Possible Worlds in Lit, Sci, and Games

Possible Worlds: Literature, Science, and Games

Dr./Prof. Jacque Wernimont


W 02:45-5:30 Hum Room 101

Game Lab: HM Library, time TBD

Office Hours: Monday 9-11:30 and by appt

Texts: Reader and @ Bookstore

Social change, innovation, and exploration, not to mention play, all depend on our abilities to create possible worlds. This course investigates the forms, theories, and heuristic functions of literary, scientific, and gaming possible worlds.


  • Familiarity with possible worlds theories
  • Familiarity with possible world creations in (mostly early modern) literature, science, and video games
  • Ability to identify the narrative and formal features of possible worlds
  • An understanding of the epistemological and social functions of possible worlds
  • Ability to critically engage a possible world structure
  • Enhanced writing, collaborative discussion, and collaborative play skills


Readings and Sakai Posts: There is an assigned set of primary and secondary readings for each seminar meeting. These readings are to be completed before our meeting each week. Everyone will participate in an online discussion forum, writing at least one posting by 5 p.m. on Sunday. I also reserve the right to have unannounced short in-class writing assignments that draw on the readings for that meeting.

Student- as-Teachers sessions: For each primary unit (does not include “Background”) a team of students will lead one 30-minute interactive session. The team is responsible for guiding the class through a discussion of one issue/element/question that relates directly to possible worlds in the reading. Teams are welcome to discuss with me any issues/questions beforehand. Each team will be graded on the level of discussion that is produced, so help your fellow student-teachers by reading and participating. Please note that this is a difficult assignment – it requires the student-teacher group to have a clear sense of the issues they want the class to grapple with and a clear set of strategies to foster discussion. Please do not leave this assignment for Sunday night.

Game Lab: Every student is required to participate in at least one game lab each week during the semester (Thanksgiving week is excepted). Students should plan to spend at least one hour as part of a group engaged in playing the assigned games. Each student should be the lead player at least twice during the term. Students are expected to post a brief reflection to the course blog game section after each lab. Students will play Mass Effect 2 and Assassin’s Creed over the course of the entire semester; we will dedicate seminar time to discussion of these games in the final unit of the course.


Final Project: This involves three elements

1)    Project proposal: a two-page (max) proposal that identifies the primary text/object that you will analyze. The proposal should include an annotated bibliography of secondary sources. The proposal is due Monday Nov 26th, but may be discussed earlier.

2)    Project poster: each student will prepare a project poster for presentation during the scheduled final time (Tues Dec 18th 7:00 pm). The poster should offer an encapsulation of the argument of the final project and point to highlights or feature one particular element. Each student will be required to discuss his or her poster and answer questions during the poster session.

3)    Project Paper: Each student will write an original analysis of a possible world that engages with at least one text from the course and one additional source. This should go beyond summary or historical contextualization to speak to the formal and/or social engagements of the primary source. 8-10 pages, double-spaced, 12 pt, 1” margins. Due by 5 p.m. Wednesday Dec 12th.


Grade Breakout

Participation = 30%

10 % Reading responses/discussion

10 % In-class discussion

10% Game lab reflections


Students as Teachers session = 20%

10 % for adherence to time, discussion organization, team collaboration

10 % for quality of discussion generated


Final Project = 50%

10% Proposal

20 % Poster

20 % Paper


NB: Attendance is not on here; it is expected that you will attend every meeting. Two absences will result in a failing grade. This syllabus is subject to revision with notice.


Weeks 1-3 Background

Sept 5

Peter McCormick. “Literary Fictions and Philosophical Theories: The Possible Worlds Story,” Fictions Updated: Theories of Fictionality, Narratology, and Poetics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.


Nicholas Rescher. “Questions about the Nature of Fiction,” Fictions Updated: Theories of Fictionality, Narratology, and Poetics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.


Aristotle. Poetics, trans. S.H. Butcher. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics1.1.hmtl

Plato. Timaeus, trans. Benjamin Jowett. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/timaeus.html


Sept 12

Ruth Ronen. “Are Fictional Worlds Possible?” Fictions Updated: Theories of Fictionality, Narratology, and Poetics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.


Nelson Goodman. “Words, Works, Worlds,” Ways of Worldmaking. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1978. 1-22.


Lubomír Doležel. “Possible Worlds of Fiction and History,” New Literary History, 29.4 (1998): 785-809.


Optional: Friedrich L.G. Frege, “On Sense and Reference, Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, eds. Peter Geach and Max Black. Oxford: Blackwell, 36-56.


Sept 19

Joanna Gavins. “Scenes,” “Processes,” and “Layers” in Text world theory: an introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.


Marie-Laure Ryan. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 89-171


Optional: Janet Murray. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.


Weeks 4-6 Literary Worlds

“And know there is more

That you can’t see, can’t hear;” – Joy Harjo, “Eagle Poem”


Sept 26th

Thomas Moore. Utopia (1516), trans. Robert M. Adams, 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1992.

Joaquín Martínez Lorente. “Possible Worlds Theories and Fictional Worlds of More’s Utopia: How much (and how) can we apply?”


Oct 3

Margaret Cavendish. A New World, Called a Blazing World (1667) in The Blazing World and Other Writings, ed. Kate Lilley. New York: Penguin Books 2004.

Mary Baine Campbell. “Outside In: Hooke, Cavendish, and the Invisible Worlds,” Wonder and Science: Imagining Worlds in Early Modern Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.


Oct 10

Jeanette Winterson. The Stone Gods. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008.


Weeks 7-11 Scientific Worlds

“They are only in possibility, and not in act.”

-Sir Matthew Hale 1677


Oct 17

Bernard Fontenelle. Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (1686), trans. H.A. Hargreaves. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Mary Baine Campbell. “On the Infinite Universe and the Innumerable Worlds,” Wonder and Science: Imagining Worlds in Early Modern Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.


Oct 24

René Descartes, Le Monde (selections)

Jacqueline Wernimont. “Discovery in The World: the case of Descartes,” The Invention of Discovery, James Dougal Flemming, ed. Ashgate, 2010.

Michio Kaku, Parallel Worlds. New York: Anchor Books, 2005. Read part 1.


Oct 31

Italo Calvino, “The Form of Space,” Cosmicomics, trans. William Weaver. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968.

Michio Kaku, Parallel Worlds. New York: Anchor Books, 2005. Read parts 2 & 3.


Nov 7


Weeks 12-14 Game Worlds

Nov 14

Discussion of Mass Effect 2

Matt McLean. “Mass Effect: Leveraging a Science Fiction Childhood”


Marie-Laure Ryan. “Beyond Myth and Metaphor: The Case of Narrative in Digital Media,” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research 1.1 (July 2001).


Jan Van Looy. “Virtual Recentering: Computer Games and Possible Worlds Theory,” Image & Narrative 12 (2005).


Nov 21 – no class


Nov 28

Discussion of Assassin’s Creed

Magy Seif El Nasr, Maha Al-Saati, Simon Niedenthal, and David Milam. “Assassin’s Creed: A Multi-Cultural Read”




Dec 5



Dec 12 Final Paper Due

Dec 18th Poster Presentations, 7 p.m.



Additional Resources

Graham Wakefield and Haru Ji, “Artificial Nature: Immersive World Making” Applications of Evolutionary Computing, Berlin: Springer 2009.

Marie-Laure Ryan, “Beyond Myth and Metaphor: The Case of Narrative in Digital Media” Game Studies: the international journal of computer game research 1:1 (July 2001)

Thomas Kuhn, “Possible Worlds in History of Science.” in Sture Allén, ed. Possible Worlds in Humanities, Arts and Sciences. Proceedings of Nobel Symposium 65 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1989), 9-32, 49-51.

Jean-Pierre Naugrette, “On the Possibility and Plurality of Worlds: from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Le Crime étrange de Mr Hyde” Sillages critiques 6 (2004)

Catherine Gallagher,  “War, Counterfactual History, and Alternate-History Novels.” Field Day Review, 3 (2007).  Pp. 53-66.

Isaac Disraeli, “Of a History of Events Which Have Not Happened” (1849)

J.C. Squire (ed.), If It Had Happened Otherwise: Lapses Into Imaginary History (1931)

Niall Ferguson, Virtual History. Alternatives and Counterfactuals, London 1997.

Film Resources

Sylvie Bissonnette,  “Cyborg brain in Robert Lepage’s Possible Worlds,” Screen 2009 50(4):392-410.

David Surman, “CGI Animation: Pseudorealism, Perception and Possible Worlds” 2003/4.

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