Western Mail Profiles: Professor Astrid Ensslin

‘Professor aims to help teenage girls improve their body image through digital fiction’

Astrid Ensslin is a professor in the school of creative studies and media at Bangor University. She teaches digital media and communication and has written books on videogames and digital literature. She leads Bangor University’s Digital Economies Research Cluster and an intercontinental project on computer gaming across cultures, funded by the British Council.

Professor Astrid Ensslin on her studies into whether digital fiction can be used to enhance young girls’ body image and what happens when literature and computer games merge.

WE ALL know what a videogame is. We all know what a novel is. And we probably find it quite difficult to imagine playing a game and reading a poem or novel at the same time.

After all, one is about making fast progress, levelling up, killing enemies, collecting items, and the other is about immersing oneself into imaginary worlds by decoding language, word by word, sentence by sentence.

But make no mistake, for a few decades artists, writers and game designers have been experimenting with what happens when we merge gaming and reading, and the results of these projects are stunning. They have given rise to a wide variety of new creative media, which might be digital poems or fictions that can be played, or computer games that we can read.

The Princess Murderer, for example, is a novel that has to be read online, by clicking images and bits of text on the computer screen. It’s not like an e-book, which we read by turning pages. It’s a digital, interactive text that can’t be printed because every time we read it, the plot is different, and this is because we click different links and encounter different parts of the story whenever we go back to it.

The Princess Murderer is an adaptation of the Enlightenment fairy tale, Bluebeard, and what the reader – or should I say player? – has to do is save (or kill) princesses because there are either too few or too many in the castle. But it turns out that the game can’t be won, and that it isn’t really about collecting or killing off lovely ladies – I shall say no more.

At the moment I am writing a book called Literary Gaming, which maps and analyses the wide range of digital creative media that lie somewhere between reading and gaming and challenge readers and gamers in unforeseen ways.

But I am also working on a collaborative research project with psychologists, literary scholars and human geographers from Aberystwyth and Cardiff, to find out if digital fiction can be used to enhance young girls’ body image.

A long-term aim of the project is to work closely together with digital writers and game designers to create a range of digital fictions and literary games that appeal to teenage girls and help them develop a healthy relationship with their bodies.

In the long run, I want to focus my research on other possible applications of digital fiction and literary gaming. I’m planning a project with various national libraries and art centres, that will try to find out whether reading digital fictions can help improve young people’s digital literacy and reading skills.

My hope is that the combination of “playing books” and “reading games” will promote reading among teenagers and perhaps even encourage them to become digital writers and designers themselves.

To contact Astrid please email a.ensslin@bangor.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on 18th February 2013, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.