Posting this here so I can read it off my phone while running my presentation off my own computer.
First, in case anyone doesn’t know this, the wifi code for this room is…
This paper is going to be a survey of ways that I’ve used interactive fiction, including tools like Inform 7 and Inklewriter, for pedagogical purposes. I don’t know how much background the audience will have in tools of this sort, so I will try to describe them fairly frequently. And by interactive narrative I mean texts that can go in multiple directions. A simple example of this is Choose Your Own Adventure books, which are Lisa’s area of expertise, or interactive fiction games like Zork. Now first, I believe that having students make interactive narratives can be pedagogically useful because on the one hand, such texts are fairly easy to produce, and I’ll give some examples of how in a minute. But on the other hand, they offer a concise and effective introduction to digital rhetoric. I don’t want to go into the theory too deeply here, but one thing that distinguishes games from other types of texts is that in games, the reader or player is forced to make choices, to take concrete actions, and to accept responsibility for the outcome of those actions. And interactive fiction is a very simple way of creating a narrative that implements this sort of rhetoric, that forces the reader to make concrete choices. But because of its very simplicity, it is also easily accessible for students at any level of coding proficiency.
So this paper itself is going to be a simple example of interactive fiction, because you’re going to decide how it plays out. Imagine you’re in a yellow wood and there are two paths diverging in front of you and both of them are equally worn and covered with leaves. And in front of you is this sign, SLIDE which indicates basically that the path to the left is the path of teaching failure, while the path to the right is the path of teaching success. And you have to choose which path to take. So which one will you choose?
TEACHING FAIL: So taking the left-hand path, you come to a dark, gloomy forest, and as you walk through the forest, looking around uneasily every time you hear a wolf howl or an owl hoot, you hear a voice telling you a story about pedagogical failure. And the story goes like this. The first time I tried to have my students make interactive narratives, as opposed to just reading them, was in my second semester as a Brittain Fellow at Georgia Tech. I asked my students to write one of their papers as an interactive fiction game using Inform 7. Now by interactive fiction I mean a particular genre of video games or electronic literature which is perhaps better known as the text adventure game. SLIDE In a text adventure game, like Zork or Adventure, the gameworld and the objects in it are depicted with text instead of pictures, and the player enters input in the form of text. Like, Zork famously begins by saying “You are in an open field west of a white house with a boarded front door, there is a mailbox here,” and you can type commands like go west or open mailbox or open door. Now text adventures were a major commercial genre in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the text adventures published by Infocom are among the all-time classic video games. But text adventures were quickly superseded by video games that used graphics, and by the early ‘90s they had become unmarketable. So a fan named Graham Nelson reverse-engineered the code that Infocom used to write their games, and based on this he wrote a programming language called Inform, to allow himself and other hobbyists to write similar games which were distributed for free. Inform 7 is the latest version of that programming language, and it’s different from earlier versions because it uses a natural-langauge programming model; in other words, its text looks like actual code. Here’s an example of a game written in Inform 7 SLIDE and here’s the source code SLIDE. Now I thought this was going to work because ideally it wouldn’t require a lot of coding, especially since I was working with students who already had a high degree of coding proficiency. I discovered that there was a computational media MA student in my department named,Chris Sumsky who was an expert in this language, so I asked him to come visit my classes and do a demonstration of how Inform 7 worked, and he was kind enough to agree. So I thought this was sufficient preparation, but I was wrong. First of all, the simplicity of Inform 7 is deceptive because it makes some simple things difficult to do. And I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know this because I didn’t have experience with Inform 7 myself – I had tried some small experiments with it but never a large-scale project. This assignment was kind of my introduction to the principle that I shouldn’t do something myself that I’m not willing to make my students do. And also, just as an example of the hidden complexity of this language, here is the source code to a major recent game written in this language, Counterfeit Monkey. Etc The further problem was that for some of my students it was too simple. A lot of my students were used to much more complex programming languages that did not use a natural-language model, and for them it was actually tough to write code that looked like human-readable language. Some of them even chose to write their projects in Inform 6, which is the previous version of Inform and does not use natural-language programming; here is an example of what Inform 6 code looks like. For students who are already proficient at coding, this is actually more natural, and this is something I couldn’t have known in advance. But the final problem was that this was just one of about five different projects I assigned over the course of the semester, and the amount of effort required to learn Inform 7 was disproportionate to the importance of the assignment. As a result, the projects I got were not all that exciting. Most of the papers were just very small narratives where you played through them just by walking through a few rooms. I did get one game that was extremely good – it might even have been worth submitting to the annual interactive fiction competition – but other than that the results were not what I expected.
So based on this experience, I would be hesitant to use Inform 7 again unless I had the time to, first, create a significant original work using this language, so that I would have a better understanding of the effort involved in using it and the ways of using it effectively and ineffectively. But if I did use it again, I would make it a much larger component of the semester, which is what my former colleague and friend Jon Kotchian did, and I’m sorry he’s not here – he made Inform 7 the final project in the semester, so the effort involved in learning it would be proportional to the value of the grade students would earn for mastering it. IF THIS IS THE FIRST PATH: But later in my Georgia Tech career, I discovered another platform for teaching interactive fiction which was much more effective. And you would have heard about that if you’d chosen to take the other path.
WHEN FIRST PATH IS COMPLETED: Okay, so the voice stops talking and you realize that the path went in a circle and you’re back in the original point where the two roads diverged, and you’re in front of the sign again. So it looks like you’re going to have to take the other path in order to get out of the woods.
TEACHING WIN: So taking the right-hand path, you come to a bright, sunny garden full of flowers and cute animals and birds. As you romp through the freshly cut grass, you hear another voice telling a story about pedagogical success, and this is what it says. Later in my time at Georgia Tech, I learned of another platform for creating interactive narratives. This is Inklewriter, which was created by Jon Ingold, an author of interactive fiction. Inklewriter is a platform for, essentially, writing Choose Your Own Adventure stories, only these stories are implemented digitally. So it works by creating stories that have multiple branches, and you can also specify that certain branches are only available if certain other branches have already been seen.
So when I learned about Inklewriter, it seemed like a platform with a low learning curve which I could feasibly use in an 1102 class. So in my fifth semester at Georgia Tech, I taught an ENGL 1102 class focused on games. The second major project in this class was an adaptation project – I told the students to choose some text that was originally not a game, such as a film or novel, and adapt it into a game, which I defined for the purposes of the assignment as an “interactive narrative which requires non-trivial effort from the player in order to complete it.” And I suggested Inklewriter as one possible medium they could use to do that. Now to prove both to them and myself that this was actually feasible, I actually used Inklewriter to create the assignment sheet for this project. So it looked like this CLICK and it took advantage of a couple of the specific affordances of Inklewriter, including the ability to use if-then conditional statements and to include pictures. I did this not just because it was funny, although it was, but also because I wanted to demonstrate to myself and to my students that it actually was possible to create at least a rudimentary Inklewriter narrative even if you had no previous experience with the medium. And by doing this, I think I avoided repeating my mistake with Inform 7, where I asked the students to do something I couldn’t do myself.
Now for this first project, not all the students used Inklewriter – some of them chose to create their games in other ways – and the projects were of varying quality, but overall I felt that the students got into this assignment in a way that did not happen with the Inform 7 assignment. The adaptations were fun to play, allowing for the fact that I had to play through 75 of them, and the students chose an interesting range of texts to adapt. The most common flaw I encountered, I think, was that the students failed to provide enough background information about the texts they were adapting, and another common annoyance was that many of the games had to be replayed multiple times in order to see all the text, because Inklewriter does not include a save and restore function. But this project led to some fascinating responses. The one I remember best was “The Intruder,” where the player character is walking in the forest and encounters an empty house where there are three of everything and for some reason the refrigerator is full of raw meat, and gradually you realize this is an adaptation of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. CLICK It was effective both as an adaptation of the fairy tale and also as a game, because in order to win, the player had to recognize what it was an adaptation of and to act accordingly. Now of course not all the papers were at this level, but I think Inklewriter made it possible for the students to do what I was trying to get them to do, which was to create an interactive version of a noninteractive text and to think critically about the creative decisions and compromises that this task involved.
So the final project in this class was a group project and it asked the students to design a game that made an argument, and I told them that the game should convey its argument not just through verbal and visual rhetoric but also by what Ian Bogost calls procedural rhetoric. By procedural rhetoric, Bogost means the way in which games can communicate arguments not just through their content but also through the processes and rules that they employ. The very fact that a game is set up in a certain way, that it employs certain procedures and rules and not others, can be a tool for conveying an argument. And I wanted the students to demonstrate an understanding of how this sort of rhetoric worked. So I again allowed them to design their game with any sort of tools that they wanted, and some of them again used Inklewriter while others who had greater coding proficiency chose to use more complex tools. Now for this project, one of the most exciting games I received was “The RPG about why RPGs matter.” I have some quibbles about the title because this isn’t really an RPG, but the basic argument of the game was that gaming allows us to share the experiences of people very different from us. And the students created a game which included three vignettes that were supposed to demonstrate this – or two really because one of the students unfortunately failed to deliver his or her part of the project, but oh well. In the two parts of the game that were actually completed, the common theme was that they both asked the player to share experiences which were probably completely unfamiliar to him or her. One of the parts was about poaching in Africa and it depicted the same incident from two perspectives – that of a poacher and that of a game warden. The other part was told from the perspective of an immigrant who had just arrived in America and was trying to get to the home of his or her spouse who had immigrated previously. And the brilliant touch here was that all the English-language dialogue in the game was written in anagrams. For example, this part of the game begins “Please tnsfea yrou bsaeltets and utp oyru tray ni the ithgupr iinptsoo. We rea aigvrnri ta the rtioapr,” CLICK said a deep voice over the intercom on the plane.” In order to obtain a satisfactory outcome the player has to decipher this text and figure out the instructions for getting off the plane and taking public transit to the spouse’s home and so on – and it’s possible because all the text is in understandable English, but the player has to unscramble it. And I felt that this was a brilliant way of conveying the frightening and confusing nature of a language barrier, and the way in which tasks which are simple to us might be frightening and scary to someone not familiar with our culture. It’s an effective way of forcing the player to occupy an unfamiliar subject position – at least a subject position which is unfamiliar to me – and it powerfully demonstrates the students’ point that gaming can be a tool for creating empathy. So this is an example of the benefits of using IF in the English classroom.
AFTER BOTH PATHS COMPLETED: Finally you emerge out of the tangled paths. Having experienced stories of both pedagogical success and pedagogical failure with interactive fiction, you feel you are now on the way to being able to use it effectively in your own classes. **You have won**