Here’s the abstract for my upcoming paper at the Narrative Conference in Lexington, Kentucky:
How to Play a Parable
This paper will frame the methodological challenges and theoretical implications bound up in parables that are designed, read, and played in digital environments. It will begin by outlining the potential contradictions already present when parables are dealt with by cognitive and unnatural narratology, two of the most active approaches in current discourse. Unnatural narratology must untangle the debate over whether or not parables remain parables or become something else entirely, such as allegory, when they incorporate supernatural elements. Cognitive narratology must confront the claim that parable is indeed the cornerstone of our inherently – or perhaps “naturally” – “literary minds” (after Mark Turner 1996).
Even more challenging questions arise, however, when parables enter digital environments and exploit the aesthetics of simulation, thus opening up the form to the manipulation and configuration of a user or, in ludic and gaming contexts, a player. On the one hand, a parable that we steer toward one of many possible outcomes would present a contradictory logic that would denude it of a singular didactic impulse. On the other hand, the notion of a parable in which we participate could potentially carry a more palpable message than its conventional (print) counterpart, given the intensely immersive, experiential quality of digital simulations.
My first example is non-narrative: “Parable of the Polygons” (2013) by Vi Hart and Nicky Case illustrates how seemingly harmless choices can quickly lead to harmfully segregated neighborhoods by way of manipulating biased (or rather “shapist”) triangles and squares. The Stanley Parable (2013) by Davey Wreden and William Pugh provides an explicitly narrative example – one that is also explicitly subversive in terms of the adversarial relationship it stages between player and narrator. I will conclude with an argument for the profound pedagogical implications of these playable parables, both despite and because of the philosophical challenges they pose.