How to introduce and use Interactive Fiction in the classroom
I’m going to take a quick break from looking at the learning theories underpinning IF to suggest a framework for introducing and exploiting IF in a lesson (language learning in this case, but mostly transferable to other disciplines as well). Firstly, we need to choose a suitable game to use, following the criteria listed here. The game I’ll be using as an example is 9:05 by Adam Cadre.
Game: 9:05 by Adam Cadre (2000)
Level: Intermediate and up
Time needed to play: The game can actually be finished in 10 minutes by an experienced IF player. However, first time players may well take up to 30 minutes to reach the main expected ‘bad’ ending. In a 45 minute playing session, players may get to replay the game in order to explore the 3 different endings – and importantly, to corroborate what is described upon reaching the ‘bad’ ending.
Lesson procedure: 9:05 is implemented here as an introduction to IF, but the general framework is still applicable to any IF game and forms the basis for the lesson plans presented on IF ONLY.
9:05 Difficult Vocabulary worksheet (Upper-Intermediate): 9:05 word list
9:05 walkthrough/solution: use the spolier-proof version from JAYISGAMES.COM
WARNING: this post contains mild spoilers for 9:05, so don’t read this until you have played and finished the game!
Pre, While and Post tasks
Because IF is a form of literature, it can be exploited in a lesson in the same way as a traditional text, through Pre-reading, While-reading and Post-reading tasks.
- Pre-reading tasks set the scene of the story to motivate reading and get learners calling up schema – personal constructs of knowledge of the world (more on this later) to help them better understand the text while they are reading. They are also used to clarify difficult and unknown vocabulary found in the text (making students have to rely less on guessing meaning from context and helps to reduce the misunderstanding and skipping of words). Tasks also often involve predicting content from the title and brainstorming related concepts.
As 9:05 is the perfect game to introduce the mechanics and lexicon of IF, I have found that in order not to spoil the exploratory aspect of IF (a new experience for most learners), the pre-reading phase need only focus on clarifying difficult vocabulary and teaching the students the basic mechanics of playing IF. Because many works of IF are very mysterious and involve characters with amnesia, or little knowledge of their surroundings or predicament, involving students in pre-reading tasks that require discussion of story elements or themes developed in the narrative might ruin a few surprises for them and are best skipped. On the other hand, IF based on notions of cultural knowledge, such as Emily Short’s ‘Fractured Fairy Tale’ series, which includes variations of Beauty and the Beast (Bronze), Cinderella (Glass), Snow White (Alabaster) and Rapunzel (Indigo), clearly invites brainstorming and discussion on the learners’ prior knowledge of these famous stories, allowing them to make connections between what they already know and the alternative version they are about to play. WARNING: These works of IF make reference to mature themes – play through them yourself before using with students!
- While-reading tasks are a form of assessment, in which the learner’s comprehension of the text is tested. The while-reading phase, traditionally consisting of comprehension questions (in a variety of formats), is unnecessary in IF because IF naturally provides pauses for reflection through exploration and through puzzles, which act as ‘narrative curtains’ (O’brian, 1993). Making progress in IF is clear evidence that the reader understands not only the meaning of the words, but how the words are used in the game (following not only a linguistic model, but a world model). In this way, reading assessment is built into the experience of playing IF, as noted by Desilets (1999): “The aesthetically-placed pauses for problems thus become, among other things, compelling and integrated reading comprehension tests, perhaps the only such tests that most kids will take voluntarily.”
- Post-reading tasks are follow-up activities that are used to promote discussion, implement other speaking or writing tasks related to concepts presented in the text, or focus on specific grammar points or vocabulary.
Introducing IF with 9:05
(This framework, with some adaptation of the pre and post phases, can be used with any IF game).
1) PRE-READING/PLAYING PHASE:
Because this is the first time your students will most probably have encountered IF, the Pre-reading/playing phase will mostly deal with introducing the concept of IF and teaching students IF commands.
- Explain what IF is: the oldest form of commercial video game; the most popular genre of the early 80s; it’s text-based (NO GRAPHICS!); it’s a form of participatory storytelling: you play the main character in a story and control their actions – and the way the story is told.
- If you have a data projector in the classroom, fire up an interpreter and show the first screen of 9:05. Explain what the different information on the screen means (status line, story-generated text, > command prompt).
- Let the students read the introductory text and ask them to suggest commands (reminding them that they are the character on the bed). It is important to type in commands as they are suggested (eg. ‘go to the bathroom’) so that students get the idea that not everything they type will be understood by the game and that commands need to be broken down into their component parts (eg. getting off the bed before moving around).
- As the phone will continue to ring, a student will sooner or later suggest ‘answer phone’ or a variation thereof. Again, it is important to try out the various possibilities so students can see the flexibility (or inflexibility) of the parser and start thinking about the need to paraphrase during gameplay (using traditional action verbs vs phrasal verbs: eg. pick up phone, pick phone up, answer phone, get phone, take phone).
- Answering the phone triggers the first advancement of the narrative and gives the reader a sense of who they are and what they are supposed to accomplish. Pause here to ask the students what they think the objective of the game might be (to get to work ASAP?). You might ask them what they think the protagonist needs to do next (hopefully getting them thinking about the language involved in taking a shower, getting dressed, etc). Remind the students to think in terms of micro-actions: a common command suggested by students early on is ‘go to work’! The story will only progress once the protagonist is told to ‘get up’, ‘stand up’, or ‘get off bed’.
- At this point, you can tell the students that the game will only understand some of the more common action verbs, and they can, for the sake of expediency, use 2 word verb+noun collocations and omit articles and adjectives; Movement is done through compass directions (Go North=North=N) and exits from the current room are usually indicated under the room description; Special commands (and VERY important ones at that) such as LOOK, EXAMINE and INVENTORY need to be used often and can be abbreviated (L, X, I).
- Give each student a copy of the IF for Beginner’s Guide and let them have a look through the verbs and commands (and hope they don’t notice LOOK UNDER for the time being :))
Pre-teaching difficult vocabulary before playing IF is a mandatory step for most works of IF as they are authentic texts (they haven’t been scripted for the purpose of language learning). There are many ways to pre-teach vocabulary (and will be showcased in upcoming lesson plans), but it is universally agreed that the best way to do so involves presenting the words in context (ie. in a sentence where meaning can be deduced). However, because we don’t want to give any of the story away before playing through it, a case can be made for simply presenting a word list and asking students to either match words to meanings, or a similar non-contextual activity. I found 20 words in 9:05 that might pose some difficulty for an upper-intermediate level class. If using 9:05 with lower levels, the word list will surely need to be adapted to ensure students have enough support to play the game without constantly asking for word meanings. Here is my suggested 905 word list for an upper-intermediate level.
2) WHILE-READING/PLAYING PHASE
- The students should now have enough information to start exploring 9:05 in front of a computer themselves. 9:05, as it is very short, lends itself perfectly to multiple play-throughs in 45 minutes (the duration of a computer room slot where I teach). Longer games or game sessions could be done over 2 consecutive slots or over a period of many lessons. Because playing IF requires some linguistic competence, some level of knowledge of the world, a healthy dose of imagination, and good problem-solving skills (some of which may be in short supply in a given student), I recommend pairing weaker and stronger students together, so that they may help each other during the game. In this way, a student who is not very strong in vocabulary, but who is strong in critical and lateral thinking can still contribute and participate fully, balancing out their partner’s weaker traits. Furthermore, putting the students into pairs (or small groups) creates the opportunity of extending the language practice beyond reading and writing to include speaking and listening as well. ‘Computer Mediated Collaborative Learning’ (CMCL), where the computer acts as a mediator between its users and provides stimulus for oral communication during a task, can potentially create situations for authentic speaking practice. The ‘conversational spin-off’ (Piper, 1986) created during CMCL, which includes asking for repetition, clarifying a statement, giving and asking for opinions, and agreeing and disagreeing are vital to the foreign language learning process.
- Because you have previously played 9:05 yourself (right?), you will already have a pretty good idea of what linguistic and puzzle-based challenges your students might face. If you see a pair of students struggling with the right commands in a given situation, give them a hint (eg. ‘it’s a phrasal verb’, act it out or contrast it with a similar verb) and don’t forget to direct them to the ‘Beginner’s Guide to IF’ card – because they will probably have forgotten about it. If you notice that they are wasting time in a given location, this may be due to their lack of imagination. Ask them what they would do in real life in that situation – get them thinking about the micro-actions needed to perform complex actions. Give gentle nudges when necessary, without giving things away too directly, if possible. The biggest joy in IF comes from solving puzzles, especially after spending some time struggling with them. 9:05 has 3 endings – one ‘good’ ending and two ‘bad’ endings. You (as the teacher) will need to have explored all 3 in order to be able to guide your students to and around them. What makes 9:05 interesting is that the ‘good’ ending is not the most satisfying one (and is often the first ending found). After achieving this ending, students need to be told to try again and make different choices (looking in the wallet might help). This will probably lead them to the main ending, which in fact, is a ‘bad’ ending – but it is a much more interesting and surprising finale. This ‘bad’ ending should then trigger the urge to go back and try again in order to find evidence of what has supposedly happened – demonstrating, in the process, how IF is unique in its ability to allow players to ‘go back and take a different path’ and thus rewrite the narrative. I would recommend telling the students to use the ‘SAVE‘ command once they have exited the house. This will enable them to quickly go back that point using the ‘RESTORE‘ command (saving time and the hassle of having to look appropriate in order to leave the house).
- When you notice that a particular group has made some progress (by overcoming an important obstacle or reaching a location), you might consider telling the whole class that ‘group Y has already accomplished X’. Not only is this an indirect way of saying “hey, it is possible to X – somebody has done it, so don’t give up”, giving stuck students a sense of hope and encouragement, it also creates ‘intra-group competition’ (Whitton, 2010), which may serve to make them double their efforts. As a final recommendation, the fun in playing IF can quickly evaporate if solutions to puzzles remain elusive for too long. It is important to watch your students while they play and be ready to offer hints and clues (or even a straight-out solution if all else fails) to a puzzle if they seem close to the point of becoming disengaged with the game. The main objective of using IF with students is to get them reading in a very interactive and engaging way – and reaching the end of the story is their prize for solving the puzzles and using the right words to get them there (even if with a little help).
3) POST-READING/PLAYING PHASE:
Playing an IF game is, in itself, a worthy language practice activity (incorporating reading, writing & vocabulary). If played in pairs or groups, there is the additional potential for speaking and listening practice.
In the case of 9:05 and its use as an introduction to IF, other than a discussion on what really happened in the story (and maybe the concept of the unreliable narrator), it is not really necessary to extend the post-
playing phase. However, I will make a few possible suggestions on how further language practice can be implemented:
- Reading: Students read this adapted static-text version of 9:05 and comment on which version (IF or static) they prefer and why: 9_05 adapted text.
- Writing: Students write a letter (perhaps to a loved one) as if they were the protagonist explaining what happened to them (more specifically, what is discovered in subsequent play-throughs).
- Speaking/Listening: Students (in pairs) role-play a scene between the protagonist and the police or a judge.
- Grammar focus: Third Conditional; Form – If + had/hadn’t + would have/wouldn’t have + past participle; hypothetical past. Students need to make sentences related to how things could have been different for the protagonist: If he hadn’t overslept, he wouldn’t have
- Vocabulary: Using the ‘transcript‘ or ‘script‘ command at the beginning of the game saves all interactions between the player and the computer into a text document, which can later be analysed by the teacher or student. Having created a transcript of the session, students can go through the text and find any words or expressions they are still unsure about and look up their meanings in a dictionary.
Flow, motivation and student perceptions of playing 9:05
In every lesson I have used 9:05, the students have REALLY enjoyed the experience. EVERY student (bar one girl, who said she didn’t like video games and did not make any effort to participate), has been completely engaged during the time they’ve played it. That’s 45 minutes of totally focused reading, writing and thinking – while doing an activity described as being ‘interesting’, ‘educational’ and ‘fun’. This is an example of FLOW (mentioned in my last post) at is best. In order for flow to be experienced, an activity needs to have a clear and achievable goal. Additionally, the activity can be neither too easy nor too difficult – it needs to be at just the right level of challenge. Lastly, there needs to be immediate feedback. As discussed in my previous post, GOAL and FEEDBACK are elements that constitute the definition of ‘game’, and this goes some way to explaining why video games are able to captivate players for such long periods of time. However, the issue of a game being at times ‘too easy’ or ‘too difficult’ is precisely where many video games (and IF is no exception) lose their grip on the player. Many video games (and IF is included here again) do not allow for the customisation of the of level of difficulty – and as soon as it gets too hard, players start to lose interest – and give up. That is why I always recommend that students play IF in pairs (or small groups) and that if used in the classroom, that the teacher be on hand, ready to give a nudge in the right direction as needed.
Flow is also directly related to the concept of motivation – one needs to be intrinsically motivated in order to become engaged enough in an activity to achieve its goal. Malone and Lepper (1987) argue that intrinsic motivation includes the aspects of challenge, fantasy, control and curiosity. Interactive Fiction inherently embodies all of these concepts:
- There is a clear goal – to reach the end of the story (or discover all of the text created by the author).
- There is immediate feedback – a player of IF knows immediately if she has succeeded in creating new text – the story continues.
- The level of linguistic and puzzle-solving difficulty in IF cannot be changed, but many IF games have some sort of built-in hint system. Those that don’t can be supplemented with maps, hints and walkthroughs (easily found online).
- Challenge is one of the defining characteristics of IF, due to the need to solve logical puzzles.
- IF fully embodies the aspect of fantasy as it lets the player become someone else (often in other-worldly scenarios).
- The reader of IF is given a huge amount of control in deciding which actions to take, and in which order to take them.
- Like reading a good book or watching a good movie, curiosity in knowing what happens next and how it ends, is alongside ‘challenge’, a very strong reason to continue playing IF.
To sum up, I posit that 9:05 is a potential flow-inducing activity because it incorporates all of the above aspects. But don’t take my word for it – check out Mura’s blog. He introduced 9:05 in a lesson following the framework described above and noticed a difference in student engagement:
“The atmosphere generated by using this game was clear enough, students were much more engaged than if you had just given them a static story to read”.
After using IF with many classes and many different levels over the years, I finally decided to document my findings in a case-study on student perceptions of using IF for language learning (to be published in 2013 by IGI). Here is what some of the upper-intermediate students had to say about playing IF (for the case-study, they played 9:05 and Lost Pig):
- I never played a game like this before and found it interesting.
- It’s and interesting and fun.
- I had fun playing it.
- IF games are really complex and you never know what might happen next.
- I like it because it’s a different way of learning and developing English skills.
- The game story is attractive and we really learn English.
- I have fun playing it and at the same time I learn new English vocabulary.
- It’s a really good tool.
- You’ll improve your vocabulary, writing, speaking and correct some mistakes that you make.
- It’s an educational activity with a fun side.
- You have to use your English vocabulary to command your character in a way that the computer understands what you are trying to say.
The top 3 adjectives used to describe 9:05 were: ‘interesting’, ‘well-written’ and ‘surprising’. How often have you heard a student saying a text they read was ‘well-written’?🙂
However, as has been mentioned before, IF is challenging on various levels. The most referred to challenges are:
- knowing what right verbs to use
- expressing myself in the correct way
- figuring out what to do
The first challenge can be somewhat reduced by providing students with a list of commonly used verbs (and perhaps getting them to think about synonyms and antonyms).
The second challenge seems to be linked to the first, but might also include grammatical structures, or not tackling a puzzle int the correct way. Paraphrasing is a skill that can be improved by playing a lot of IF.
The last challenge is related to problem-solving ability, critical and lateral thinking skills, and simply not reading the text carefully enough. IF requires careful reading and re-reading of every text.
It is my view that these challenges are precisely what makes IF so engaging and rewarding to play. With enough support (vocab lists, hints, maps, more intelligent partner), these challenges can be overcome. And like
learning a language – the more you practise, the better you get. The more IF you play, the better you play IF.
In future posts, I hope to provide lesson plans (following the framework introduced above) for many other IF games, with consideration given to potential challenges and how to they may be overcome.
See you there?