Book folks on games: Ryan North

Hey everyone! So this is another of our new series for this year, the companion to our “Games folks on libraries” series. In it we will be asking folks from the world of books and libraries about games.

For our first entry in this series I decided to try to go big. About the most respected book person I could think of was William Shakespeare, but nobody seemed to have any contact details for him. (Also people kept saying something about plays not being books. But this is the International Games Day @ your library blog so play is OK too, right?) Thankfully I came across one of his most recent collaborators: Ryan North.

Ryan North is the (Eisner-award winning, New York Times bestselling) author of the Adventure Time comic, the web series Dinosaur Comics (, and To Be or Not To Be: That is the Adventure ( the book that turns Shakespeare’s Hamlet into a choose-your-own-path adventure which became Kickstarter’s most-funded publishing project ever when it launched. The book is even better than it sounds, and it already sounds pretty great!

(For starters, its authors are William Shakespeare, Ryan North and YOU! So I could have just read the book and interviewed myself as an even more recent collaborator with Shakespeare… but modesty forbids.)

Welcome Ryan, and thanks for kicking off our series of book folks on games! Clearly you have a love of literature both classic and modern. What can you tell us about your history with games?

My parents got me a NES for my birthday, and the only game we had was Super Mario Bros, and I remember playing that game until I could beat it in a single run without ever getting hit. This was before things like “the internet” so I had no idea that doing runs like this was a thing: if I’d come up with the idea of speed runs on my own, I might’ve never wanted another cartridge.

At the same time I was reading Choose Your Own Adventure books, which are basically books in game form. Basic games, for sure, but they’re lots of fun. To me they seemed like the next step in the evolution of books: sure, you start out on baby books where there’s only one story and you don’t get to make any choices, but when you’re awesome enough you can graduate to non-linear branching-narrative books (ie: Choose Your Own Adventure books) with dozens of stories and reader interaction. It makes sense, you know?

Where do you see games right now, culturally speaking?

In a lot of ways, games are undergoing the same transformation that comics were doing in the 80s. For decades, comics in North America were seen as kids stuff: juvenile distractions that you were meant to outgrow. And then in a cultural shift happened and people started realizing that comics wasn’t a genre (ie: superheroes, Archie comics) but it was a medium, and you can do anything in a medium. And we started getting all sorts of stories getting published, and comics started becoming more and more mainstream and more and more acceptable, and now today tons of the most popular movies of the past five years started lives as comics (Batman, Avengers, Ghost World, etc). And while there’s still echos of where comics started from (“Biff!  Pow!! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!” being a headline that I’m sure comes out at least once a year no matter what we do) there’s a much larger mainstream acceptance that comics can be anything.

Including, critically, art.

And also including, just as critically, “in libraries”.

I feel like right now games are in that “they’re for kids” phase, where we mistrust them because they’re fun, and things that are fun must not be good for us. And there are lots of creators working now to show that games IS a medium, not a genre, and that games CAN be art. Computer games like Bioshock Infinite are pushing the first-person-shooter genre as far towards telling an adult story as it can, while at the other end of the spectrum games like Gone Home are figuring out how to tell a meaningful story in a medium where you, as the player, are in control of what happens. Tabletop games are shaking off the hangover from decades of Monopoly and showing that a board games can be fun, entertaining, and don’t NECESSARILY have to result in six-hour slogs that leave everyone hating everyone else – and again, Monopoly, I am looking in your direction.

In Toronto we have board game libraries springing up in the public sector (cafes like Snakes and Lattes have a huge library of board games that are free to play, and it only costs you $5 to get a seat at a table) and I would love it if, in a few years, you could take out games from the library (both tabletop and computer) in the same way you can take out books and movies now.

There’s a lot of very exciting, very important work being done in games, and it’d be a shame not to have that in libraries just because it’s not in the normal book form we usually expect.

Where do you see that going? Where could it go?

I’d love to see games take the same trajectory as comics: more mainstream acceptance, less raised eyebrows at the idea of “games as art”, more art being produced that’s really really great. If we end up in a future where “I write gamebooks” has the same cachet as “I write books where you DON’T make any choices”, where “I design games” carries the same weight as “I design narratives”, then I think we’ll be in a world with a lot of really interesting art being produced. I can’t wait to play it.

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