My topic of choice is gamebooks in the romance genre. By “romance genre” I mean books in which romantic content such as dating, falling in love, or relationships are a large part if not the main part of the storylines.
I primarily focused on the romance gamebooks found in Box 14 of the Katz Collection. I chose to focus on the YA and adult romance gamebooks because of the stark differences in tone and content between these two subgroups.
The YA romance gamebooks focus entirely on romance, filled with drama, conflict, friendship, and boys. Due to the young age of the target audiences I began to think of the potential educational implications these gamebooks may have in terms of navigating relationships and weighing values. With happy endings as signals of encouragement and bad endings as signals of undesirable behavior, a YA romance gamebook can communicate to its adolescent readers that certain patterns of behavior are desirable. Of course, the YA romance gamebooks can be read just in fun, like the adult romance gamebooks.
Adult gamebooks are generally characterized by a broad streak of humor. Adults, unlike adolescents, are more experienced in life which may explain the much more varied and most of the times humorous / ridiculous choices presented in these gamebooks. Also, while there is a focus on romance and dating in the adult romance gamebooks, it is not quite so center-stage as it is in the YA gamebooks.
In order to determine the modes of behavior promoted by romance gamebooks I focused on labeling endings and choices. I divided endings into four general groups based on good or bad, and romantic or unromantic:
- good/ romantic (G/Rom E)
- bad romantic (B/Rom E)
- good unromantic (G/E)
- bad unromantic (B/E)
For example, a bad romantic ending (B/Rom E) would be where the main character had a chance with a guy but blew it versus a bad unromantic ending would be the main character dumped spaghetti all over herself at a party. Usually in a YA romance gamebook a good unromantic (G/E) ending would involve friendship in place of romance versus in the adult romance gamebook there is much more variation.
In the choice labels, I noted information that was more specific to each book, as on the first time reading through I had not figured out a scheme for consistently labeling the main types of choices across all books. On reflection, however, the main choices offered in romance gamebooks are:
- “Guy A or Guy B?”
- “Setting A or B?”
- “Guy or Self?”
- “Guy or Friend?”
- “Friend or Self?”
- “Wild or Wilder?”
The first three choices mostly show up in the YA gamebooks and with less regularity in the adult gamebooks. The choices are also connected. For example, choosing Setting A or B (a laid-back surf café or swanky beach club?) decides where and thereby what kind of guys you meet.
Adult romance gamebooks typically have “Wild or Wilder?” choices. By contrast, a feature unique to YA romance gamebooks is the “Guy or Friend?” choice, which is further reflected in the happy endings. These happy endings come in two forms, that of the happily ever after with boyfriend or the happily ever after with best friend forever (BF / BFF). Also, in some instances it is not a choice between a guy or friend but rather a choice between self-interest and friendship. For example, in the gamebook “Friends Forever” from the Turning Points series, the main character must choose between popularity and keeping a promise to her friend. The “Guy or Self?” choice is between a guy and the protagonist’s own career / ambitions. The choices that I labeled were mainly ones that took place at divergent parts of the story lines, usually ones in the later half that determined what types of endings the reader got. In the annotated text files, I left notes next to choices indicating the results they lead to, but did not include these notes in the graph illustrations since some were too long.
Looking across the dozen or so romance genre gamebooks in this survey there is not much unity in structure. In general, through, they tend to be largely linear, exhibiting more width than length in their graphs, some extremely so. The Turning Points series which falls under the YA subgroup is characterized by an incredibly linear structure, concluding in one first and only choice that allows the reader to choose between only two possible endings.
In other YA romances the diverging story lines depicted their graphs rarely or never intersect each other – that is, is branching, but not merging. These story lines are also fairly similar in content. For example, in Angie’s Choice from the Make Your Dreams Come True series the reader must choose between taking Honors Chemistry or an Auto Repair class (with all male classmates). The two choice leads to two separate main story lines that do not intersect at all with each other and the contents of each storyline are essentially the same: girl meets multiple guys and works to successfully date one of them.
Romance gamebooks featuring more adult content also exhibit more story line options. In A Night of a Thousand Boyfriends, from the Date with Destiny series, the potential story lines range widely across settings and genres, from a night spent staying in, to escaping a hostage situation, to even traveling to an alien planet. In addition, the graph structure shows a degree of convergence of story lines before diverging again in the earlier half of the graph which differs starkly from the young adult romance gamebooks where the branches continue to branch with no cross-over at all. In some instances, adult gamebooks also offer the choice of returning to a previous lexia. Only one series in the YA romance genre gamebook offers similar options, the Pick Your Own Dream Date series, in which the reader is given the choice to regret her current date and return to an earlier lexia to choose again – which is decidedly less exciting.
The YA gamebook series Sexuality Decision, which is a centered on the topic of safe sex, graphs similarly to the other YA gamebooks with a traditional tree-like structure and a decidedly linear progression. There is some convergence of story lines in the middle of the graphs, similar to the adult romance gamebooks. Between these two subgroups the YA romance gamebooks feature shorter, simple structures with longer linear branches whereas the latter has a wider and more varied, at times complex structure though still ultimately tree-like.
The YA romance gamebooks read like stereotypical teenage love stories, largely focused on PG level romance (the steamiest things get might be a dramatic kiss at some ending) and promote a romance/friendship-centric and at times patriarchal mode of behavior as a way to a happy ending. Decisions like waiting for a guy to ask you out are rewarded with happy endings whereas bucking up and asking him out get bad endings. In addition there is a delicate balance in terms of what choices a reader needs to make in order to secure a happy ending. A certain level of romantic initiative is needed but not to the expense of being inconsiderate and certainly not ruining a friendship. This mixture of demands is reflective of the confusing message teenage girls often receive on how to navigate the dating pool. How eager is too eager? Friends or boyfriend?
While most romance gamebooks reinforce stereotypes with good endings that usually favoring a romance/guy centric choices, the available endings are not always strictly patriarchal. In Kerry’s Dance from the Turning Point series the single choice in the gamebook is a Guy or Self choice between going to Paris for a few months as part of a ballet program or to stay and build a relationship with her love interest. In the case the reader picks ballet or the Self choice, they are rewarded with both ballet and a heart-felt letter from the male lead stating his ever-lasting devotion that assures her he will wait the few months out. It is a you-can-have-everything type ending. In Worthy Opponents of the Make Your Dreams Come True series, if the main character chooses to run against her crush as class president then this choice leads into a set of story lines in which ending up with her crush is one of the possible endings. If, on the other hand, she chooses to be his campaign manager (as a way to get closer to him) then she is locked into a story line where ending up with her crush is not possible. In order to win her crush it is better for the main character to be bold and confident. This may have been done to create a more interesting story, or possibly to convey ideas about women’s empowerment. Either way it is good to see some options that do not favor stereotypically submissive behavior.
Bad endings, on the other hand, are decidedly easy to define and less varied: alone and miserable. “Twenty years later, you’re bitter, lonely and living alone. Nathan is happily married, the father of three terrific kids, and a famous soup opera star.” (56, Pick Your Own Dream Date) These gamebooks pull no punches when describing the horrors of ending up relationship-less, and this is also true for the adult romance gamebooks. Night of a Thousand Boyfriends even employs an endless cyclical “ending” to demonstrate exactly how bad decision it is to stay in for the night instead of going out on a date: you are asked to perpetually turn between pages 34, 42, 56, and back to 34 again while reading your obnoxious roommate’s gloomy poetry.
In general adult romance gamebooks favor patterns in which the bolder (or “wilder”) the choice, the better. The conventional niceties still have to be observed though: listening to your date’s voice mail while he is answering the door is a bad choice that will lead to bad consequences. Adult romance gamebooks also differ in their types of happy endings. Instead of “BF or BFF?” we instead get perpetual size six waists, spontaneous orgasms, nights of a thousand girlfriends, or joining a community of sexy mermen, et cetera. Rather than a classic teen romance we are more likely to encounter an adventurous / risqué “night out” sort of story, often filled with bizarre happenings and slapstick humor.
My research lead me to the realization that it is only in the adult series that themes related to LGBTQ choices and identity are introduced. Such instances either take the form of the main character being exclusively queer (as in Escape from Fire Island!) or with the often-straight main character being presented with a choice of sexual orientation later on in the story. In addition to sexuality, readers may also choose the gender of the main character. The early gamebook Consider the Consequences (1930) presents three chapters, one about a woman and two about men. The more recent adult romance/adventure gamebooks Whatever You Want and Big Night Out actually allow readers to pick between main characters of different genders. Furthermore, gamebooks may offer choices about both gender and sexuality. Big Night Out provides readers who choose the male character the experience of being attracted to a “Chris” who is, at the reader’s choice, either a “Christopher” or a “Christine.”
Gamebooks are all about choice, and possibly the inclusion of character gender and sexual orientation as a choice is the industry’s way of advancing their medium. It may also reflect the growth of inclusion of the LGBTQ community since the 1980s when the majority of (very much heteronormative) YA gamebooks were published. Speaking of representation, romance gamebooks also have a noticeable lack of people of color, not just as main characters, but as characters at all. All the YA romance gamebooks feature young white girls and boys on their covers, with no illustrations inside. Character illustrations in the adult romance gamebook series Date with Destiny (both on the cover and in the book) are vague enough that the characters could be seen as people of color, with darker skin tones, hair. The only romance gamebook I found in which people of color are unambiguously recognizable and feature as main characters is in Too Soon for Sex from the Sexuality Decision series. That series includes a publisher’s note stating it “may be most appropriate for use in communities in which there are high rates of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease or substance use.” Certainly, safe sex is a relevant topic for all teens, but representing protagonists of color only in works that focus on social ills only highlights the general lack of people of color in the “regular” romance gamebooks that are about dreams, empowerment, or just pleasure reading.