Leveraging public domain literature in apps and games

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Public domain literature. There’s a lot of it. And a lot of it is fantastic! Why not help more people discover these amazing works by building literary apps and games based on them?  Where is the mobile gateway to this world of great literature for young people?

What is public domain literature?

The Wikipedia article on “public domain” defines a public domain book as

a book with no copyright, a book that was created without a license, or a book where its copyrights expired or have been forfeited

The trickiest part of the definition is that “expired” part, as the specifics of copyright law vary between countries. As a rule of thumb, if a work was published in the US prior to 1923 or prior to 1947 in the UK, it is out of copyright. The complete works of many long-dead literary greats, including Dickens, Shakespeare and Jane Austen, are indeed in the public domain.  Furthermore, books are continuously entering the public domain.  In 2017, for example, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells became public domain literature.

Public domain literature is accessible…?

In one respect, this literature has never been more accessible. The Project Gutenberg website alone had over 30,000 English-language books in 2011 and the number continues to grow.  The Apple App Store has many apps that repackage these classic books as “portable libraries of the classics”.  If you’re already committed to reading a classic, then these apps can be fantastic.

A lot of these classic books and other public domain texts, however, are so easy to understand.  In other words, many people find them unapproachable.  The works of Shakespeare are the classic example.  This is where literary game and app designers can meet the challenge of making these texts accessible. We can give people a taste of these works and encourage them to find out more.

Unique apps and games rise to the challenge

Since I started work on WordWhile, I’ve become much more aware of the work of other developers remixing and leveraging public domain books in their apps and games.  Here are a few of my favorites.

Sentence Sensibility

How about using public domain books to teach grammar and parts of speech?  Sentence Sensibility is an innovative educational app from Touch Press Games.  The play either has to unscramble sentences from famous books or form new grammatically correct sentences from the same words.

Stride and Prejudice

This was such an innovative game idea.  It was a very unusual “endless runner” game where the platforms were made of the text of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. There was a survival mode (fall in the gap, start the book again!) and a reader mode.  In the latter, you “respawned” at the same point in the book.  Unfortunately, the makers of the game (No Crusts Interactive) seem to have closed shop.  Even more sadly, their unique mobile game is no longer available on the App Store.


This Kickstarted-funded puzzle game from the game designing genius of Local No. 12 (maker of the very amusing Metagame card game) will combine a clever puzzle mechanic, a dystopian storyline, social sharing and gifting with many public domain books.  This literary app for iOS will hopefully ship before the end of 2017. Fingers crossed…


Lastly, I should mention that my own literary game WordWhile was, of course, designed specifically to give people an opportunity to play a casual game based on public domain literature on their iPhone, iPad or Android device.  Could I create a relaxing, fun literary game that required no prior knowledge of these texts? In the end, some familiarity with these classics does make the game more amusing.

However, the proverbs and nursery rhymes are quite fun for everybody. Even ESL students can appreciate these texts.  My hope is that players will then dip into less familiar texts.  The game’s achievements encourage exactly that. Playing WordWhile can expose us to great poetry and prose and compels us to think about the author’s specific choice of words.  If you haven’t tried it, by all means, download it without delay on your iOS or Android device.

Know of other literary games (not necessarily video games) or apps that leverage public domain books? I’d love to hear about them in a comment.

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1 thought on “Leveraging public domain literature in apps and games”

  1. Hello Greg, as a person of a “certain” age and temperament, I have yet to consider apps for entertainment, but Chris passed your links along some weeks ago and I have enjoyed this blog info and will download the android version to our tablet one day soon. Ann is the more literary (actually very) of us, and I’ll try to get her to play around as well. Then we will reply and comment. We wish you every success with the enterprise. We hope you and your family are well, and sorry that our paths never seem to cross. Take care.

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