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  • How to Play a Parable
  • David Ciccoricco (bio)

If parables are timeless tools for learning, if they are universal narrative resources that allow us to make (moral) sense of the world, then what would be gained, or lost, by playing around with them— perhaps even in the role of protagonist? This essay aims to refine the relationship between narrative and simulation, and more specifically the relationship between parables and computational simulations, by focusing on “interactive parables,” a term applied to a cluster of creative media artifacts post-2010.1 It begins by revealing a tension in attempts to theorize and apply the concept of simulation across the two related but distinct contexts of computation and cognition, suggesting a mode in which narrative theory might best contribute to readings of aesthetic simulations found in digital art and literature. In doing so, the essay recruits the cognitive linguistic practice of semantic mapping, which offers a common language to convey emotional experience and helps clarify what simulates and what gets simulated across the domains of computation and cognition at hand. [End Page 21]

The very notion of an interactive parable serves as a heuristic prompt: is it even possible for one to play a parable? Using Vi Hart and Nicky Case’s “Parable of the Polygons” (2014) and Davey Wreden and William Pugh’s The Stanley Parable (2013) as case studies, I suggest we can answer this question affirmatively, albeit conditionally. We can allow for the possibility of parables that are played, rather than read, provided that (1) there is some kind of unification of outcomes at work that preserve the didactic force of the form, and (2) we adopt a more liberal— embodied, experiential— conception of parable itself.2 The essay concludes by explaining why this affirmative answer matters: the idea of playing parables has significant implications for the pedagogy and ethics surrounding narratives that mobilize simulations and, conversely, simulations that mobilize narratives.

Parabolic Simulation

Even though parable, especially compared to its digital-literary descendants, is an ancient form of narrative, contemporary theories of narrative have a renewed stake in it. Drawing on a range of disciplinary inputs extending back to early cognitive psychology (Bruner 1986), through to cognitive linguistics (Lakoff and Johnson 1980/2003) and neuroscience (Damasio 1994; Edelman 1987, 1992), cognitive approaches to narrative studies have cast parable in terms of a mental operation— and a powerful combinatory one at that. Most relevant and most radical is Mark Turner’s (1996) claim that parable is indeed the cornerstone of our inherently literary minds.3 Turner adopts a rather expansive understanding of parable, using it to refer to the mapping of one (often rather small) story on to another, a process that he positions as a fundamental cognitive faculty. He also inverts the idea that parable (and by extension metaphorical expression) is a late product of a highly developed literary mode— that is, the belief that we build from the sober and the syntactical to the exotic and expressive. In fact, in his bold final chapter, he develops the thesis that “with story, projection, and their powerful combination in parable,” we have the cognitive basis from which language itself might have originated (167). For Turner, language does not give rise to parable; rather, parable (as a cognitive capacity) gives rise [End Page 22] to language, or as he puts it: “the linguistic mind is a consequence and subcategory of the literary mind” (1996: 141).

The invocation of Turner here by no means suggests a wholesale adoption of his theoretical model,4 but rather establishes the prominence and centrality of the concept of parable in the domain of cognitive narrative studies and in a wider literary-historical context. Turner’s ideas are significant, moreover, for a study of parable in relation to simulation. Cognitive linguistics is intent to show that much of human thought and reasoning is grounded in spatial stories that index our bodily orientation, and many of the micro-stories recruited as examples involve bodily action. A paradigmatic example is the fact that we equate verticality with happiness; that is, not only is one “feeling up,” but their bodily orientation (posture, head position) will match this state (see Lakoff and...


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