April 9, 2006


by Nick Montfort · , 1:24 pm

I was delighted to see that someone at my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin – to wit, Jeffrey Lamar Howard – wrote a dissertation engaging interactive fiction and contemporary literature, and ways that IF can inform the teaching of postmodern writing. Jeffrey Howard’s dissertation is “Heretical Reading: Freedom as Question and Process in Postmodern American Novel and Technological Pedagogy.” Update, May 9: It’s now online.

I will just quote a few passages from it and mention one point that it makes. This won’t provide anything like a summary of Howard’s work, of course, but hopefully it will show something about the very novel approach to interactive fiction and postmodern literature that he has taken.

Literary pedagogy can be thought of as a form of game design, in which the teacher transforms a printed text into an interactive fiction by locating and devising “puzzles” in the form of interpretative challenges for the student to solve. By applying the principles of game design while teaching postmodern novels, instructors can draw upon the theories and examples of interactivity already associated with interactive fiction to enhance their own pedagogical imaginations.

The first rule of interactive fiction pedagogy is that the landscape of the text is to be imagined as a geographic and conceptual space akin to a labyrinth through which students can move in the course of discussions.

Transforming printed texts into interactive fictions opens the way for possibilities of navigational choice on the part of the reader that build upon yet surpass those of hypertext by emphasizing the interpretative challenges that must be solved to move freely through the text. Hypertext works well as a tool for teaching students how to write about postmodern novels, but further technologies and models are required to engage students with reading the books themselves on a day to day basis within the classroom.

Howard suggests – “heretically” – that one might map the locations in The Crying of Lot 49 as one would an interactive fiction, and explore the relationship of its geography with its other textures. That novel, like Pale Fire, can usefully be approached as one would approach an interactive fiction.

students … can be drawn into [postmodern novels] by the same aesthetic appeals that brought me to read postmodern fiction through the Gnostics in the first place: an aesthetic fascination with mysterious, surreal, and cryptic puzzles intimating hidden meaning.