Digital Games as the Intertextual Medium

“Intertextuality” is a term coined by Julia Kristeva (1967) to describe the ways texts relate to and reference other texts, through devices such as allusion, quotation, pastiche, and parody. While somewhat contentious among scholars, intertextuality attempts to capture a nebulous concept that a number of authors including Barthes (2001) and Bakhtin (1934) have given various names and definitions. Kristeva’s definition considers that in reading a text, knowledge is not simply transferred from author to reader, but its significance is instead interpreted through the lens of reader experience and cultural codes developed from other texts. Text can appear in multiple iterations, as written words, or even as representations of such in a physical article such as clothes, hair, or architecture. In digital games, not only does text appear onscreen in narrative and descriptive forms, but every bit of scenery, character appearance, and diagetic sound could be considered text. As discussed by Wolf (2001), digital games draw upon divergent texts and provide an interactive environment for users to read these texts.

Consalvo (2003) defines intertextuality in digital games as a “sophisticated understanding of the ‘text’ and its place in the greater media marketplace” (p. 327). These texts often originate in other media, in cinema, literature, television, the Internet, and from any number of users and producers. Digital games operate completely within a world fabricated from these texts, making digital games far more intertextual that other media such as print, radio, television, and film. I argue intertextuality is the keystone on which digital games are built. Gamers, who operate in this environment and manipulate this intertextual world, are thus more easily encouraged to participate in participatory and remix culture, itself a highly intertextual context. Gamers, who formulate their identity in this intertextual and interactive world, are themselves remixed creatures. Gamers share information, communicate, and connect with others through shared experiences in participatory and remix culture. For an example of this, one has to look no father than the link below:

Heralded indie game creations the Boy and Tim (from the games Limbo and Braid respectively) immediately evoke the indie aesthetic, which of course is not simply a digital games invention. The indie aesthetic referenced here is a notion of networked meaning, drawn from a number of sources in pop culture that is intertextually recognized in these disparate forms. Tim and the Boy are positioned as hipsters, their independence from standard digital game conventions and narratives acts as point of pride and differentiation from the more commercial properties Mario represents. Mario, as Nintendo’s flagship icon, has been the definitive measure for an entire genre of adventure and platform games. It could certainly be argued that the term “platform game” owes its origins to Super Mario Bros, where much of the game is spent jumping from platform to platform to moving platform. In addition, as a commercial success and a flag bearer for gaming as a general leisure activity, his position as a non-controversial, spunky everyman positions him as a target of the indie aesthetic scorn.

While it’s true that gamers read the video’s Parappa the Rapper posters in the background and the Pacman ghosts in the next booth immediately as referents to digital gaming, the greater network of meaning comes not only from these clever nods to gaming. The decor of the bar harkens to any number of literary and cinematic locales, from the Spouter Inn to Kavanagh’s Irish Pub. These influences are easily identifiable, but what should be understood is that “Mario is Too Mainstream” does not reside in a cultural vacuum. These references instead marinate in the cultural experience of all those who read this text.

As a result most viewers will recognize the very same nerd-heavy arguments Tim and Mario had as much as they from their own pub crawling experience as they might from Woody’s L. Street Tavern in South Boston. Both are instances are part of the shared cultural experiences readers have. In that shared experience, the various meanings are traded and understood, possibly tying the cinematic to empiric.


Bakhtin, M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination.  Austin, TX: U of Texas P.

Barthes, R. (1977). The death of the author. Image / Music / Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 142-7.

Barthes, R. (1977). Barthes, Roland. The death of the author. Image / Music / Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 142-7.

Consalvo, M. (2003). Zelda 64 and Video Game Fans A Walkthrough of Games, Intertextuality, and Narrative. Television & New Media4(3), 321-334.

Kristeva, K. (1967). Bakhtine, le mot, le dialogue et le roman. Critique. 33 (239), 438–465.

Wolf, M. J. P. (Eds.) (2001) The medium of the video game. Austin : University of Texas Press.