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Title: Hamlet on the Holodeck
Author: Janet Murray
Publisher: Free Press
Copyright: 1997
ISBN: 0-684-82723-9
Pages: 324
Price: $25.00
Rating: 91%
Could computer simulations become so compelling, so “real”, that people could no longer differentiate them from the real world? Could the “holodeck”, an infinitely versatile simulated environment introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation, be the tool that pushes the human race away from the real and firmly into the realm of the virtual?

Probably not, argues Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Janet Murray, because by the time technology has advanced to that level we will have figured out how to create and interact with immersive environments in a way that makes the experience meaningful without being too realistic. The trick, Murray says, is recreating theater’s “fourth wall” so there is a holodeck experience equivalent to breaking the theatrical illusion by looking at other members of the audience instead of the stage.

Kids These Days

It seems every generation has seen the demise of civilization in its youth, whether it was the ancient Greeks criticizing Socrates or Alan Bloom’s excoriation of the MTV generation in The Closing of the American Mind. The same may be said for each new medium. Cervantes' Don Quixote, published in 1605, had the title character tilting at windmills because he had “filled his mind” with the tales of traveling knights and adventurers. Huxley and Bradbury paint much the same picture for “feelies” and television in Brave New World and Farenheit 451, respectively, though these latter two examples are more about technology as social control mechanism than entertainment. Talbott and Slouka, for instance, make the case for “computerized multimedia as brain drier” quite eloquently.

The challenge for multimedia programmers, then, is to produce imaginary worlds that are real enough to entertain and engross participants without being so real that the experiences seem “too real” and break the trance. On the other hand, overly limiting a user’s range of responses (or “agency”) means the fourth wall might as well be made of brick, though even a binary branch at the end of each scene can expand programmers’ workloads exponentially. A story with only eight unique “yes/no” or “left/right” branches, for instance, would require detailing 256 separate scenes.

Moving Toward an Answer

Needless to say, Murray doesn’t offer a concrete paradigm for programmers to follow, but she does have several insights which might catalyze the process of developing one. The first realization is based on work by the Oz group at Carnegie Mellon, who discovered that plot satisfaction is very different in interactive versus audience situations. Her second recommendation is that, rather than trying to be comprehensive, programmers should look to specific well-defined genres, like American westerns or film noir, as first steps. Programmers could build on something akin to Marvin Minsky’s concept of “frames” of knowledge, which has quite a lot in common with object-oriented programming, to flesh out the people, places, things, and actions within the environment. And, just as live theater, novels, radio, television, and motion pictures have all evolved, so shall multimedia and virtual reality.


Hamlet on the Holodeck is a must read for anyone interested in interactive storytelling, whether as a programmer, author, producer, or consumer. Murray'’s conclusions are cautious, but the wealth of knowledge throughout the book, such as details of numerous multimedia storytelling projects and their discoveries, should bring the discovery of the computer's fourth wall much closer.

Curtis D. Frye (  is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews.  He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.