Intertextuality and the Virtual World on Celluloid

Theo Plothe


Digital games have become an incredibly popular and influential industry within American cultural life, to the extent that digital games and the experience of playing them has been represented in many popular films. This essay posits two crucial elements for the representation of digital games in film: intertextuality and representations of player control. As discussed by Wolf (2001), videogames are intertextual by nature, drawing upon divergent texts and providing an interactive environment for users to read these texts. Cinematically, the notion of player-agency control is influenced greatly by this intertextuality, and player control has been represented in a number of films involving videogames and digital worlds. This essay looks at the use and representation of player-agency control in both the Tron and Matrix film series, as well as the recent film Wreck-It Ralph. There are three elements that are essential to this representation: 1) there is a separation between the virtual and the real; 2) the virtual world is written in code, and this code is impossible for player-agents to change, though they can manipulate it; 3) the relative position of the player to the player-agent, is one of subservience or conflict. I argue that not only is the notion of player-agency control representative, it is essential to the cinematic representation of videogames’ virtual worlds.


The digital game industry is now the largest, most popular, and profitable form of media on the planet. In 2011 alone, the industry accounted for nearly $14.5 billion in sales, from a selection of over 1100 games released across all platforms and consoles, including mobile and online downloads, and traditional disks (, 2011). According to the Entertainment Software Association, digital games are being played by more a diverse population than ever, with more than two-thirds of all American households playing some type of digital game (ESA, 2012). According to the PEW Internet and American Life Project, 53% of American adults play some kind of digital games, either on a computer, gaming console, cell phone, or handheld gaming device (Lenhart et al., 2008). Digital games, then, represent a large aspect of popular culture, and elements of games, from their narratives, characters, game worlds, and particularly game mechanics (discussed here as ludological features), are the object of representation and exploration in other popular media, particularly film.

Brookey (2010) discusses at length the convergence of the film and digital game industries, where films are adapted into digital games and vice versa. This is a rich area of scholarship in considering the effects of media convergence on both of these industries, as well as the similarity of digital games and film elements. In this essay I instead examine the representation of game experiences in narrative films. Cultural products such as these are important to study in order to consider the place of digital games in culture at large, the elements of digital games represented, and the ways in which elements of these games are considered. Burrill (2008) also notes the importance of studying digital games and their influence through the ideologies they impart to culture at large: “In a world where ‘play’ has become an operant word and war looks like a videogame, it is essential to avoid categorizing the games as simply dangerous or trivial” (p. 83). As game elements become part of larger cultural narratives like films, it is important to consider their greater impact in examining how elements of games are taken up in other media.

This essay examines the representation of digital games through three different films franchises: Tron (1982), Tron: Legacy (2010), The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), The Matrix Revolutions (2003), and Wreck it Ralph (2012). Through a consideration of the gaming elements represented in these three films, this essay suggests important criteria for the representation of games in cinema: 1) the film must be as intertextual as the game itself, and 2) it must represent elements of ludological control, particularly player control, adhering to a rule-bound structure. Through an examination of the ways that each film addresses player agency and the intertextual elements of this representation, this essay emphasizes the importance of this concept in cultural representations of gaming.


As discussed by Wolf (2001), digital games draw upon divergent texts and provide an interactive environment for users to read these texts. They are rich, intertextual environments that pull references and techniques from a myriad of different media sources, particularly films. In defining intertextuality, Allen (2000) notes, “intertextuality is one of the most commonly used and misused terms in contemporary critical vocabulary” (p. 2). “Intertextuality” is a term coined by Julia Kristeva to describe the ways texts relate to and reference other texts, through devices such as allusion, quotation, pastiche, and parody. This term acknowledges that in reading a text, knowledge is not simply translated from writer to reader, but is instead filtered by cultural codes developed from other texts. A text could be anything from actual written words, to representation, to a physical article such as clothes, hair, or architecture. In digital games, not only is there text that appears onscreen as narration and description, but every bit of scenery, character appearance, and diagetic sound could be considered text.

As Kress (2000) describes, the term intertextuality has become theoretical shorthand for the dialogic nature of texts as continually referential (p. 135). Orr (2003) defines intertextuality as “the culminating critical term for processes of cultural interconnectivity centered on the printed text” (p. 170). Orr emphasizes the transformative nature of intertextuality in the ability of textual references to alter the work that came before it (p. 10). While Orr’s definition emphasizes text, she notes that electronic hypertext and interactive media have added “a further layer” to text, a “virtual text” (p. 170), and that intertextuality as a term can be applied to any medium conceived of after print, including film. Orr acknowledges that Kristeva’s grounding of the term intertextuality within French postmodernism separates her concept from other similar modes of cultural borrowing “as specifically highbrow” (p. 20). In unifying these ideas, I would argue that Orr’s concept of the transformative nature of intertextuality anticipates later definitions of remix; interactive media, then, are not simply added layers of intertexuality, but are instead fundamental to the process itself.

Orr (2003) does note that the interactive nature of hypertext brings writers and readers together (p. 51). This is a key aspect Meinhof & Smith’s (2000) definition of intertextuality, as “the process of viewers and readers interpreting texts which exhibit the dynamic interactivity of several semiotic modes, and interpreting them in ways that are partially controlled by this multimodality” (p. 11). These scholars see intertextuality as a process of interpretation, and through this process, the audience identifies references within a text to other media texts. A film that references a novel draws attention to the ways that different media forms trade ideas and concepts, yet these concepts are represented in a way specific to that particular medium. Ideas traverse media, but their representations are media specific. Conversations of intertextuality in television in particular emphasize genre conventions and the role of the audience, especially their role in shaping audience expectations for a particular media text. As Meinhof and van Leeuwen (2000) describe, a TV commercial will inspire different expectations and reception than a music video or news report. These authors, then, see intertextuality as also the blending of multiple genre forms.

Schumaker (2011) argues that analyses of intertextuality in film often lean too heavily on literary criticism or study the features of particular directors rather than the function of intertextuality within the genre itself. Schumaker uses the term “super-intertexuality” to describe an exaggerated version of intertextuality present in contemporary film, defining it as “a self-reflexive theoretical model evolving from the unique text-to-text relationships that start the intertextual discourse” (p. 129). Schumaker’s analysis of the superhero film Kick-Ass notes its connections both to digital game culture and contemporary music. The author describes a sequence filmed from a first-person point of view that “quickly evolves into a shootout reminiscent of first-person shooters, like Halo and Doom. In this sequence, the camera oscillates between the first-person perspective of Hit-Girl and the third-person, suggesting a shift from digital game storytelling to stereotypical film storytelling, and shows how the two mediums can coexist” (p. 141-142). The sequence is accompanied by a cover of the theme song to The Banana Splits Adventure, a 1969 children’s television program performed by The Dickies, an American punk band. This short scene, then, references popular culture texts in television and music through a digital game-like action sequence, demonstrating the complex function of intertextuality in today’s contemporary culture:

The intertextual path which leads from television shows to generically related games indicates that it is the games which activate the everyday environment of play. There the game show stands in a familiar circle of activity. Crossword puzzles are not solved by individuals, but form the center of social activities. (Mikos & Wulff, 2000, p. 106)

Digital games take individual, specific elements of other media and place them within larger contexts and situations. The rules of a simple game, then, becomes part of a larger social system of activity within an interactive digital game.

What makes intertextuality in digital games different from other media is the immersive and interactive nature of games. Texts and film have a hierarchical, or one-to-many, relationship with their audiences. While readers/viewers can make connections between the text and others, these connections remain at an individual level. Because it’s a singular experience and not episodic, intertextuality is limited as self-reflection and self-reception. Within the gaming environment, the ability to play with these other texts alters those texts and ultimately allows individuals to experience them in more dynamic ways. This research seeks to outline the intertextual nature of video games and the gaming experience, demonstrating how the experience of video game play is uniquely intertextual and encourages an approach to media that is also uniquely participatory. Because of the importance of intertextuality within digital games, intertextuality is also an important element of films that represent digital games, as Schumaker’s analysis of Kick-Ass demonstrates.

Player Agency

The second element of these films is their representation of player agency. Player agency is the process through which gamers make decisions and intervene within digital gamespaces. Juul (2005) describes digital games as “rules and fiction,” containing narrative stories within specific ludic frameworks. (p. 12). Digital games are unique in that they are interactive; individuals have the ability to experience virtual spaces and interact with media in new ways through digital games. While digital games have structure and particular rules (just like any other structured system) there are an infinite number of ways through which the goals of a game can be achieved, and gamers are able to use creative invention and use their agency within the gameworld, usually through an avatar. The notion of player-agency has long been an area of inquiry in games studies (Behrenshausen, 2012). Scholars have looked at player-agency control in digital games, measuring its effect on education (Gee, 2003), motivation (Deterding, 2012), gaming practices (De Paoli & Kerr, 2010), and social meanings (Parsler, 2010; Wang & Sun, 2011). Morris (2002) describes the ways that gamers take an active role in the digital games they play, calling them “producers of fiction” within gameplay (p. 90).

Navarro (2012) calls controllable objects within the game “an extension of player agency” and describes the ways in which avatars allow gamers to interact within the space of the digital game. While many studies of avatars discuss player embodiment, player agency is interested more in the gamer imposing his/her will within the gamespace, which may or may not include a body, but is integrated through what Ensslin (2012) calls a “cybernetic feedback loop,” linking hardware, software, and the gamer. Brice & Rutter (2002) note that many digital games expand the parameters in which gamers can interact, even building levels, changing narratives, and adding characters (p. 76-77).

In cinematic representations of gaming, the notion of player-agency control is influenced greatly by this intertextuality. In order to represent the agency of players within a game, films rely on intertextual references: connections to digital games and other media. I posit that there are three elements that are essential to this representation of player agency within films about digital games:

1) there is a separation between the virtual and the real.

2) the virtual world is written in code, and this code is impossible for player-agents to change, though they can manipulate it.

3) the relative position of the player to the player-agent is one of subservience or conflict.

I argue that not only is the notion of player-agency control representative, it is essential to the cinematic representation of videogames’ virtual worlds. Throughout the rest of this essay, I will detail specific examples of intertextuality within the Tron and Matrix film franchises, and in the film Wreck It Ralph.


Burrill (2008) argues that the original Tron film, released in 1982, represents one of the first of many peaks for digital games within popular culture, tying it to the success of Pong and other game genres still popular today (p.94). Burrill also notes that the narrative of the film “functions as a series of games, or competitive segments performed by the avatars sucked into cyberspace and the preexisting programs populating the competitions” (p. 92). Intertextuality works throughout Tron and Tron: Legacy in that way, by representing digital game elements as small competitions that exist in the virtual space of the game.


Tron stars Jeff Bridges as computer programmer Kevin Flynn, a recently fired software engineer of the fictional ENCOM corporation. Ed Dillenger (David Warner) stole Flynn’s videogame designs and claimed them as his own, quickly scaling the management ladder as a result. Once elevated, he fires Flynn, left to running his own arcade and deviously hacking the ENCOM mainframe looking for evidence of Dillenger’s theft. The Master Control Program (MCP), an artificial intelligence written by Dillinger, repeatedly blocks Flynn’s attempts, until one day, the MCP manages to trap Flynn in the virtual world using an experimental laser to digitize him. Once in, Flynn attempts to defeat the MCP and save the world when the MCP seeks to overtake the Pentagon and Kremlin. When Dillinger learns the MCP’s plans, he is thwarted by the threat of the MCP exposing Dillenger’s plagiarism of Flynn’s incredibly successful games.

The first scene of Tron (1982) clearly demarcates the separation of virtual and the real as it opens in Flynn’s arcade and we hear a player and others talk about the Lightcycle game. We see the player start the game with a quarter and grab the joystick. The notion of a user in player-agency is very prominent from the start as the action shifts to the playing field inside the game. The virtual world’s antagonist Sark (also played by Warner) is shown in action defeating the player in a lightcycle battle. The MCP talks to Sark after the match mentioning that they have kidnapped some military programs” (via his intrusion into the Pentagon and the Kremlin) and asks if Sark would like to take them on next in more “lethal matches.” Sark bemoans the “cream puff accounting programs” he’s been sent to combat recently and readily agrees to engage these new virtual combatants.

Another example includes the following as we see Flynn being drawn into the gamespace.

In Tron users are worshiped as gods; being the unseen overlords who control their movements in the field and with an awareness that the programmers wrote the programs. Tron himself declares, “I fight for Alan,” a bold statement of loyalty to his creator. In another scene, a program, later revealed as “Crom,” is led down a hallway and can be heard complaining to his captors that he’s “Just a compound interest program. I work at a savings and loan. I can’t play these video games.” As his captors back him against a door he continues, “Hey, look. You guys are gonna make my User, Mr. Henderson, very angry. He’s a full branch manager!” The guard replies, “Great. Another religious nut!” From the guards’ perspective, Crom’s adherence to the user is repulsive. As with the MCP, the digital game rebels against its maker, seeking autonomy and independence from the user. Once in the cell, Crom’s neighbor introduces himself as Ram, welcoming him to their punishment and asking if Crom truly believes in the higher power known as the user. Crom replies that of course he does, “If I don’t have a User, then who wrote me?”

Although the virtual world is written in code, generally, the code is impossible for player-agents to rewrite, though they can manipulate it. As in digital games, there are many aspects of the game world that players cannot change, but they can use creative play to come up with solutions. This occurs most apparently when Flynn hijacks a broken down regulator, a flying war machine used to suppress enemies of the MCP. On the lam, Flynn and a mortally wounded Ram find a decrepit regulator among the cavernous outskirts of gamespace. Here, Flynn is able to revive the machine simply by concentrating on its repair and manipulating the code to fix the engine and the structural integrity of the ship. Ram’s eyes widen with awe and reverence as he questions whether Flynn is a user. Though pleased at the confirmation of his theological belief, Ram derezzes after praying to the users.

TronLegacyIn the sequel nearly 30 years later, belief in the user has changed dramatically. Tron Legacy presents a world where Kevin Flynn, as CEO of ENCOM International, disappeared in 1989. Two decades later, his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) has little to do with his father’s company beyond being its largest shareholder and playing a prank on its board of directors on the anniversary of his father’s disappearance.  Before long, Sam is transported to the Grid, the virtual world created by his father in the first film now ruled by CLU, Kevin Flynn’s original hacking program, now corrupted by jealousy and twisted desire for revenge. Sam is quickly captured despite his protests of “I’m not a program” when he first arrives in the grid. Eventually, he is captured and sent to fight in “the Games”, but is rescued his father’s “apprentice” Quorra, an isomorphic algorithm created by the game, a spontaneous program if you will. CLU sees these “ISOs” as imperfect aberrations and purges the system of them via mass extermination. CLU seeks to capture Flynn’s “identity disc,” unlocking its master key so that he can escape the system through the “I/O portal” and impose his idea of perfection on the real world.

The user (player) acts as an independent agent within the system. He retains control of his individual actions, and can affect certain spheres of influence directly around him, but the programs has grown beyond his control, as witnessed by the ISOs. In this sense, player-agency is only cursory; the player’s ability to play the game is defined by the boundaries constructed and enforced by the game. Contrasted with the first film, where Flynn was exploring the game and discovers his power as the player and exerts some sense of control, here he sees that the player is just another cog in the machine.  At one point, Flynn bemoans Clu’s betrayal and dominance “It’s his game now. The only way to win is not to play.”

The Matrix


Like the Tron films, The Matrix franchise also sets up a distinction between the real and virtual worlds. The Matrix is set in a futuristic world where machines rule and the reality that humans experience is a simulation created by a machine that uses humans for an energy source. Neo (Keanu Reeves), a computer programmer, learns the truth about the Matrix from Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne), the leader of a human resistance force that fights against the machines. After a series of training episodes resembling sparring scenes in a martial arts video game, Neo learns that Morpheus believes he is “the One,” prophesied to end the war between humans and machines. Neo returns to the matrix and he and Trinity fight Agent Smith, a being within the machine that polices it, in the Matrix and rescue Morpheus as a machine attacks their ship outside of the Matrix, which the crew destroys just in time with an electromagnetic pulse.

When Neo takes the now infamous “red pill,” he is thrust out of the Matrix, a virtual world he has always thought to be though real, a bit askew. As he awakens, he sees the world not as the machines wish him to, but as it is, that humans are farmed for their energy compositing stacks of batteries that stretch as far as the eye can see.neo-wakes-up-within-the-matrix1

Through training and his mystical abilities as “the One,” Neo is able to actually visualize the code of the game and through this, how can manipulate the code in a remarkably tactile way. In other words, though he cannot rewrite the code as a modder can do with a digital game or as a hacker or cheat code can do, he is able to change the parameters within the physical virtual environment, i.e. slowing bullets.

In the above clip, while Neo cannot destroy the bullets, they exist on both the virtual and physical plane, he grinds their progress through the air to a halt. As in digital games, there are many aspects of the game world that players cannot change, but they can use creative play to come up with solutions. Earlier in the film, Neo tried to dodge Agent Jones’ bullets managing to avoid nearly an entire clip while standing in space. After Trinity makes the save, she queries “How did you do that? You moved like they do. I’ve never seen anyone move that fast.”Matrix_Reloaded_4

The following film in the triology, The Matrix Reloaded, features Neo’s search for the source of the Matrix by finding the Keymaster and the Architect. The architect tells Neo that because he is part of the Matrix, he has a choice to either return to the source of the Matrix and reboot it, choosing the survivors to help repopulate the human colony in the real world, Zion, which is about to be destroyed by the Architect’s machines burrowing toward it ever closer. Or, he is told, he can choose for the matrix to crash, killing all humans, but leaving the machines. Neo chooses to save Trinity instead, rescuing her from the matrix by catching her from falling off a building and removing a bullet from her heart. Neo learns he can stop machines telepathically, but falls into a coma from the effort.

As he did with the bullets at the conclusion of the first film, Neo reaches into the code with a tactile approach, plucking the bullets from inside Trinity’s green shimmering body made of code. He cannot simply destroy the projectiles, removing them from the virtual world, he must remove them with the ludological constraints of the game.

MPW-58815The Matrix Revolutions, the final film of the trilogy, involves Neo visiting the Oracle and learning that Smith intends to destroy both the Matrix and the real world. Neo and Trinity take the fight to Machine City as the others defend Zion from the machines. Neo meets the “Deus Ex Machina”, the machine leader, and offers to destroy Smith for peace with Zion. Neo fights Agent Smith, who has taken over the virtual selves of everyone in the Matrix, and Smith assimilates Neo but is destroyed, as Neo is connected to the source. Zion is saved and the Matrix resets itself, but all humans will be offered the ability to leave the Matrix. While the third film has far less forays into the virtual, that the trilogy ends with a final battle between Neo and Agent Smith with the matrix is appropriate. Again, the relative position of the player to the player-agent is one of subservience or conflict. In that battle, Neo is tied to the Source, and his agency is tethered to that as well. Neo within the matrix is being played as much as he is playing, while Agent Smith, a rogue program at this point battles for sentience outside the game against his computer overlords.


wreckitralphposter1351814498073Wreck-It-Ralph is a Disney animated film about a video game character Ralph (John C. Reilly) who tires of his role as the villain in his arcade game Fix It Felix, Jr., and leaves his game to earn a medal and become a hero in another game in the arcade. His adventures take him first to the first-person shooter game Hero’s Duty, where he earns a medal, but unwittingly carries a virus with him into the racing game Sugar Rush. In this game, he befriends Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a glitchy character who takes Ralph’s medal to buy entry into the race. The head of Sugar Rush, King Candy, warns Ralph that letting Vanellope race would reset the game, threatening her existance. Meanwhile, Felix (Jack McBrayer) and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) search for Ralph and the virus he brought with him in Sugar Rush. The four of them work to kill the virus (Cy-Bugs), as Ralph learns that Vanellope was part of the original game and encourages her to finish the race. Toward the finish line King Candy reveals himself to be Turbo, a character from an earlier racing game who manipulated the code of Sugar Rush to make himself king.  Ralph destroys the Cy-Bugs, saving Sugar Rush, and Vanellope crosses the finish line, resetting her game and restoring herself to a racer within it.

Unlike the previous films in this project, Wreck-It-Ralph is purely digital in that the protagonists originate in the virtual realm; no one enters it and no one leaves, yet the digital is fully aware of its position relative to the real. To its digital denizens, Wreck-It-Ralph’s characters see the real world from a very Cartesian perspective: within the old video game arcades, such as Litwack’s Arcade from Wreck-It-Ralph, the real looks in on their virtual worlds as if through a window in space. Ralph discovers the truth of Vanellope’s existence in the following clip by gazing through this window to the real.

One of the major in-jokes of Wreck-It-Ralph‘s digital world, is the normalcy of the characters lives. They wake up at the start of each day as Mr. Litwak opens the arcade, and work a 9-5 just as any working stiff might. But the digital worlds are still written in code. In this example from, the character, King Candy, is seen using a common cheat code that has significance within gamer culture to manipulate the code:

The cheat code is just another intertextual example of players utilizing creative play. During the “Bad-Anon” meeting at the beginning of the film, Ralph expresses a desire to leave his game and stop being the bad guy. He is quickly rebuked by his fellow villains, with Kano from the Mortal Kombat saying “You can’t mess with the program, Ralph.” What we can delineate here is the separation of the notions of the code and the program. The code is the bits and bytes that make up digital games, the building blocks if you will. The program is something far more esoteric and larger, more akin to “nature” or “life.” As any gamer can tell you, while the program may be less likely to be “messed” with, you can certainly change the code.

A following example of that distinction would be the earlier mantra repeated by legendary character Sonic the Hedgehog, who can be seen on video billboards, “Everyone. If you leave your game, stay safe, stay alert, and whatever you do, don’t die, cause if you die outside your own game, you don’t regenerate. Ever. Game Over.”

This discussion of “stick to the program” can be best parsed in the film’s initial foray into Hero’s Duty, a first-person-shooter (FPS) where a of team space marines mount an offensive against the evil alien swarm, the Cy-Bugs.

During the resultant chaos, we see Calhoun repeatedly turning to the FPS instructing the player on what to do. The player’s face appears on the flat screen as she does this, intertextually, this is action is common in gaming as a playable tutorial during which the game instructs the player on game rules and mechanics within the game’s narratives. When Ralph steps out of line, Calhoun pushes him to the side and nervously looks back to the FPS, proceeding with her instructions. After the beacon is turned on resulting in all the bugs flying to their death, Calhoun reads the riot act to Ralph (as Markowski), reminding him of the player-character’s subservience to the player. “What’s the first rule of Hero’s duty? Never interfere with the first-person-shooter. Our job is to get the gamers to the top of that building so they can get a medal, and that’s it! So stick to the program, soldier!” The interesting twist is that the Cy-bugs are mindless killing and eating machines who do not know they’re in a digital game. The beacon, acting as a giant bug zapper, has to be activated at the end of play in order to destroy all the bugs lest they overrun the game and infect other realms.


A larger question I consider in my research is the notion of game space, the relation of that space to gamers, and its representation in popular culture. How game space is represented in culture is important because the media help to inform audiences’ beliefs of gaming. This paper argues that in addressing player agency, these films comment how we can make sense of video game experiences and their growing place within our everyday lives.

King and Krzywinska (2006) note that film analysis of the meanings of films includes an analysis of the kinds of “personal characteristics” endorsed by the film (p. 126). What does that mean for games? Each of these films explore one’s ability for agency within a system, which in these films means a digital game. Each of these films gives the individual agency within the system. While in most cases they cannot change the underlying structure of the program (any more than an individual can change an economic or political system) one has agency to work within it. Using games as a metaphor through which to consider social constraints gives these three films a moderate view of the possibility for change. These examples suggest the importance of continuing to study the popular representation of games and game culture for their underlying messages.


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