Gamelit VS LitRPG: Why is there a difference?

September 7, 2018

5am, Friday morning... I can't sleep, youngest baby randomly cries out, and now I'm awake. What to do at five in the morning? Should I write more of book 2? Should I start this new story I'm cooking up?


I walk down, brew up a cup of Death Wish coffee (seriously, you've got to try it, and no you won't keel over afterward), then I sit in front of my computer mindlessly staring into nothing as I work up the gumption to start banging out words. 


My routine often involves fifteen minutes of catching up on email, Discord, and social media. Sometimes... alright, probably more than I like to admit, that fifteen minutes often stretches out into a half hour as I see the absurdity on social media, or fake news and I'm forced to do some fact checking. 


Today was no exception as I go through various LitRPG/Gamelit Facebook groups and start looking through posts and generally trying to stay informed not just from an author's perspective, but also as a reader. Some of my favorite authors are in these groups and I often check every new post to see if there are any tidbits of information about a new release or update on status. Speaking of... if you haven't checked it out yet, Michael Atamanov's Reality Benders is an epic LitRPG space opera type story that I devoured faster than anything I've read in nearly a year (yes, it was that good or maybe I'm just partial to space opera's?). Anyway, if you're looking for a good next read check it out (pst, book three is on pre-order for Sept. 24th, and no he didn't pay me to say this!)

All right, so getting back to the reason why I'm writing this blog. I saw two distinct posts, which I'll not disclose in full detail because they are part of closed FB groups, but I can regurgitate the facts, because it's the same arguments I've been seeing for a long time with regard to this new genre. 


This new genre that Audible is now calling LitRPG. What is it? Why is it taking the writing world by storm? Why are more and more movies picking up on it and becoming mainstream?


Why? Because it's fun... a metric ton of fun! Have you ever wished that you could transport yourself physically into a game world and take on the character, class, magic, and skills of your avatar? Well, as an avid gamer myself I am right there with you. I'm a massive supporter of Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR). I've supported so many Kickstarter and IndieGoGo projects I've lost count. Yes, the idea of experiencing a fantasy or sci-fi world like an avatar in my favorite game is immensely appealing and I really cannot wait until technology allows us to get there, which I firmly believe will happen in my lifetime. 


Now, that is the motivation behind this idea of LitRPG, which stands for Literary Role-Playing Game. LitRPG is almost always some form of Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (VRMMORPG). Though this isn't always the case, it is one of the fundamental aspects of the genre. Before I dive into the discombobulated viewpoints on the difference between this term and Gamelit, I wanted to share some definitions thought up by some of the leaders in the space:

Blaise Corvin (Author of Delver's LLC, Nora Hazard, and Secrets of the Old Ones):

"Stories where characters play a game (usually in virtual reality), or where the characters live in a world that has game-like mechanics. These stories must include linear progression."


Aleron Kong (Author of The Land: Chaos Seeds):

"LitRPG is an exciting new genre based on MMORPG games. Divine Commandments of LitRPG - 1) A LITRPG SHALL involve some type of expliticitly stated progression (ie leveling, report of item finds, quests, etc)2) A LITRPG SHALL involve a game-type world of some kind that the main character has been involved in."


Magic Dome Books (many Russian Authors and origination of the term LitRPG):

“LitRPG is a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy which describes the hero’s adventures within an online computer game. LitRPG books merge traditional book-style narration with elements of a gaming experience , describing various quests, achievements and other events typical of a video game.”


This last definition is the one I resonate most with. The core of the LitRPG genre is that a gamer/player/person/user (whatever label you want to slap on yourself) plays an MMORPG. Often this is in a fully immersive world, where the prose and narration of a story switches from In Real World (IRL) to the game world and the player then experiences everything first-hand as if they were physically present in the game world. 


Now, this is where things get tricky and a lot of muddy water appears. What happens when a player is transported into a different world and the world happens to have game-mechanics like an RPG? Does it therefore make it LitRPG? Alright, at this point, let's take a step back and look at the term Gamelit, because it is needed to understand the full context and why there is so much confusion. 

Gamelit - An all-encompassing term that includes any literary prose that incorporates game-like mechanics into the story OR the story itself takes place within a game world. 


To demonstrate the differences between the two visually, I'm posting an image that Christopher Keene (author of Dream State Saga - LitRPG) put together to represent how LitRPG and Gamelit fit into the state of Fantasy and Sci-Fi (Figure 1).



Generally speaking, this is a good breakdown of the differences, but there have been some notable changes and discussion around the individual categories and how "Gamelit" should be divided up. For instance, a couple categories not represented here are Portal Fiction and Harem. Portal fiction being where a player is transported to a new world. Harem being of a more adult nature that I'll not remark on. 


Although LitRPG terminology was around for much longer than Gamelit, it became readily apparent that there needed to be some type of division between stories. When new authors started writing in the genre, many of the voracious LitRPG readers, like myself, started to get upset when an author called it LitRPG, but it didn't have the core tenants of the genre. Namely, it didn't have an "online" presence, it wasn't a gamer "playing a role in a game", and there was no "linear progression of the character (lookup RPG definition)". 

Instead, they were stories that took place in a game, but had no character progression (enter Ready Player One). Then you had stories where the main character may have existed at one point IRL, but was miraculously transported into a new world. Not even a game world, but an entirely new world that introduced gaming mechanics such as level ups, stats, skills, and abilities. Yes, even magic. These are Portal Fiction stories, but they don't satisfy the core tenant that a LitRPG is an "online" RPG story. 


The character is not playing a game, but rather living out their new situation as reality. They have been transported to a new world and now have the ability to level up like many other fantasy games out there, but again they are no longer playing a game, but rather this is their life. Because they don't satisfy the tenants of LitRPG, this is where Gamelit enters. Stories that fall into this category include The Land (Aleron Kong) and Delvers LLC (Blaise Corvin).


On the other side of the coin, you have stories where there are merely game elements introduced into the story as part of the level-up process. At this point, it isn't LitRPG because it doesn't adhere to the core tenants, but it is "game-like" in that a character can level up in a similar fashion. My own Radioactive Evolution is like this. The main character uses nanites introduced into the world to level up his Mind and Body, and to gain new abilities and skills like Telepathy. Although game-like and progression is there, there is no "game" and there is no MMO aspect to this story. This falls 100% into the Gamelit territory. 


Another type of story, similar to Portal Fiction involves when a player becomes trapped in a gaming world. The difference between this type of story and a Portal Fiction is that there are still IRL consequences. The player can still die in the real world because they are logged into, although trapped, in a game world. This is where the line between LitRPG and Gamelit emerge. James Hunter's Viridian Gate Online or Edward Brody's Eden's Gate are great examples of this. In both of these stories, there is no way back, at least none that people know so the game becomes their reality, but it is still very much a game. My all-time favorite in this category includes Play to Live by D. Rus. Play to Live is how I got started as a reader in the genre and ultimately became my inspiration to start my own story. Full disclosure that some themes and elements in this series are very pro-Russian. I vastly enjoyed up to about book five and then it went downhill for me mostly due to plot arcs I didn't enjoy. In any case, the players are trapped in a one-way trip into the game world, but again it is a game world that is "online" and they are still able to interface with IRL. These fall squarely in LitRPG land. 

Lastly, my favorite type of LitRPG involves VRMMORPG. There are IRL and in-game aspects throughout and both of them are key, if not integral, to the story. One of my favorites in this category includes Awaken Online by Travis Bagwell. The Dragon's Wrath by Brent Roth, Way of the Shaman by Vasiliy Mahenenko, and many others. This is where it all started. The VRMMORPG element is at the core of the term LitRPG and in fact the Russian authors with Magic Dome Books, D. Rus, and several others are who brought these types of books to light. Most of the early genre's that seeped into America are Russian translations of their books and every one of them involves some type of VRMMORPG immersion that lets the player experience the game first-hand. IRL remains an ever-present companion in these stories and sometimes there are critical elements of the story that take place IRL and may have far reaching consequences in-game. The reverse is also often true. 


I know this has been a meandering back and forth so I'll try and simplify it a bit here:

LitRPG must have the following elements to fit into this category:

1. Online (player enters the game through technology)

2. Linear progression (player gains stats, abilities, and skills through game mechanics)

3. Player must be playing a role (RPG).

4. Real-world aspects are still present (this is a requirement for #3)

Gamelit encompasses the following:
1. All aspects of LitRPG (LitRPG falls under gamelit)

2. Game mechanics in a story (level ups, game rules governing world/characters, game-like worlds, etc.)

Therefore, a story can only be LitRPG if a player (IRL) plays a role in a game that has linear character progression. If a story does not have all of these aspects, then it falls into Gamelit. 

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