Interactive Fiction and Digital game-based learning

So, I’ve discussed what IF is and suggested how to choose a game for use with students. I think it’s a good idea now to look at why we should be using IF for learning in the first place, which will be done over 3 posts:

  • This first part will focus on the inherent educational qualities of IF as a video game, and these will be mapped to the ‘learning techniques found in video games’ posited by Marc Prensky (2001).
  • The second part will present the educational qualities of IF mapped to the literacy-based ‘learning principles of good video games’ argued by linguist James Gee (2003).
  • The final part, following the premise of this blog, will focus on the language learning affordances of IF as a story/game.


 “Let my playing be my learning, and my learning be my playing” – Johan Huizinga (1971)


Because IF is a form of video game, it can be used for digital game-based learning. DGBL is the field of study that looks at how video games, either specifically designed for learning – called “serious games”, or  regular games, not specifically developed for educational use – called “commercial off-the shelf” games (COTS), can be applied to teaching and learning scenarios.

Video games are  inherently educational because they have the following characteristics:


  • they allow you take control of characters and see the world through their eyes and from different perspectives;
  • they present problems which need to be solved through critical or lateral thinking;
  • feedback is given immediately – you are encouraged to make mistakes and learn from them;
  • the simulated environment is safe  – players are encouraged to take risks and evaluate their actions;
  • they give practice in thinking about and doing more than one thing at a time – multi-tasking;
  • they present a conflict which must be overcome –  this creates excitement and provides unexpected and stressful situations which must be resolved, paralleling real life;
  • they provide an environment for social and collaborative learning.

Video games can also allow for the transfer of factual knowledge to learners, without them even knowing – a concept known as “stealth learning”, which occurs when “learners are not overly aware of the fact that they are learning, how much they are learning, or how difficult it is”, Gee (2007:124).

We’ve all either been in the situation or noticed another person playing a video game for hours on end, without even realising it. The expression “time flies when you’re having fun” could not be more in tune with the engagement offered by video games. This distortion of time is one of the results of being in the state of deep concentration known as “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991), which occurs when one’s attention is completely focused and there is total engagement in achieving their goals. The Flow experience is commonly attained when playing video games (and during other pleasurable activities such as sports) and is one of the reasons why DGBL is such a worthwhile endeavour. If we can teach through games, learning may become a more pleasurable & more engaging experience – with more fruitful outcomes.


Where’s the fun?


Of course, we shouldn’t forget the reason why we people play games at all – because they are fun. Or should we? Arriving at a clear definition of “game” is universally considered to be a difficult task, given the multiple definitions found in dictionaries and the way “play” and “game” are used in the English language and in diverse fields of study. Huizinga, in his seminal work ‘Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture ‘(1971:28) provides us with a definition of “game” that is interchangeable with the meaning of “play”:

A voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life”.

Salen & Zimmerman in ‘Rules of Play’ (2003:81), have gone further and constructed a definition of game with a more comprehensive scope, basing it on the linguistic use of the words “game” and”play”, while taking into account their meanings in French and German. Furthermore, it is an amalgamation of eight definitions from various fields of study including two from video game design experts, Greg Costikyan (1994) and Chris Crawford (2003):

“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”

More recently, DGBL researcher Nicola Whitton (2010:23)  has proposed a more open definition of game, which includes the following 10 characteristics: Competition, Challenge, Exploration, Fantasy, Goals, Interaction, Outcomes, People, Rules & Safety.

Alternate-reality game designer Jane McGonigal (2011) has gone back to the basics and produced a more simplified definition made up of 4 points: Goal, Rules, Feedback System & Voluntary Participation.

If you’re still with me, you might have noticed that the one element that is missing in every definition of game is what for many may seem to be the most obvious: fun.

Crawford (2003:34), illustrates the relationship between game, play and fun:

  • “Game” is the formal activity that you perform.
  • “Play” is the actual behaviour that you engage in.
  • “Fun” is the experience or emotion that you derive from that behaviour.

This relationship leads to a simple conclusion: games and play must lead to fun. If a game isn’t fun, it’s a bad game. It sounds perfectly logical, and it is flatly wrong.

He then goes on to note that:

the problem with this reasoning lies in the fact that the words “game”, “play,” and “fun” are in flux. They have historically been associated with the behaviour of children, yet in the last century, with the creation of significant amounts of leisure time, adults have taken up play as well. This new, adult kind of play is still play by any definition, but the word “fun” doesn’t quite fit the adult’s experience…”

It can be said then, that in addition to this constant lexical metamorphosis and being a concept historically linked to children and their games, fun is not a required component of a game, as many games are not “fun” per se (think of chess or any sport you hate), nor can “fun” be designed into the game, as what is “fun” for one person might not be “fun” for another. Michael & Chen (2005:20), put this into perspective: “it is not an ingredient or something you put in. Fun is a result.”


The 13 Learning Techniques of video games


The person who started the DGBL ball rolling (coining the name in the process) was Marc Prensky, with his book ‘Digital Game-Based learning” in 2001. While making a huge impact by raising awareness and interest in using video games for learning in educational circles, Prensky has come under fire for not being very ‘academic’ in his writing (to the point of it not being considered real ‘research’ by some academics) and for instigating the ‘digital native’ vs ‘digital immigrant’ debate  – which has been debunked (see Bennet et al, 2008; Selwyn, 2009). Despite this, his was the first major work on the educational properties of video games and his list of 13 ‘learning techniques’ are a good starting point to see how video games – and in this case, IF, are inherently educational. I have been thinking about how IF fits into the more general theories of DGBL for some time and so at last, in the following table, I present Prensky’s learning techniques (by title and a brief description – using his words) and commented if and how they are represented in IF.


Prensky’s 13 learning techniques used in digital games (2001:157-163):

Technique Description Present in IF?
1. Practice and feedback The game tells you things – provides drilling practice YES
In IF, input needs to be understood by the parser – typing and spelling need to be accurate – finding synonyms for commands and rephrasing  is mandatory. Feedback is constantly given – replies of ‘ I don t know how to do that’ are given if the player has not succeeded in their command or a new passage of text when successful.
2. Learning by doing Active participation by the learner YES
IF is based on the constructivist theory of learning, where knowledge of the world is built by direct interaction with it through exploration, discovery and problem-solving. Interacting with the game-word requires imagining actions and the specific micro-action they involve and thinking about the language necessary to command the protagonist to perform them.
3. Learning from mistakes Motivation stems from failing and trying again YES
Feedback reflects the player’s success at navigating and interacting with the story/world. Successful navigation of the story results in more narrative being produced. Replies pertaining to non-comprehension of commands and the text created upon failed attempts at solving puzzles, overcoming obstacles and even abrupt endings or death, serve to motivate the player to try alternative words and strategies.
4. Goal-orintated learning Learning to do something vs learning about something YES
Every work of IF has a goal – depending on the perspective of the player: either to reach the end of the story; or producing as much of the narrative as possible. Being a form of digital literature, fact-orientated learning is also implemented as literature encompasses factual and cultural notions in addition to language (vocabulary and grammatical structures) and literary concepts (point of view, etc) however, these are all by-product of the engagement with the game.
5. Discovery learning and guided discovery You learn something better if you find it out for yourself, rather than have it told to you YES
This is certainly implemented in IF as problem-solving (one of the defining characteristics of IF). Guided (or structured discovery) is also implemented as the logical puzzles act as ‘narrative curtains’, which act as a pause mechanism for the player to re-access the state of the narrative and the protagonist’s place within it. While finding the solution to a puzzle may be difficult, obstacles are usually made clear in the narrative and there are clues that guide the player to their solution. Modern hint systems also exist to guide the player when stuck.
6. Task-based learning Skip generalized explanations and go straight into interaction with problems YES
In most cases, IF is made up of a series of logical puzzles – tasks, which need to be completed and which usually get more difficult as the narrative progresses (and the player’s familiarity with the game world and its conventions increases). Additionally, like TBL in TESOL, the player is introduced to these tasks during gameplay in context and they are not pre-practised or decontextualised.
7. Question-led learning Thinking about information available in order to anser questions, rather than just being told YES
Although directly associated with quiz and trivia type games, many IF games implement Non-Player Charcters, who ask questions and many puzzles revolve around giving information based on general knowledge or specific knowledge gained through exploration of the game world. The genre of IF itself, has been compared to the construct of the classic ‘riddle’ (Montfort, 2003) – thus allowing its inclusion in this point.
8. Situated learning Learning is set in an environment that is similar to or identical to where it will be applied in the future YES
IF, characterised as being a simulated world with its own particular rules, naturally lends itself to situated learning. Actions taken in the simulated world must abide by its rules and the player must put themselves in the place of the protagonist and try to understand the world from their perspective. This is especially relevant to the language that is used, which must be understood and manipulated by the player in order to progress in the game. Obviously, games taking place in a ‘real-world’ setting will allow for more situated learning to be later implemented in real-life than a game involving fantasy elements, however even these require thinking about how an action may be completed following the rules and respecting the environment and language used.
9. Role-playing  Role-playing YES
IF inherently involves taking on the role of another person and seeing the world their eyes and acting upon it through this perspective.
10. Coaching Support systems and ‘practice missions’ YES
Although not implemented in every IF game, coaching is often done through the implementation of non-player characters, which in addition to often being part of a puzzle which needs to be solved, they can also be conversed with, resulting in the player learning more about the game world, solutions to problems and a clearer sense of the goal and what needs to be done to attain it (eg. Lost Pig). Modern hint systems (ex. Lost Pig, Bronze) can also take on this role of ‘coach’ giving out only that information which is needed to solve a problem at hand in order advance the narrative.
11. Constructivist learning A person learns best when he or she actively “constructs” ideas and  relationships in their own minds based on experiments that they do, rather than being told. YES
IF actively encourages the construction of ideas an the linking of information discovered upon exploration. According to Kozdras and Haunstetter ( 2006), the underlying theory of IF is constructivism – IF places the learner into a situation, in which she will actively make meaningful choices and receive meaningful feedback in the way of plot movement.
12. Accelerated learning (multisense learning) Learning involving multi-sensory experiences NO
Prensky is describing something akin to the TESOL method of TPR, which obviously does not apply to IF (and any other video game not involving movement – DDR, Wii, PS Move, Kinect).
13. Selecting from Learning Objects Pieces of a program are built as stand-alone units with input and output hooks to link them together the particular task at hand NO
Perhaps implemented in IF game authoring using Inform 7 libraries, which extends the capabilities of the default Inform 7 library. Exists in other genres of games that allow for modding and building (eg. Little Big planet, Minecraft).
14 Intelligent tutoring An intelligent tutor looks at a learner’s responses and tries to decide why he or she made the error and give specific feedback NO
Many modern games are progressively trying to implement in-game responses which try to offer suggestions on possible commands or tips. Still not widely implemented in IF, current research in using IF for language learning is looking into using adaptive feedback based on the player’s level of linguistic mastery (Cornillie et al, 2010).


All of Prensky’s learning techniques, except for Coaching, Accelerated Learning (TPR), Selecting from Learning Objects and Intelligent tutoring can be found in ANY IF work.

Coaching and Intelligent Tutoring can be found in some IF works (with advanced help systems such as Lost Pig and Bronze or games with tutorials such as The Dreamhold).

Selecting from Learning Objects is more related to the design of games, and not actual game-play, but may be implemented when authoring IF with Inform 7 libraries.

Accelerated Learning, as it is based on the principles of Total Physical Response, can naturally only be found in video games that implement control mechanisms such as those found on the Wii, Move or Kinnect. This is obviously not compatible with the notion of a text-based virtual world, although if one considers state-of-the-art adventure games such as Heavy Rain, which can use movement controls, to be extensions of IF, then it may yet be considered.


10 out of 14 for ALL IF games is not bad – and shows that IF implements these ‘learning techniques’ and can therefore be considered as an educational tool.

Next up: We go a bit deeper and look at Gee’s 36  learning principles and 13 revised principles.




About Joe Pereira

Joe Pereira is an English as a foreign language teacher in Portugal. He is interested in digital game-based learning, especially with Interactive Fiction.

Posted on February 4, 2012, in Interactive Fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. That is the wikipedia article on Homo Ludens, not the Huizinga, btw.


  2. It would be great if you could find it and I will post the reference here, when I have it. The wikipedia article on Huizinga has the quote but needs a page and work reference. I am starting a discussion on the article on wikipedia, to get a reference or edit the article to show that the quote is attributed to him, but it is uncertain where or when he wrote or said it – and that it may be from a talk where Huizinga quotes van Alphen or someone attributes van Alphens words to Huizinga for some other reason.

    If someone else has the precise reference, they will add it to the article on wikipedia, should I raise doubt that it is a Huizinga quote :)


  3. That Huizinga quote. I see it quoted in quite a few books and articles, often with reference to Homo Ludens (1938 or later editions), but I cannot seem to find it anywhere in that book. Do you have a reference for it? All the quotes I see are without a page-number, making it very hard to verify.

    When a games researcher asked the question today in an online forum, I started investigating and have found the Dutch poet Hieronymus van Alphen writing something very similar in a book of childrens poems. ‘Mijn spelen is leren, mijn leren is spelen; en waarom zou mij dan het leren vervelen?’ (Hiëronymus van Alphen (1746-1803)). Which Google-translates into: “My playing is learning, learning is my play, and why should I than learning bored?” Which is not that great a translation, but it gets the similarity and meaning across.

    My investigation is posted here, where I try to get help in finding a connection between Huizinga and the quote:

    If you have a reference to a text, edition and a page for the quote I am very curious to hear about it.


    • Hi Lars. I remember having quite a few problems myself with this when writing my MA dissertation ( its bibliography I’ve stated “Huizinga, J. (1971). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston, MA:Beacon Press”. However, and I can’t remember too clearly, I think I was using a digital copy (or a scanned copy) that didn’t have page numbers. I’ll see if I can find it.


  4. Indeed, there is! I’ll have it ready by tomorrow afternoon at the latest (it’s a long post!). Thanks for the encouragement :)


  5. Any chances you donating a post to the Blog Carnival. I’d love to mention this blog.


  6. Prensky and Gee might have come up with this just to appease wives and parents. If only they had published it back when I was 14.


  7. I particularly like the table and will be using it whenever my wife tells me that I’m wasting my time playing on the computer.


  1. Pingback: IF only » Interactive Fiction and Digital game-based learning | Tommy found a real book.

  2. Pingback: IF only » Interactive Fiction and Digital game-based learning | Tommy found a real book.

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