Literary Microworlds: Using MOOs to Teach Literature

As text-based media for synchronous communication among multiple users, MOOs are inherently dialogic. Yet they are also virtual worlds created out of language, thereby making them very much like literary worlds. MOO spaces exist because they run on computer hosts, but they provide a more concrete sense of reality through verbal descriptions of the environment. They consist of a series of linked "rooms," each of which has been described by the original creators of the MOO or by the users who have contributed to its growth. Diversity University MOO, for example, is designed to be a virtual university campus. It has "buildings" related to the various disciplines typically found at a university: English, Psychology, History, Social Welfare, and so on, along with virtual student dorms (called Villa Villekulla). (See the DU Web-MOO Interface for the overall Diversity University Map.) CollegeTown MOO expands upon the university metaphor and includes a living/learning environment, with a Forum, a City Square, a Western Shore (with beach-front estates), parks, and islands. (See the attached Maps of CollegeTown MOO for two of the ASCII diagrams of the CollegeTown environment.) ChibaMOO-The Sprawl is laid out as a virtual city. SenseMedia Snow makes the link between literature and MOO spaces even more apparent, since it is a MOO world based on the novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

Dante's Inferno in MOO Space

The idea of using a MOO environment to recreate a literary world underlies a project I designed for students in a sophomore-level introduction to literature course (English 200: Literature and Culture). Like typical composition classes, this course is required of all students at the university as part of their core curriculum. It provides for many of the students their first introduction to the reading and interpreting of literature at the college-level. In this course, I try to teach the skills of close reading: an attention to detail, a sensitivity to authorial implication, and an appreciation of the power of the literary imagination. Students come to the class with very little experience in using such skills and (frequently) very little motivation to acquire them. The course is part of what is (in the students' minds) a dissociated curriculum: a series of courses that they must take to graduate, some with clear connections among them, but most with no links except the fact that the courses are listed in the catalogue as requirements for their undergraduate degree.

Susquehanna's version of the sophomore literature class was for several years entitled "Foundations of Western Literature"--a course created during the heyday of Reagan conservatism. It generally involved the teaching of "classics"--works that for many of the students are as dead as their predominantly white authors (for example, Homer's Odyssey or Iliad, Virgil's The Aeneid, various Greek dramas, Dante's Inferno, the Bible, and other traditional works). Such texts provide challenges for the students even at the literal level. The language is complex, the syntax is strange, and the cultural context is very much unfamiliar to the students. A work like Dante's Inferno provides even greater challenge, since the students aren't familiar with Dante's allegorical style. They fail to understand Dante's rich physical detail while reading the text, and so they have difficulty interpreting the allegorical significance of those descriptions.

In order to increase my students' involvement with the text, I had them work in groups to recreate levels of Dante's Inferno in MOO space. To do such a project, they had to read the text very carefully. Dante frequently doesn't announce immediately who the sinners are in each level, and readers often have to puzzle out what character is speaking to whom. Very often, the explanations are contained in the endnotes to the text, which the students only rarely check. His descriptions of the characters and their punishments are crucial, for he relies on a system of "contrapasso" or "counterpoise" ( Dante XXVIII.142). Under such a system, the sinners' punishments are appropriate to their crimes, and the nature of the punishments helps us understand the true significance of the sin.

The descriptions of the schismatics in Canto 28 provide a good example. In order to prepare the reader for the gore he is about to describe, Dante provides a list of bloody wars, using names that are unfamiliar without an editor's gloss: Puglia, Robert Guiscard, Ceperano, Tagliacozzo, and so on. If you read the main text without referring to the notes, you can see how easy it is to ignore Dante's complex allusions. According to Dante, those wars and the human casualties that resulted from them are nothing compared to the disgusting dismemberment of the ninth Bolgia. He then goes on to describe one sinner who is rent from chin to buttocks. We learn from the sinner's comments that he is Mahomet--from Dante's point of view a great sower of religious schism who destroyed the unity of the Christian church. Just as such a schism is continually renewed through Mahomet's teachings, so these shades are continually healed and rent again, being divided (and causing division) eternally.

In order to represent such a canto in virtual space, students need to determine what characters are actually present in this level of hell and why the characters have been placed there. The students also need to figure out what characters speak to Dante and about whom they speak. The students need to read the text and the available end notes carefully, and they also need to consider the allegorical significance of all the details.

If you visit the Web version of the students' room (Eighth Circle Ninth Pouch), you can see how they've captured the most crucial physical details in the description of the Ninth Pouch and of the sinners punished there. They've also included some of the characters actually present in that level, such as Mohammed, Ali, Virgil, Dante, and the Demon, who continually wounds the sinners as they circle by him. These descriptions frequently include witty details (such as the warning not to get too close to the demon), suggesting the students' enjoyment of what was a highly challenging project. Their adding the non-existent character of Alardo and confusing him with Mahommed (who is actually pictured on the Mandelbaum translation of the Inferno that they cite) shows their difficulty with the project, and their allegorical interpretation (contained on their Message board) focuses on the more easily understandable effects of gossip, rather than on the more complex ideas of religious and political schism. Despite such problems, however, students have given their own interpretation of this level of hell, and they have worked collaboratively on a creative project that not only taught them how to read Dante's text closely, but that also gave rise to an interactive version of Dante's work that others can visit as well.

Dante's Inferno on DU MOO provides a detailed but structurally simple example of a MOO reenactment of literature. The students were working on one text that lent itself well to the project, since the physical environment is so crucial to Dante's work. The Inferno contains actual dialogue, which the students could simplify and then render as conversations between objects on the MOO known as Generic Conversational Robots. This version of the Generic Conversational Robot (the gcr2) was actually a modification by one of the students (Jarred). By reprogramming the parent object, Jarred made it possible for robots to respond to one another, thus allowing an automatic dialogue between them as one robot's comment prompts another robot to speak, and so on. To complete the project, the student groups focused on one room only, which was based on one or two cantos of Dante's text. The rooms connected in a continual downward progression, following Dante's progress through hell (although not completely, since there were more levels of hell than student groups ultimately involved in the project).

Continuation: Ideal Community in MOO Space