As the world fades into view around me, I realize that I am standing in a stone tower. Martello Tower, to be exact. The stone walls almost look as if I could reach out and touch them, and the book on the table before me beckons to be read. As I aim my cursor and click to move across the room, I accidentally shoot too far and am transported to just outside the tower walls. Suddenly I am tumbling through an endless blue sky, as if I’d just tripped and fell out of the tower itself.
“Sorry about that,” says Emaad Ali, MCAS ‘19, who has been my guide through a virtual world he taught me to navigate only moments prior. “We haven’t quite finished that yet.”
Tucked away in the cozy top floor of Connolly House, I am not actually in some far-off Irish tower. It’s an ordinary Friday morning, with brisk air and yellow leaves galore, and I’m still on Boston College’s campus. But it’s true that I’ve been transported somewhere else—my sneak peek of JoyceStick gave me a visionary look into the classical world of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Only a few months earlier, this Virtual Reality game demo was nothing but an idea floating around in the mind of Professor Joe Nugent. The English department’s resident James Joyce expert had a vision to bring the literary genius of Ulysses to the rest of the world—and he didn’t let anything stand in his way to make that a reality.
“We started off last May with literally nothing,” Nugent tells me as we meet in his office. He's leaning all the way back in his chair. “Not a damn thing. We started totally from scratch. All we had was an idea.”
For the students enrolled in Nugent’s class, however, this idea is blossoming into something truly extraordinary. “Analyzing Joyce: A Digital Adventure” meets in Carney Hall on Monday evenings, a class of twenty students with four coming from other universities in the Boston area. Together, they work in specialized teams to turn James Joyce’s novel into an interactive reality—both in and out of the classroom. On their website, they document their long and arduous journey through blog posts and video updates.
“There’s a word out there: gamification,” Nugent tells me. It refers to the application of game-design elements to non-gaming contexts. However, Nugent prefers his own term to describe the nature of the project. “We use the word ‘gamifiction’ as a way to remediate texts, to transform them into a different type of representation.”
This class is certainly unlike any other offered at BC. That meant, of course, that Nugent had to embark on his own process of recruitment when gearing up for the course’s first semester.
“I went out and looked for the ones that I wanted. The best of the best in computer science, in animation, in film, in photography… I chased after them,” he tells me. “The most creative kids recognized a creative project and wanted to get on board.”
The energy that drives the project forward, Nugent says, comes entirely from the students. They work around the clock on JoyceStick, even pulling all-nighters in Connolly House to put finishing touches on new projects within the game.
As I try on the virtual reality headset with project member Emaad Ali, a computer science major, he tells me of the countless hours he spends in this room—which is adjacent to the office of Professor Nugent—working on JoyceStick's production. This project is his first experience working with virtual reality, and yet he’s a driving member of the team that has brought it to life.
In fact, few students have ever worked on something like this. Nugent takes pride in the fact that he is, in essence, creating a new form of research at Boston College, all through a department that has been historically hesitant to move away from the page.
“There’s no infrastructure for research like this in the humanities,” Professor Nugent tells me. “Nobody’s doing anything quite like this. My job is to convince [the University] that what I’m doing in the English department is just as critical to research at Boston College as what’s being done in the chemistry or biology departments.”
There is certainly no lack of labs or spaces on campus for research in the sciences. Nugent hopes the growth and development of JoyceStick will drive the quest for similar on-campus spaces for humanities research and help to show that as far as research goes, the humanities and the sciences have “an awful lot to learn from each other."
“This is definitely the only kind of this kind of research that I’ve done,” laughs Ross Tetzloff, MCAS ‘17, another student taking Nugent’s course. “I love how interdisciplinary it is. Being able to be on the same project with the computer science people, for example, and seeing how their brains work and the different skills and abilities they have, is really cool.”
Tetzloff is an English major working as the leader of JoyceStick’s mapping team. He admits that this kind of research surpassed his expectations for what he could do with his degree, and he, too, emphasizes the importance that this project has as far as expanding the limits of what comprises research in the humanities.
“It’s like a blueprint for other sorts of research projects that really want to go out on a limb in the future,” he says. “Learning is not the only objective—there’s this aspect of creation. We’re able to innovate and drive new things with literature instead of just consulting what’s there.”
As for the pairing of literature and virtual reality, Nugent's team is on the front edge. There is no manual to consult when things go awry. These students are the pioneers of something that’s never really been done before.
“It’s pretty serendipitous that Ulysses as a novel was super innovative with the language it used and in exploring the human conscience in ways that had never been done before,” says Tetzloff. “It’s fitting for the innovative kind of research we’re doing now.”
While both Professor Nugent and his team of students are working tirelessly and passionately on JoyceStick, the class is bound to wrap up at the end of the semester. But the vision for the project certainly won’t end in December. With a new lineup of students in the spring, and many of the old students returning to work on the project in their free time, JoyceStick will continue to grow.
And it’s not difficult to see why. After only a few minutes with the headset on, I was lulled into intrigue by the world of James Joyce. I explored the Martello Tower, wandered into a Parisian-style restaurant lined with replicas of Nugent’s favorite vintage French posters, and listened to the excerpts of Ulysses that played in the background. It was unlike anything I’d experienced before.
“Virtual reality is the most exciting thing,” Professor Nugent tells me. “It’s going to change the way we experience literature, the way we experience our lives, the way we experience ourselves."
Although the release date is still indeterminate, Nugent hopes to premiere the finished JoyceStick product in Ireland on Bloomsday—a holiday in June that celebrates the life of the late James Joyce. Until then, however, students in Boston will be working day and night to make it a finished reality.
“We’re producing a virtual world,” says Nugent. “And we’re discovering new possibilities every day.”