Boston College class creates Joycestick, Ulysses adapted as an immersive, 3D VR game

[This story from BC News discusses a variety of potential benefits of adapting literature for new presence-evoking technologies. The original version includes two more images and a 3:45 minute video. For more information see joycestick.com. –Matthew]

‘Grand and preposterous’

Can gamification help you learn about ‘Ulysses’? BC’s ‘Joycestick’ team is keen to find out

By Sean Smith | University Communications
January 17, 2017

A literary critic once asserted that the characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses – the sprawling, modernist opus that has bewitched or bedeviled readers for decades – were not fictitious: Through them, Stuart Gilbert said, Joyce achieved “a coherent and integral interpretation of life.”

Now, through a project titled “Joycestick,” Boston College Joyce scholar Joseph Nugent and his team of mainly BC students have taken this “interpretation of life” to a whole other realm.

Joycestick is Ulysses adapted as an immersive, 3D virtual reality (VR) computer game – a “gamification,” in contemporary parlance. Users don a VR eyepiece and headphones and, with gaming devices, navigate and explore various scenes from the book. Nugent, an associate professor of the practice of English, and his team are continuing to develop, refine and add to Joycestick with the hope of formally unveiling it in Dublin this coming June 16 – the date in 1904 on which Ulysses takes place, now celebrated as Bloomsday in honor of the book’s main character, Leopold Bloom.

Joycestick is Nugent’s most recent excursion into digital humanities. In past years, he and his students have produced an e-book guide based on Joyce’s Dubliners, a multi-media tour depicting Dublin in 1922 also inspired by Ulysses, and an interactive digital guide to accompany a McMullen Museum of Art exhibition on Ireland’s Arts and Crafts movement.

Joycestick represents new ground, not just for Nugent and this group of students, but arguably for the teaching of literature. The possibilities and challenges of this approach – dubbed “gamefiction” by the Joycestick group – spark the kind of discussions that lie at the heart of liberal arts education, says Nugent, who has seen his vocation as a Joyce scholar metamorphose in a relatively brief period.

“For me, Joycestick – and digital humanities – has entirely transformed my career, and led me to a whole area of creativity and possibility,” says Nugent, who came to BC in 2004 as a visiting instructor and joined the faculty the following year. “As much as I love literature, my traditional training hadn’t offered me the kind of fulfillment that comes from the kind of cutting-edge research technology has made possible.”

Nugent lauds the students’ work on Joycestick with an almost Joycean-like pairing of adjectives. “Their level of commitment is ridiculous and wonderful. They know they’re on the cusp of something exciting. They’ve grown up with this rapidly changing technology, and they presume that tomorrow will bring yet more changes. We have to make it up as we go along – it’s not like there’s a manual – and that’s resulted in some very serious, enjoyable discussions about the nature of this game.”

The project grew out of Nugent’s Joyce and digital humanities classes. Last spring, he and Ryan Reede ’17, a computer science major who had worked on the McMullen exhibition digital guide, talked about a VR adaptation of Ulysses. Nugent assembled a group of other students from fine arts, English and computer science disciplines (students from Berklee College of Music have helped with the project’s musical components), obtained grants from the University, and began the gamefication process – which became “gamefiction” after a team member’s typo on a project document.

With its stream-of-consciousness technique and experimental prose, Ulysses presented an unlikely subject for a conventional game narrative. Nugent and the team decided to have Joycestick tell the story by recreating scenes from the book – such as the Martello Tower in Sandycove where the Ulysses character Stephen Dedalus lives (and where Joyce himself stayed for a few days) – and directing the user to certain objects in the scene: a bright red cricket ball, a bar of lemon soap, a telegram bearing sad news. Touching the object triggers a recorded narration from the book, along with other sounds, to explain its significance to the novel.

All the objects, Nugent points out, had to be researched, scaled and linked to the text of the book. Some of the work in creating the game involved filming and photographing sites in Ireland.

For Nugent, the concept of Joycestick is in keeping with the liberal arts mission: to challenge the individual to think outside his or her experience, and accept that the struggle to understand the unknown is meaningful in and of itself. Even as Joycestick might follow the computer game model – where users rack up points or other rewards as they go on – it also subverts the form, he says.

“It raises questions: From whose perspective is the story being told? How can you be sure of its veracity? What can you trust?” Nugent explains. “What’s been fascinating is how the students have turned the argument around: What is the role of the user in this game? Is he or she simply an observer, or a character – and if so, who is this person and what are they doing there? Joyce wanted us to enmesh our thoughts with those of the characters in the book, so if you give yourself an identity, do you go against that?

“We look on VR as the ultimate empathy machine, in that we don’t simply want to excite the readers – the viewers – but to move them, to engage them with the emotions and events in the book.”

In fact, Joycestick became a seminar of sorts for the student team, not all of whom were acquainted with Ulysses or, for that matter, any of Joyce’s writing. Freshman Emaad Ali, for example, was more interested in the opportunity to work with VR technology.

“I wanted to experiment with its potential and the possibilities it opens up for games like ours,” he says. “VR gaming hasn’t become totally mainstream yet, so we think JoyceStick can really help define how people use VR technology in the future, both inside and outside academia.”

But over time, Ali grew to appreciate the book. “One thing that’s really struck me is how innovative Joyce’s writing was. He dived into human consciousness and represented how ordinary people think in ways that nobody had done before, which is really inspiring for us as we innovate with VR. I think JoyceStick is a great match for the spirit of Ulysses because we’re giving people a kind of experience they’ve never had, which is exactly what Joyce did in his writing.”

Says Reede, “I’ve read every word, and to be honest, I’m still getting there. But working with Joe, I’ve come to understand the magnitude and significance of it, and Joyce’s other books. I understand why this is worth doing.”

Nugent freely acknowledges the varied reactions Ulysses can generate, and which to some extent Joycestick embodies. “It’s a grand and preposterous undertaking,” he says with a smile.

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