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Jimmy Butts

Conference Paper: SWTX: PCA 2009

Quijote’s Ludic Hero-Quest as a Precursor to G4M3R S7UDI3S

“Time to get immersed in Reality.”

—Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

Game studies and ludology, or the study of play, have begun to find new connections in

the field of literary criticism because games as a media form can offer similar forms of escapism,

narrative, and artistic play as fiction can. Consider Francois Laramee’s statement about media

and immersion, which posits, “All forms of entertainment strive to create suspension of disbelief,

a state in which the player’s mind forgets that it is being subjected to entertainment and instead

accepts what it perceives as reality” (qtd. in Salen & Zimmerman 450). The romance genre in

particular offers its readers an escape from reality that is founded upon various expected memes

such as action, love, and adventure. The romance genre shares so much with the escapism of

games, in fact, that in many ways these two media have informed one another and shaped one

another by offering one another deeply meaningful characters, forms, and tropes from our social

psyche. In many ways, the performance of the “romantic” aspects of plot reveals the contrived

nature of romances as a genre, just as gameplay is contrived in its own sense. Viewing a very old

narrative through the lens of some very new forms of narrative, namely immersive games, will

reveal significant aspects in readings of both forms.

Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quijote, first published in 1605, is a particularly complex

romance narrative that uniquely speaks to the contemporary world of games, game theory, and

immersive entertainment, largely because of how engrossing the ludic quest becomes for the

central character—the Knight with the Sad Face, Don Quijote. According to one game studies
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critic, Gary Fine, “A key concept is the engrossment of players in the game. For the game to

work as an aesthetic experience players must be willing to “bracket” their “natural” selves and

enact a fantasy self. They must lose themselves to the game” (4). Game theorists are now

writing about the nature of narrative play, the structure of stories, and the slippery approaches

toward meaning that Cervantes himself begins to play with in Don Quijote. To be sure, Quijote is

engrossed in his fantasy world and remains influential largely because of how Cervantes

confronted the difficult intersection between fiction and reality. One such critic, Johan Huizinga

writes in his seminal text, Homo Ludens, with its perfectly Latinized title for “man playing”

explains, “Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing

quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the

player intensely and utterly” (Huizinga 13). Like established forms of play, Don Quijote’s

entranced worldview, as outside of ordinary life, and his willingness to act out of that view

makes his character intrinsically relevant to the current world of gaming as a new form of

narrative structure. Additionally, viewing Quijote as a gamer allows us as readers to read him as

sane and socialized.

One form, however, that this paper does not explore is Quijote’s game-world as related to

abstract games such as chess, although I believe that chess and Quijote have cross-sections of

their own as far as gaming and play are concerned. Instead, narrative-based, immersive games,

which lie towards the outskirts of socially-acceptable interactions, much like the character of

Quijote find a more striking relevance to Cervantes’s book. For example, modern role-playing

games, or RPGs, in the vein of Dungeons and Dragons, a game invented by Gary Gygax, who

recently passed away in March 2008, share an intrinsic worldview to Cervantes’s work.

According to Fine, who has studied Dungeons and Dragons at length:

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Fantasy gamers create cultural systems as their avocation—worlds of imagination

formed by the participants, given the constraints of their own knowledge and the

structure provided by the rules. Analyzing these fantasy games provides insight

into the creation of group cultures, and the way in which these group cultures

transform more extensive cultural systems. Each gaming group interprets,

defines, and transforms cultural elements in its sphere of knowledge into the

cultural framework of an imagined society. (Fine 2)

In the same way, Quijote creates and presents a new cultural worldview to the people he comes

into contact with. In fact, the first people he comes into contact with in on his heroic quest into

the real world are two prostitutes, whom he calls “noble virgins” (19), performing a revision of

their very reality. The world of immersive gaming, where individuals create new names for

themselves and others, where lengthy books are followed to the letter, and where new worlds are

imagined by obsessively invested players is fundamentally tied to what Cervantes effects in his

book, written almost four hundred years before the first Dungeons and Dragons game was ever

played in 1974.

A newer game genre, which embraces narrative storytelling in a similar way to Dungeons

and Dragons, now recognized as an influential media form has started being known as the

“Alternate Reality Game,” or ARG. There are several differing definitions for what an ARG

actually is, but one definition relevant to my work is one published on the website of an ARG

called World Without Oil. This game involved thousands of players who created an imagined

game-world that explored the possibility of what the title suggests. Their definition is the

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An alternate reality game (ARG) is an interactive narrative that uses the real

world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a

story that may be affected by participants' ideas or actions. ARGs are typified by

intense player involvement with a story that takes place in real time and evolves

according to participants' responses, and with characters that are actively

controlled by the game's designers. ARGs generally rely on the Internet as the

central binding medium. (World Without Oil FAQ)

Hence, the ARG is in effect a new narrative form that blurs reality with an imagined world. The

ARG is an immersive form of gameplay, where characters might dressup and meet in public

places to conduct a mission. In a game called “The Beast,” a marketing promotion for the film

A.I., players met in public spaces to conduct anti-robot rallies. In another ARG called “I love

bees,” which promoted the release of the game Halo 2, players woke up in the middle of the

night to receive story-based phone calls on public payphones. Essentially, these games can be

played in many forms and locations (not just the coffee table), and they invade the real world.

According to Dave Szulborski, who explores this genre in several books, “In an alternate reality

game, the goal is not to immerse the play in the artificial world of the game; instead, a successful

game immerses the world of the game into the everyday existence and life of the player…In a

strange but very real way, the ARG creator is trying, not to create an alternate reality, but to

change the player’s existing world into the alternate reality” (Szulborski 31). Similarly, Quijote

changes the real world by pushing his imaginary play into it, and it becomes dangerously

immersive. This immersive form is also known as chaotic fiction, or ubiquitous play—a

strikingly relevant label since Quijote’s game-world is constantly all around him. By stretching
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the use of these labels, one might begin to explicate Quijote’s romantic quests in an entirely

different light.

Don Quijote’s character in the Romantic mode of the narrative functions in the same way

as a character in an immersive gaming environment might. There is a persistent rejection of the

“real world” and a complete acceptance of the “pretend world.” In other words, Coleridge’s

“willing suspension of disbelief” is intensely heightened, and even encouraged by Quixtoe’s

persistent adrenaline-fueled imagination. In fact, Quijote’s real name is Alonzo Quijano, but he

has given himself a new identity and a new name, a player name, often called a handle or an

avatar in the gaming world. Hence, the narrative gains a layer of meaning when Quijote, not

Alonzo Quijano, is viewed as a gamer, for the gaming mindset, as well as the mind that has been

inundated with romance literature, necessarily eschews the rules of the real world, finding his

own new forms of sanity and community.

The infamous windmill scene can exemplify the illusionary nature of the world created

by Quijote’s game. He rides up, and the narrative reads, “Just then, they came upon thirty or

forty windmills” (43), but Quijote, ever willing to see the world around him as more fantastic,

more adventuresome, and more romantic, exclaims, “Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably

than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so

wild giants” (43). Essentially, Quijote is acting out play that has become so real for him that he

begins to see it all around him—in his own real world. His game has become completely

immersive, and Sancho realizes that Quijote is creating a world of make-believe, saying, “Now

look your grace… what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seem to be

arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind” (43). Sancho, at this point in the narrative at
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least, is grounded in reality, and is unable to join in Quijote’s play, until he himself is able to be

convinced of the reality of the game.

Quijote and Sancho aren’t the only ones who immerse themselves in game play. The

priest, who is translated as curator in John Ormsby’s classic translation, is another unique

character who initially balks at Quijote’s game-world, but later joins it, and even becomes what

the ARG community would call a “puppetmaster” (essentially, a game designer) within it. At

first, he blames Quijote for treating “the strange and wild goings on of these foolish books as if

they were really true” (338). “Foolish books,” or romance narratives, become the rulebooks for

Quijote’s immersive gameplay, who—whether mad or more sane than most— begins to treat his

entire life in the mode of gameplay. Later, the priest says, “My dear sir, is it possible that such

pointless, bitter reading as tales of chivalry could have so possessed you and upset your mind

that you’ve actually come to believe in this business of being enchanted, and all the rest of such

stuff, all of it just as far from reality as a lie is from the truth?” (335). Truth, indeed, is exactly

what True, Quijote has accepted a different set of rules than society has traditionally prescribed,

yet Quijote’s enchanted perspective might be read positively—especially because of Quijote’s

chivalric charm.

At another point the priest offers the following insight into the connection between games

and romance stories:

The purpose of all this is to amuse our lazy minds, and in the same way well-

framed governments allow people to play chess, and ball games, and billiards, in

order to provide entertainment…so too they let such books be printed,

believing…that no one could be so stupid as to take any of these books for the

literal truth. (213)

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In the story, the priest is wholly aware of the boundary between fiction and reality which is

present in books and games, but still comes up with the serious game of attempting to save

Quijote from his “madness.” The priest functions as the puppetmaster of Quijote’s game. It is

here where the translation of curator works so well for this study, as the priest literally becomes

the “caretaker” of the game by stepping in and manipulating Quijote’s world to present an

illusion of an alternate reality. According to Fine, “The structure of the game focuses on one

individual—the referee—whom players expect to create a scenario for their characters to react to

and build upon” (Fine 72). The priest becomes that individual, whereas Quijote had been the

source of the game-world before. Cervantes’s text explains the rules and the objective of the

game that the priest has imagined. It reads:

The priest thought of an approach well-tuned to Don Quijote’s tastes and to their

own interests, which was this: he’d dress himself up like a wandering maiden…

and then they’d go to Don Quijote and pretend this was a damsel in distress and in

need, with a boon to beg of him, which as a brave knight errant he couldn’t help

but grant. And the boon for which he planned to beg would be for Don Quijote to

journey with the damsel, to a certain place where she would lead him… so they’d

be able to rescue him from the mountains and bring him back home, where they

could try to find some cure for his strange madness. (165-166)

The game is basically a live action role-playing game where characters dress up and pretend to

be characters in Quijote’s constructed medieval-world; the goal of the game is to get Quijote

back home alive.

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Along the way, the players pick up new characters, but none as unique in our game

metaphor as the lady Dorotea. Dorotea is brought into the game that the priest has created for

saving Quijote at the following point in the narrative:

Then [the priest] explained to Cardenio and Dorotea how they had planned to help

the knight, at least as far as getting him back to his own house. To which Dorotea

said that she could certainly play the damsel’s role better than the barber, and

indeed had with her the proper attire to make it thoroughly convincing. They

could trust her to know exactly what to say, and to get him to do as they wanted,

for she had read many tales of chivalry and knew precisely how damsels were

supposed to be boons of knights errant. (189-190)

Dorotea has read the romances; she knows the rules of the game; and she is willing to play along.

She even dresses up to make the fictional reality seem more real to Quijote. Immediately she

becomes a powerful female character of agency in this story-game, functioning as a uniquely

immersive character by dressing up and playing in Quijote’s fantasy world “along with the

boys.” Dorotea even takes on her own fictional avatar name, the Princess Micomicona, which

would also be known as a “clan name” in some gaming circles. However, Micomicona’s

understanding of the game is as a fiction, and, while she is wholly immersed in the gameplay of

Quijote’s fantasy world, she maintains a rational and separate view of the “real world.”

Meanwhile, the other significant female character in this game world, Dulcinea Del Toboso,

Quijote’s idealized love in the story, has essentially a very minimal role in the narrative—

particularly in the first volume of Cervantes’s work. According to critic Giuseppe Mazzotta,

“Quixote’s way of linking the playful diversion of the Duchess, the world of play, dreams, and

lies as all part of an imaginary experience. They are hints that the boundary line between truth
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and falsehood is a faint trace” (Mazzotta 87). In this liminal world of play, Dulcinea differs from

Dorotea by functioning in the same way that “the princess” figure does in other games, such as

early Super Mario Bros. games, bearing little character import except for existing as the hero’s

object to save and possess.

Conversely, the lady Dorotea has an intrinsic role to play in the salvation of the hero,

Quijote. In this way, she almost functions as the revolutionary girl gamer—a woman of agency

who is also willing to step outside of the bounds of cultural lines. According to one critic, “the

ubiquitous blurring of opposites becomes more sophisticated in the coalescing of Ludic/serious

in the Dorotea-Micomicona permutation. Dorotea's role is in reality the playful role she assumes,

that of damsel in distress” (Jehenson 212). She goes on to state that “The ultimate incorporation

and assimilation of the ludic and the serious is to be found in Dorotea's public avowal to Don

Quijote that by his participation in her make-believe world he has actually rectified the real

world” (Jehenson 212). Dorotea participates in Quijote's make-believe, aware of its fiction, yet

engaged by its reification of fantastic ideals—by its superiority to the mundane.

As Dorotea begins to immerse herself, the narrator is aware of her involvement in the new

game, as in lines such as, “So Dorotea gave him her hands and promised to make him a noble

lord of her kingdom, as soon as Heaven should see fit to return it to her” (199). She knowingly

decides to play the game alongside Quijote, though it is questionable whether Quijote knows he

is playing or not. In the end, Dorotea gains an idealized experience by playing in Quijote’s

imaginative world, and at one point Don Fernando even exclaims, “You have won, my lovely

Dorotea, you have won” (251). She wins because playing leads her to be reunited to her love in

the real world, allowing the romantic ideal to be upheld within the confines of reality.
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A certain “this is not a game” philosophy runs underneath the stream of this fictive

narrative as well as in contemporary gameplay, particularly in the “Alternate Reality Game”

genre. According to the seminal game studies theorist, Jane McGonigal, “This genre, known

most frequently as "immersive gaming," but also dubbed by its players as "unfiction" … is best

known by its reliance on cooperative game play and its constant insistence: ‘This is not a

game.’” (“This Is Not” 2). According to Cervantes’s text, the romance is not just a game. As a

matter of fact, by the end of Cervantes’s second volume of Don Quijote, Quijote is dead.

After all, all good games must come to an end. According to one gamer who was a

moderator for The Beast, the first major alternate reality game, Andrea Phillips, a 26-year-old

software designer from New York:

You find yourself at the end of the game, waking up as if from a long sleep. Your

marriage or relationship may be in tatters. Your job may be on the brink of the

void, or gone completely. You may have lost a scholarship, or lost or gained too

many pounds. You slowly wake up to discover that you have missed the early

spring unfolding into late summer.… yet now here we are, every one of us excited

at blurring the lines between story and reality. The game promises to become not

just entertainment, but our lives. (qtd. in McGonigal, “This Is Not” 5)

Here, this gamer laments the end of the game and her re-immersion back into reality, despite

what she has sacrificed in the real world for partaking in a fantasy one. This same sentiment is

nearly expressed by Sancho Panza when he philosophizes, “I’ve heard life compared to a chess

game: before the game’s completed, each piece has its own role to play, but once it’s over all the

pieces are dropped into the same bag and jumbled together, which is just the way life comes to

its end in the grave” (417). Here, we see how games can be viewed not only as real but also as
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intensely serious, and that they require an end to the immersion. On a similar note, the ARG

World Without Oil was touted as a “serious game” by its creators and ended its traipse into an

alternate reality after 30 weeks of play; meanwhile, it addressed serious, real-world issues,

further blurring the line between fiction and reality.

Gamer culture in many ways can seem as crazy as Quijote’s fantastic world. Quijote,

performing a role of knight himself, is so immersed in his role-playing that he verges upon

madness. Madness, compulsion, and obsession, at least to some degree, have become essential

components of modern immersive gameplay. One current psychological study conducted by

John Hughes, entitled “Therapy is Fantasy: Roleplaying, Healing and the Construction of

Symbolic Order,” argues that some reasons for roleplaying are that this type of game “provides

an escape from social pressure,” “aids to increasing one’s sense of personal control and efficacy,”

and “aids in increasing social skills” (Hughes).  In many ways, Quijote’s “mad” persona, viewed 

in the light of a gamer might be expressing willed therapeutic acts.  According to McGonigal the 

same is true for ARGs, as seen in the following comment:  “One of my colleagues, after hearing

me out on the subject for several hours, dubbed immersive games “schizophrenia machines,”

ostensibly designed in their sprawling and all encompassing format for the sole purpose of

turning previously sane players into paranoid, obsessive maniacs” (“A Real Little Game” 2).

Like many gamers, Quijote seems aware that he has lost touch with reality, or plays as

though he has by fulfilling the roles prescribed by his fictive rulebooks. He says, “Is it possible

that, having traveled with me as much as you have, you’ve still not understood that all the things

knights errant have to deal with seem to be mere chimera—foolishness—stupidity, while in fact

they’re exactly the opposite?” (152) and later, “let me assure you that nothing I’m doing is a

joke, but very real” (154). Essentially, Quijote knows that he is playing a part, and since
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typically mad people are unaware that they are mad, it stands to reason that Quijote is immersing

himself in his own game-world as a willing participant. He even says to Sancho, “It would

seem…that you’re no saner than I am” (159). According to two critics, Salen and Zimmerman,

Quijote might be read in terms of the immersive fallacy, which “is the idea that the pleasure of a

media experience lies in its ability to sensually transport the participant into an illusory,

simulated reality. According to the immersive fallacy, this reality is so complete that ideally the

frame falls away so that the player truly believes that he or she is part of an imaginary world”

(Salen & Zimmerman 450-451). If we are viewing Quijote as a player, then one has to consider

how immersed he is in his game-world. If the immersive fallacy is true, then it is impossible for

Quijote to be sane and completely immersed in his game world. It seems though that he is aware

of his immersive game, just as most gamers are, and, it would seem, no more insane than a man

immersed in a game of golf, chess, or Tetris.

Not only does viewing Quijote in this lens of game studies allow us to remove his label

of insanity, it also allows the reader to view Quijote as a well-socialized individual—for

oftentimes games are by necessity social interactions. Indeed, romance audiences can become

audiences of alterity in the same way that gamers learn extensive codes and memes that isolate

them from mainstream culture. Don Quijote certainly found his way to the outskirts of culture

by exploring other ways to live. Whether the narrator, or the reader, is or should be laughing at

Quijote and the other characters is at times difficult to determine; however, Quijote ultimately

displays his own power of agency by living out his own fantasy. Yet, McGonigal argues that

immersive gameplay is not “primarily escapist,” but in fact a socializing medium that allows

players to connect through collaborative interactions (“This Is Not” 2). According to Huizinga,

“Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes
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human society” (1), and Fine similarly argues, “Fantasy gaming is a social world” (72). In some

ways, then, Quijote is not as much of an outcast as he might seem at first glance. He does, after

all, gather a small band of people willing to play his game.

There are two reasons for Quijote, or anyone for that matter, to become completely

immersed in play, either he is insane or the world around him is unbearable. He is named, The

Knight with the Sad Face; indeed, his appearance is unfortunate, but his life seems to be so as

well. Hence, this argument leans toward the latter interpretation of Cervantes’s book. It is only

when Quijote is slaying giants and fulfilling his role as knight errant that he finds a kind of

transcendence from the real world. The fact that Don Quijote is one of, if not the, bestselling

books of fiction of all time reveals something about people’s inherent spiritual need for escapist

play. Indeed, Quijote still meets the audience’s expectations for a willing suspension of

disbelief; however, do not call him insane or anti-social for creating a fantasy world, for he is not

those two things. This short initial exploration into the intersections between game studies and

Don Quijote only scratches the surface of what is possible. Further investigations may show

Dorotea to be an important feminist gamer, and may be formulated by cross-referencing Judith

Butler’s work on the performative nature of gender. Additionally, other scenes should be

examined for other examples, or types, of Quijote’s immersive play. Furthermore, other texts

and games still need to be compared. In any event, this exploration opens new possibilities for

studying the play between narratives and games; Cervantes wrote during the Renaissance and

there is now a new birth of new forms of media that need exploring. Jane McGonigal’s

dedication to ubiquitous gamers from her dissertation seems relevant here, which reads,

“Through their collective and playful performances, they have embodied and embraced a more

intimate relationship between gameplay and everyday life” (McGonigal “This Might Be” 5).
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Likewise, Quijote, though a fiction himself, in his own playful performance as a ubiquitous and

immersive gamer, has certainly found the invaluable intersection between gameplay and life.

Works Cited

Cervantes, Miguel. Don Quijote. Trans. Burton Raffel. New York: Norton, 1999.

Fine, Gary Allen. Shared Fantasy: Role-playing Games as Social Worlds. Chicago:

University of Chicago P, 1983. 30 April 2008 <>. Path:

Shared Fantasy.

Hughes, John. “Therapy is Fantasy: Roleplaying, Healing and the Construction of Symbolic

Order.” 1988. 30 April 2008


Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971. 30 April 2008

<>. Path: Homo Ludens.

Jehensen, Myriam Yvonne. “The Dorotea-Fernando/Luscinda-Cardenio Episode in Don

Quixote: A Postmodernist Play.” MLN 107.2 (Mar 1992): 205-219.

Mazzotta, Giuseppe. Cosmopoiesis: The Renaissance Experiment. Toronto: University of

Toronto P, 2001. 30 April 2008 <>. Path: Cosmopoiesis.

McGonigal, J. “A Real Little Game: The Performance of Belief in Pervasive Play” 2003.

Avantgame. 30 April 2008

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---. “This Is Not a Game’: Immersive Aesthetics & Collective Play.” 2003. Avantgame. 30 April

2008 <>.

---. “This Might Be A Game: Ubiquitous Play and Performance at the Turn of the Twenty-First

Century” 1999. Avantgame. 30 April 2008


Salen, Katie., and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play. Game Design Fundamentals. Massachusetts,

MIT Press, 2004.

Szulborski, Dave. This Is Not A Game: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming. New Fiction

Publishing 2005. 30 April 2008 <>. Path: This is not a game.

World Without Oil. 2007. 29 April 2008. <>.

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