Narrative, learning, and the Internet


In Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray discusses the cognitive and material benefit of narrative within the incunabula phase of the internet (and, I imagine, many other incunabular phases of ontology and epistemology). In what may be a pragmatic approach, her discussion of digital technologies emphasize the positive, communicative, and narratological possibilities of technology, suggesting the power of the Internet and new media to create new (or newer) forms of narrative, multiform narrative, and ways of making meaning and objects of knowledge production. All this is well and good, but I feel like it too uncritically sloughs off the dangers of new media immersion to reduce interpersonal communication and the fostering of earnest human relationships (between people in person, as well as mediated relationships) and the other physiological dangers (to our ability to process the world in our own embodied, fleshy analog way, like reading ). Not to be overly critical or dismantling, but Murray also seems not to consider the awesome amount of resources that are required to produce a digital environment or experience that can be taken seriously, and how few of those resources are allocated to making educative or critical experiences rather than Grand Theft Auto XV or some other digital product that perpetuates violent, racist, and misogynist ideologies in a way that is fun and entertaining, while eschewing its connections (both literal and embroidered) to issues and problems being dealt with in real time in the world outside (and inside, too) the screen. Her discussion leaves some thoughts on power or control to be desired.

In both the Introduction and Chapter 2 of Hamlet on the Holodeck, Murray is deeply concerned with the teaching and learning aspects of both narrative and technology’s enhancement of it. multiform narratives and hypertext structures enable a different formulation of time and display of information, respectively. Consider Naniki, a “sci-fi/fantastical love story and multi-media eco-adventure.” As a digital environment that houses a mult-narrative plot, the content of the project, with its emphaiss on Caribbean cultures and population over space and time, is also reflected in its science fiction structure (both related to African diasporan traditions). The project seeks to include multiple media across disciplines to constructed a multiply directed narrative that is able to move both synchronically and diachronically through the historical record. As a final tool or game that students can play, it might be an excellent digital environment, but just like “choose your own adventure” books or didactic video games (Ecco the dolphin, anyone?) there is only so far that sort of didactic narrative structure could get you. The asynchronicity of the online/digital experience keeps engagement and commitment set to a low standard. And, finally, it seems that the most educative experience is going to the students involved in actually making this project. They are both contributing to a new kind of archival material and gaining digital literacy and design skills, and are also thinking metacognitively about how players of this game/activity will be using or interacting with it. It makes me think of the possibilities of projects that employ both technology and “live-action” role playing, like FutureCoast and its use at Barnard College.

NB—technical difficulties prevented me from looking at other sites at the time of writing.


  1. One major part of this conversation is access to wealth and resources- Grand Theft Auto has it and Naniki doesn’t. I think this division is interesting because Naniki definitely strikes me as the odder, more unique thing, and had it the access to resources as substantial as a big budget video game, it would have, as has been pointed out, better able to succeed. One thing about this are the ways in which Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc. require constant attention and addition. Like a garden in poor soil- demanding constant cultivation and a lot of fertilizer. It challenges bracketed, self enclosed and autonomous texts, requiring constant addition to the core piece.

    If Naniki had been a game, would its game-ness have challenged the pedagogical impetus? Altered it? I’m sure there are any number of educational games out there, but I never hear about them. Perhaps the boundary between education and game is hard to maintain. As you point out, “‘the encyclopedic capacity of the computer can distract us from asking why things work the way they do and why we are asked to play one role rather than another’ (89). She could have elaborated more on this point, because she was touching a bit on the idea of control.” – You make an excellent claim here, and I wonder if we might find some similar idea concerning pedagogy and entertainment: The structure directs our model of engagement and mitigates other (but doesn’t make it impossible, as in Black Twitter, cyberpunkish DIY projects, etc). Education is built up to work a certain way (cue Foucault), and entertainment another (cue Disney Mega-Corp). Can we make education fun? Well Naniki attempted this, to variable results.

  2. Chy

    I think the Naniki site has / had great potential as a pedagogical tool. Use of hypertext or a “choose your own adventure” option in the story may have drawn in more participants (as it was said in class, there was minimal participation on the message boards). As I mentioned in class, a comprehensive digital curriculum guide would have been helpful too in regard to engagement. Perhaps a visual interactive story would have helped as well. As the story is being narrated, users can choose or click on certain objects / items mentioned in the story to feel more engaged. As was also mentioned in class, budgetary limits affected the site’s functionality. The story concept, however, lends itself to a great digital representation. Unfortunately it was not implemented on the site.

    Perhaps also, there would have been a better online platform to use–or a supplementary one, like a Naniki Facebook page or a Naniki Instagram account. Obviously, those sites would have to be populated with engaging material connected with the story and the mission, but it perhaps would have appealed more to the demographic being targeted (youth), as they are increasingly mobile and probably more apt to click on their Instagram or Facebook apps than to log on to a website (especially on their phones.)
    If one had greater resources, a Naniki app may have even been considered. Perhaps partnering with an arts / environmental organization or a museum could have also increased site visibility. To sum up, Naniki has / had great potential, and its potential as a pedagogical tool is clear, too. But implementation and resources, as we see, will definitely hamper one’s results.

  3. Maxine

    What actually struck me about the Naniki website — thought it “seeks to include multiple media across disciplines to construct a multiply directed narrative” — is that it actually seems quite different from choose-your-own-adventure books or learning-focused video games in a way that I think dovetails with some of the concerns that Chy raises in her comment.

    I don’t want to dismiss the possibility that internet narratives have to be “comprised of text” or that we are always “still reading things on the Internet,” as Chy says — I think there’s certainly a possibility for new narrative structures. But Naniki doesn’t even engage with the possible narrative structures we have readily available under the umbrella of Internet narrative: the choose-your-own-adventure structure of hypertext fiction or the video/computer game.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t like it (or “like” it, as Gwen suggests). But I’m wondering how this diverges from “just reading on the Internet,” as we are, in a sense, just reading (the PDF) or listening to someone read (the audio segment). And what does this mean for its use as a pedagogical tool?

  4. Chy

    Murray does tend to romanticize the digital environment. She doesn’t really discuss things like access. She does, however, say that “the encyclopedic capacity of the computer can distract us from asking why things work the way they do and why we are asked to play one role rather than another” (89). She could have elaborated more on this point, because she was touching a bit on the idea of control.
    What was frustrating for me was her desire to see the digital environment be autonomous and “a new narrative art,” whatever that means. The digital environment is comprised of text–just represented in multiple ways. We’re still reading things on the internet–texts, images, and videos. So this push for the digital environment to “evolve” was strange to me, as she didn’t really elaborate on it (she just kept saying it.) Having said that, her excitement for the digital didn’t bother me. Her idea of “a new kind of storyteller”–one who is “half hacker, half bard” was appealing to me, perhaps on an aesthetic / poetic level. It seems that it’s hard to strike a balance when talking about the digital environment. Either you have on rose-colored glasses or you’re a cynic. She definitely had on rose-colored glasses throughout.

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