Monday, January 21, 2013

Using interactive fiction in the classroom just got easier!

Many of you are probably like me and have some fond memories of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books. While the ones I remember reading as a kid tended to have rather fantastic settings (I'm pretty sure I had this riff on Attack of the Killer Tomatoes), as it turns out, the internet age has been good to the genre of interactive fiction. The medium has grown and matured in ways that I think few people could have imagined 20 years ago, and this blossoming of interactive fiction, or IF, opens up some interesting opportunities for its use in secondary education, particularly when it come to giving students some easy-to-use tools for writing their own IF.

Many contemporary IF writers have found their medium to be a great format for artistically engaging difficult social issues, and encouraging students to develop their own works of interactive fiction dealing with topics in history, politics, social studies, or simply as exercises in creative writing, can be a powerful educational experience. Regardless of the subject matter of a work of IF, the very process of producing interactive fiction strengthens students' skills in the Language Arts, in terms of both composition and reading skills. But most importantly, the gamelike nature of interactive fiction often excites students in a way that conventional research and writing exercises may not. The prospect of producing a "game" which others can play also may help motivate learners who aren't particularly engaged by traditional classroom teaching.

I'm not the first to recognize the possibilities which writing IF creates for the classroom. There are already several sample lesson plans available online, like this one at ReadWriteThink.org or this lesson plan from coloradoadulted.org. I dare say that the question for today's teachers doesn't seem to be one of whether or not students can profit from creating their own works of IF, the question seems to be, "what the easiest way is to get students started on an interactive fiction project?"


Although all good writing requires organization, planning, and editing, writing interactive fiction is a bit more complicated. Writers have to create multiple different options for players that ideally, have more than just a superficial impact on the outcomes of the story. Writers have to be able to keep track of all the various branches in the story, not to mention present the story to their readers in an accessible fashion. While the CYOA books proved that it is possible to do this all with ink and paper, the amount of options which could be presented to readers (and writers) is fairly limited. Computers offer much more powerful tools and allow for much more complex, more game-like options, but there's often a bit of a learning curve involved. So what's a teacher, or just an aspiring interactive fiction writer, to do?

Option 1: Use HTML and a web browser

Years ago, before there was an abundance of drag-and-drop what-you-see-is-what-you-get webpage editors, I used my fairly humble HTML skills to dabble in the world of interactive fiction, writing some fairly simple choose-your-own adventure type stories. While there are more specialized tools available today for creating IF, teaching kids to create basic webpages as a means of creating and distributing interactive fiction still has its advantages.

On the plus side, on top of exercising their writing skills and learning about the topic at hand, they also pick up some basic knowledge of web development. While the amount of HTML student will need to know to complete the assignment is minimal, chances are that some of them will enjoy exploring the world of web design, and they'll teach themselves more HTML and probably some CSS in order to give their webpages a look and feel that matches their story. Although adding such window dressing wouldn't be a requirement of the assignment, giving student the opportunity to explore webdevelopment might increase their excitment and investment in the assignment, and leave them with a knowledge of basic web development, which is a skill in itself.

The downside, of course, is that any time you may try to teach multiple skills at once, one may get developed at the expense of the others. Some students may become so invested in building clever webpages that they may not spend an appropriate amount of time doing research or working on the assigned topic. Likewise, if students have the opportunity to review the projects of their peers, they may favor projects with flashy design over ones that have better, but more plainly displayed, content.

While learning basic web development skills should more than suffice for creating short works of interactive fiction, students' stories will be somewhat limited by the skills they can learn in the time alloted for the assigment. An alternative would be to have the whole class use the same tool, a dedicated interactive fiction editor, that puts the entire class on much similar footing, while providing them with more than the most basic story design options.

Option 2: Use a robust IF editor like Inform

Inform is a cross-platform, freely available IF editor. Unlike other ways of creating IF, which tend to place the paragraph as the central unit of the story and assume that the story will progess by selecting branching paths of a central storyline, Inform has a geography-based way of organizing its story building.  That is, in Inform, the basic unit of the story isn't the paragraph, it's the room. Inform is more about creating an explorable environment rather than simply a story, and writers have to imagine the stories they create as taking place in actual 3D spaces. Players, then, will navigate the finished game by typing in commands like, "go east" or "enter the living room."

While Inform can still certainly be used to create very simple scenarios with a few select choices, the ability for players to enter commands rather than choose between a few pre-written options allows for much more complexity. Students can essentially create full-fledged text-based video games, akin to those of the early days of home computing like Zork. They can provie for any number of verbs to be recognized, allowing players to have much more meaningful interactions with the game world.  Writers can also create objects which players can interact with or add to their inventory, and writers can script lengthy and complex sequences of events needed to trigger moving on to the next chapter or "winning" the game. And all this is done without the need to learn a complex programming language, because Inform uses natural language to structure writer's commands.

However, as is the case with just about every programming tool, power and flexibility comes at the expense of ease of use. Inform is based on natural language, and writers enter instructions to Infrom in a form that looks something like, "The Laboratory is a room. The Laboratory is east of the Observatory." This tells Inform to create a new room in the environment. From there, writers can then do things like add descriptions of objects, sights, sounds, pretty much anything they desire.

On the surface, this seems far easier than making students learn a syntactically strange programming language just to create a text-based game, but unfortunately, I found that Inform was still far from intuitive to use. Even though it uses natural language, there is still both a very specifc and limited vocabulary and syntax that writers must learn in order to get Inform to work. And even the simple task of becoming familiar with the basics requires a few hours of study. Although it may definitely seem more approachable than, say, Javascript programming, my impression was that it would be unlikely for students to be able to harness the full power of Inform for short assignments unless teachers are willing to dedicate a a large chunk of classroom time to teaching all the ins and outs of the software.

The other downside of Inform is that time spent teaching students to use Inform does not produce much in the way of transferrable skills. Yes, the very project of creating interactive fiction requires students to develop good planning and organizational strategies to succesfully finish their games, but unlike learning HTML, there is no other context in which students can apply their mastery of Inform's very particular scripting language.

Although there's no doubt in my mind that Inform is an excellent tool for someone who is truly committed to developing robust, easily distributable IF, I suspect that most teachers will find that the learning curve is a bit steep for a classroom application. This is not to say that it cannot be done--in fact, high school history teacher and author of the great book Gaming the Past, Jeremiah McCall, has written a great case study about the successes he had with his 9th and 10th grade history students using Inform. However, my own impressions trying to use this software suggest to me that only a few select teachers will be able to find the time to teach scripting with Inform on top of their existing curricula.

You can download Inform at http://inform7.com.

While each of the options above has its strengths: learning basic web development doesn't take too much time and is an excellent secondary skill, and Inform is a great tool for allowing writers to create full-fledged games within imaginatively fleshed out geographical spaces, both seem far from optimal for educators who just want their students to focus on their stories, not on the software they need to create those stories. Fortunately, I came across one other tool that seems perfect for audiences that want a polished product without much complication or hassle.

Option 3: Use a web-based tool like inklewriter

For modestly sized works of interactive fiction, inklewriter seems to strike the perfect balance between ease of use and story-writing flexibility. This free web-based service created by inkle, a UK-based software development studio, has a slick visual interface for story writers, which makes writing interactive stories suprisingly painless. As an added bonus, sharing stories over the web is equally easy, and the visual display of finished stories look like lovely, old-timey books, which bibliophiles and history geeks like myself will undoubedly find rather charming.

I don't want to belabor the point about just how nice inklewriter looks, as its visual style is obviously not the most important part of a classroom project in IF writing, but I do think there's an advantage in the fact that every student's project will look like a polished piece of writing, regardless of their skill level with the tools. The same can certainly not be said if students are learning to develop their own webpages in HTML, nor does Inform's really win any awards in terms of textual presentation style. While some students might ultimately prefer the increased complexity which they can create using either of those options, I strongly suspect that the visual appeal of inklewriter will give many students a greater sense of accomplishment--their finished product will look good and can be easily shared with anyone who has internet and a web browser.

The other great strenght of inklewriter is that it is trivially easy to get started with, and the website's own tutorials are well-crafted and can be finished in roughly 20 minutes. In terms of intuitiveness and ease of use, I simply wasn't able to find a better tool. And while it has a simple interface, writers aren't limited to creating only simplistic stories. Writers can add as many options as they want to a piece of text, set up the conditions under which certain options and text are available, and even easily insert web-hosted images.

Still, if there is a downside to inklewriter, it is that it doesn't allow for the complexity that Inform does. While inklewriter does allow authors to insert chunks of text that will only be displayed if certain conditions are met, writers need to employ a fair bit of ingenuity if they want to even partially mimic the simulated-environment-complete-with-moveable-objects kind of world that Inform creates by default. This is not to say that you absolutely cannot make inklewriter do a lot with clever use of markers and conditionals. But you absolutely cannot make it accept writen commands from players like Inform does. Rather, like a conventional Choose Your Own Adventure story, writers create a limited number of story branches and players must choose from one of those pre-fabricated options. In other words, players don't get the same sense of exploration from a finished work of IF in inklewriter that they would from Inform.

Despite the limitations of inklewriter, it seems so overwhelmingly novice-friendly in its design that it is hard not to recommend it for use in the classroom. Check out inklewriter for yourself at http://writer.inklestudios.com.

There are definitely other tools out there for getting started with interactive fiction, but in terms of cost (these are all free!) and ease of use, I'd say these are some of the best options out there for getting students started on the fast path to creating their own interactive stories. However, if you're still hungry for more resources, high school teacher Larry Ferlazzo has put together a great list of resources on interactive fiction on his edublog.

Do you have experience writing interactive fiction, either for yourself or working with students? What tools do you recommend?

No comments:

Post a Comment