LitRPG vs GameLit

A New Genre is Born

Role Playing Games have long been a staple in gaming. While Dungeons & Dragons may have brought people together around a table and introduced the importance of the story over the board - and a few role-playing computer games were coded in the mid-1970s - it was the Ultima and Wizardry series of games in the early-1980s that brought the term to a broader audience.

In the decades since, it has become one of the most popular genres in gaming with some of the highest selling franchises utilizing its defining characteristics. Players get to experience progression as a character they created. They gain experience and level up, increasing their power and effectiveness in observable and quantifiable ways. They see titles and descriptions for the skills their character acquires as play them from “noob” beginnings to epic heroes (or villains) of legend.

Along the way, a few novels incorporated games into their stories. From Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, to Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, to Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, game and videogame worlds remain an enticing backdrop for stories.

Enter the LitRPG (Literary Role-Playing Game). In 2012, author Dem Mikhailov published “Clan Dominance: The Sleepless Ones” in Russia. Vasily Mahanenko, author of many LitRPGs including the “Way of the Shaman” series, helped coin the term “LitRPG” to describe these new novels that took place largely or entirely within game worlds, and include rules and mechanics of the games as part of their story arcs.

Today, there are well over 5,800 books classified as LitRPG on, showing massive growth among indie authors inside a decade.

Why the Division of Terms?

LitRPG or GameLit

Originally referred to simply as LitRPG, the term GameLit has recently arisen to expand the genre and further define reader expectations.

LitRPG novels will generally focus more heavily on the crunchy numbers of the game worlds mechanics, and the character’s progression. Often the authors will include “Stat Pages”, showing the reader the same UI that the character looks at to review their attributes and skills. They may provide damage numbers during combat scenes, and generally do what they can to help the reader feel immersed in the mechanics of the video game world, despite it being portrayed on page instead of a screen.

GameLit, conversely, invites the reader to their game world but delegates it to being a backdrop for the story. Videogame tropes still abound to be sure, but the nitty-gritty mechanics that accompany RPG games are vague, or left out entirely. Perhaps a good generalized analogy would be Hard Sci-Fi vs Space Opera. In Star Trek, even if the science is made up, they generally attempt to explain things scientifically. Science is part of the point. In Star Wars, by contrast, science is basically magic. In this analogy LitRPG would be Hard Sci-Fi, and GameLit would be Space Opera. An over-generalization, to be sure, but still fitting in my opinion.

The relatively recent movie Ready Player One, based on a novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, is a prime example of GameLit specifically. Much of the story takes place inside a virtual reality online game world. As the viewer (or reader) we’re well aware of this, seeing how characters can change their appearance - how they earn coins to purchase add-ons within the game world - how they can die and respawn, or grow more powerful with weapons. Yet, we’re never presented with their statistics, attribute stat bonuses or power levels with any regularity. We never watch them debate over skills to increase when they level up. These are things we would expect in a LitRPG, but here they’re left out in favor of the story.

Neither subgenre needs necessarily take place within an RPG game world, either. The story could take place inside a First Person Shooter, a Real Time Strategy or Horror game world. The key is whether player progression is a focal point (LitRPG) or whether the game world is simply a fun backdrop for the story (GameLit).

GameLit may also be considered a larger, all-encompassing umbrella of any genre that utilizes a game world. Some authors have taken to describing RPG GameLit, rather than LitRPG, for example. As a result, a LitRPG may also be considered GameLit by readers, but not necessarily vice-versa. This makes everything very clear, I know…

Which One Applies?

To me, a LitRPG immediately has a very specific target audience. That audience is savvy, and knows what to expect. This frees up an author to spend less time explaining, and more time creating the experience. Their readers already know things that can be taken for granted, that a braoder audience would need explained. The author runs the risk of frustrating this target audience by over-explaining in an attempt to reach others with what gamers would consider “spoon-feeding”.

GameLit, by virtue of this definition, may reach a broader audience that is less interested in the specifics of how the game works and is played. They’re willing to accept the game world as part of the ride, and ready to dive into the dynamics of the story itself.

If you’re a reader, wondering if either or both of these genres are for you, ask yourself: Do you want to play the game, or do you want to watch the story of the cut-scenes?

If you’re an author, do you want to give the reader the experience of playing the game, or do you want them to sit on the couch next to the player, and watch the story unfold without thinking about the underlying numbers?

LitRPGs may help scratch the itch that plagues gamers when they’re without access to their PC or favorite console. They’re able to think through the mechanics of the game alongside the main characters, and have internal arguments with them about why they put their points into Intelligence instead of Dexterity when they leveled up.

GameLit, on the other hand, serves up the nostalgia of gaming for gamers while also inviting others to come along for the journey. The world of gaming is vast, and likely includes something for almost everyone - but RPGs aren’t necessarily universally appealing. GameLit lets the reader hop into a game world, an escape from reality, but not feel bogged down by the mechanics of it all.

All that said, the terms are still being defined by the community, and many authors and readers use them interchangeably. The rules are not yet hard and fast, and as a result may not be entirely reliable, but they’re the launching off point that we have and only time will tell where they land.

We will likely see the creation of new sub-genres as the niche continues to grow. What used to be called Science Fiction has grown to encompass Cyberpunk, Space Opera, Post Apocalyptic, Biopunk, Dieselpunk, etc. I expect much the same here, and look forward to watching history form.

Trops and Things to Be Aware Of

If you’re new to these genres, a little bit of research will go a long way toward choosing a story to be your introduction.

Because this genre is not yet embraced by Traditional Publishing on any grand scale, it is filled with indie authors and community driven. A few tropes have run rampant through entries as a result that I think are worth being cognizant of if you decide to dip your toe into the proverbial pond.

Wish Fulfilment - an awful lot of the thousands of stories that fall into these genres are ultimately wish-fulfilment. Main Characters who are overpowered, can do no wrong, and always succeed. Largely male-driven stories, where the hero always gets the girl, run rampant.

Harems - in no small part due to the above trope, stories with harems, non-conventional relationships, and other adult themes are fairly common as well. Generally authors go out of their way in the descriptions to note that this is the case, so that readers aren’t caught off-guard, but its worth being aware of.

Writing Skill and Grammar - because the vast majority of novels written in these genres are indie published, you’ll see the gamut of skill and editing presented. This is compounded by how many of the novels are translated from other languages into English as well.

Coming Soon

My own entry to the LitRPG/GameLit world is coming soon, and I’ll post about it here later this year. I mention it now, however, because I started the story before the two subgenre terms had been defined. As a result, I’ve ended up with a story that absolutely begins as a LitRPG, but arguably ends a GameLit.

I’ve used the evolution and separation of the terms to my advantage as a storytelling mechanic in the background, and it’s a lot of fun recognizing and utilizing expected tropes in each as the story progresses. More to come!

Sites Pertaining to LitRPG and GameLit

Goodreads LitRPG list
As of this post, 5,886 books are reported in this list tagged as LitRPG.

Goodreads GameLit lists
Lists that incorporate the GameLit tag. LitRPG and GameLit are interspersed in these lists.

Royal Road
Community of Authors and Readers posting stories, many of which are LitRPG and GameLit.

Level Up - How to write LitRPG
LitRPG Publisher with an intro of thoughts on writing specifically for this genre

LitRPG Authors

Vasily Mahanenko
Author of The Way of the Shaman series. This is the English version of his site.

Luke Chmilenko
Author of the Ascend Online series.

D. Rus
Author of the Play to Live series.

GameLit Authors

Blaise Corvin
Author of the Delvers LLC series.

Ernest Cline
Author of Ready Player One, which was made into a movie in 2018.