snapshots” where pictures are the data. The idea of reality as symbols is corroborated by Murray Krieger, who explains change stems from our “desire for the natural sign, the desire, that is, to have the world captured in the word” (Krieger, 1992, 11, from Bolter, 2001, p. 57).
Modern or reverse Ekphrasis is best indicated by the transfer of the novel to film. The adaptation of the novel into motion picture further stresses the shift from the written word to the visual representation of words. The novel, once a bound text, can now been seen and heard as a movie. The movie itself could be defined as a form of Ekphrasis as it is taking words of a novel and explained through a series of images. Bolter extends this argument through the example of the reproduced book. Reverse Ekphrasis is quite evident through the reproduction of a novel cover after its movie form has been produced (Bolter, 2001). The image of the movie on the novel cover serves as a symbol for the novel itself, as Bolter suggests, “the book must now do its best to recreate in words the experience of seeing the film” (Bolter, 2001, p 57). One can not help but think of the tween series “Twilight” in which the film’s main character, played by Robert Pattinson, graces the covers of the entire series. As if this were not enough, the merchandise created from the film (and somewhat due to the books themselves) further proves the shift to visual representation of words. The Twilight series has buttons, magnets, posters, and even T-shirts in which a fan can declare there affiliation for either of the two male characters vying for the narrator’s affections. These shirts simply say “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob” Curiously; these words become visual symbols for the novel/film and convey implicit knowledge that aids the experience of authenticity.
Edward Tufte has designed a method of making the experience of the written word more authentic. Tufte created a data system which he aptly name Sparkline. Sparkline essentially is for “small, high resolution graphics embedded in a context of words, numbers, images” and is “data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics” (Edward Tufte 2006). Tufte states that traditional charts are too general and isolated from the text, whereas Sparkline graphics are succinct and located in the text where they are discussed. What Tufte has created is a visual of information acts as a “kind of “word” that conveys rich information without breaking the flow of a sentence or paragraph made of other “words” both visual and conventional” (Wikipedia, Edward Tufte). Sparkline promotes the notion of reverse ekphrasis as the data is presented as an image and represents words in a visual format. Reverse Ekphrasis is evident in our culture, yet the “remediation” of print also includes, according to Bolter, visual changes that heighten our other senses, making print more lifelike.
The sensual transition of the written word is evident as our culture shifts to a more technical medium. In today’s culture art must imitate life or it must be as authentic to real life as possible. The focus now rests of the need for authentic entertainment and this is usually found in a visual format. In order for the written word to compete, it needs to be restructured in a format that visually appeals and provides an authentic experience. Examples of this transition are clearly exposed in the fantasy role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons and World of Warcraft. Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy role playing game created in 1974 in which each player is a character moving through another world focusing on challenges and tasks which must be accomplished. Dungeons and Dragons is a visual form of the written word. The new versions of the game are online and have books with more pictures and diagrams which are “far more pleasing to the eye” (Miller, 2008, para. 11). The visual component of the books, along with the role play which engages emotions, sound, and tactile functions, serves as a precursor to the transition of the written word into a sensual or physical format. The next generation of the physical written word is World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft, or WoW, is a multiplayer online role playing game where a story unfolds through quest text and scripted non-player characters. WoW truly is a sensual experience of the written story. It incorporates the visual component with the virtual worlds the characters must engage in, it provides the player with the feeling of “being there” as they are the character that navigates through the world. It also includes sound and even touch as the player must use the keyboard, mouse etc. to continue the reading. The player must envision and engage in the fantasy world. The game provides the player the ability to control some of the text, which offers the player a truly authentic written experience. Another example of this, as suggested by Bolter, is MOO gamers who navigate in a fantasy world where they write (similar to Ekphrasis) and envision those words as a reality world online. WoW is a more complex version of a MOO with complex storylines. WoW truly is a modern version of the written word, where the reader sees the written word in a sensual context and is intricate in the storyline. The sensual shift does not relate only to the role playing genre, but can be seen in other forms in our culture.
One such form is found in the educational toys created by LeapFrog, where the slogan itself, “See the learning” denotes a visual context. LeapFrog has been using technological advancements to enhance educational toys for young children. The LeapFrog website shows the requirement for knowledge to be sensual and states:

“See it. Hear it. Say it. Touch it. Learn it.
At LeapFrog, we surround the child with multiple ways of learning by tapping into their senses. Interactive learning experiences are further reinforced with immediate, and positive, corrective feedback. This multi-sensory approach has been consistently proven effective by third-party efficacy studies and research.” (LeapFrog, 2009, para. 5).

Case in point, LeapFrog’s book system: the “Tag Reading System”. This system is a further sign of the shift towards the written word as a sensual experience. The Tag reading system, uses a reader pen that the child can highlight over a word to sound it out, to make characters sing, or to make characters talk. The Tag reading system provides reading as a sensual experience. The website indicates this:

“The Tag Reading System engages children’s senses to make reading a rich, fulfilling experience. With each touch of the Tag reader to the book’s pages, words talk, characters sing and stories live out loud. With over 20 books and games including favourite TV, movie and classic tales, each Tag book allows children to learn at their own pace, building confidence” (LeapFrog, 2009, para. 1).

What is interesting is that the LeapFrog product advertises the need for a multi-layered experience when reading. In addition, the fact that the books contain information from “favourite TV and Movies” is another affirmation of the written word competing with its visual counterpart. LeapFrog products juxtapose the new era of the written word, as it proves that reading and writing are increasingly more visual and call for a sensual experience where legitimacy can be replicated.
Bolter’s “breakout of the visual” indicates a new form of the written word. The written word, like our culture, is not stagnant and must change and adapt to new circumstances and demands of society. This change is further ingrained due to the increase in multimedia and technological advancements. The adaptations undergone by the written word indicate our society’s desire for a more authentic experience, one where simplicity is combined with symbols and all of our senses.


Bolter, Jay David (2001). Writing Space Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Krieger, M. (1992). Ekphrasis: The illusion of the Natural Sign. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. Quote Retrieved from Bolter, Jay David (2001). Writing Space Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

LeapFrog. (2009). About Us. Retrieved from

LeapFrog. (2009). Tag Reading System. Retrieved from

Miller, John J. (2008, July 1). Dungeons and Dragons in a Digital World. The Wall Street Journal Retrieved from

Tufte, Edward (2006). Beautiful Evidence. Graphics Press

Wikipedia. Edward Tufte. Retrieved on 27 October 2009. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. Rebus. Retrieved on 27 October 2009. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. World of Warcraft. Retrieved on 27 October 2009. Retrieved from

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.29.09 at 3:50 pm }

I was wondering if in your opinion these “adaptations” should be taken into account in the school curriculum?

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