Learner perceptions of Interactive Fiction

Cases on Digital Game-based LearningCases on Digital Game-based Learning: Methods, Models & Strategies“, a book edited by DGBL scholars Youngkyun Baek and Nicola Whitton, has recently been published by IGI Global. While being an innovative publication in the field due to its practice-focused content structure and international perspective, it also stands out for including a 30-page chapter on using parser-based Interactive Fiction for language learning (written by myself, not coincidentally :)).

It’s my view that a major academic publication on DGBL giving this importance to text-based IF – in stark contrast to the remaining chapters all focusing on graphics-based games, is clear evidence that IF is still relevant today not only as a video game genre, but also as an educational tool.

The book’s preface informs the reader of its aims and target audience:

“This book aims to use these case studies to show the wide variety of approaches to the way in which digital games for learning are obtained or created, implemented, supported and evaluation. It is hoped that readers will gain inspiration as well as insights from these examples, and become open to new possibilities, discover ways in which to enhance their own practice, and learn from the experiences of others.

The intended audience for the book is essentially anyone with an interest in teaching and learning with digital games, who would like to see concrete examples of their application in practice. The case studies in this volume aim to show many different ways in which different digital games can be used in different contexts, providing insights into the drawbacks and limitations of their use, as well as the benefits in a variety of situations […] in all phases of education from early years to lifelong learning and […] have purposefully been selected to give an international flavour and are drawn from the USA, Europe, Asia, and Australia.”

(Baek & Whitton, 2013)

As the title suggets, the book presents 26 case studies on the application of DGBL through the use of different methods, models and strategies in a variety of different educational contexts. From primary to higher-education to pre-service training, the cases cover a wide spectrum of commercial off-the shelf (COTS) and Serious Games (those specifically designed for learning) genres – alternate reality games (ARG), pervasive games, mobile games, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) and virtual worlds, real-time strategy (RTS), and even driving games. The range of disciplines covered is also diverse, including gender and social studies, math, physics, finance and computer science to name a few.  However, what might be most relevant to the readership of this blog are the three chapters on using DGBL for foreign language learning:

The chapter by Mete Akcaoglu entitled “Using MMORPGs in Classrooms: Stories vs. Teachers as Sources” (pp.14-24) describes the use of ‘Zon’, a browser-based Flash MMORPG created for learners of Chinese as a foreign language. The case study focuses on researching whether traditionally narrative-heavy MMORPGs can be adapted for classroom implementation by using virtual tutors to provide engagement through the fulfilment of communicative tasks instead of through the usual non-player (NPC) interaction embedded in strong narratives and episodic arcs. Results of the study show that in the case of Zon – when played in a classroom setting, learners were equally engaged when playing a newly created narrative-based version as when playing the standard virtual tutor version, positing that “the presence of virtual teachers filled the gap of episodic narratives and increased student engagement…due to the fact that in both situations they were working on specific goals given by either their virtual teachers or the episodic narratives, making them feel analogously engaged.” Mete states that “this finding carries great importance in both usage of games in classrooms and designing educational games…a very unique phenomenon because the context of classrooms and games can interplay in unimaginable ways” (pp.16 & 20). Mete also points out that MMORPGS have immense potential in language learning due to “their ability to provide meaningful and authentic contexts for communication and language use, because by definition MMORPGS are played with many other people” and “aligns perfectly with Communicative Language Teaching Approach (CLT)…which sees communication as a fundamental skill a language learner needs to acquire”.



A screenshot of Zon


The chapter by Amanda Muller and Gregory Mathews, “Medicina: Methods, Models, Strategies” (pp.147-167), describes the creative process of a browser-based arcade game called Medicina, used to familiarize international nursing students (to whom English is a second language) with confusable medication names. The idea for the creation of this Serious Game arose from the students’ specific learning needs: “it was identified that a lack of specialist vocabulary knowledge was found to be a key underlying issue, and listening was found to be a focal skill deficiency…This is unsurprising because these classes of vocabulary can be considered low-frequency, which means that the student is not often exposed to these words, and there are few opportunities to engage with them before being assessed on their use” (pg. 148). The authors go on to note that “difficulty understanding speech indicates both a lack of automatic vocabulary recognition and an inadequate phonological awareness” which they define as “the ability to process sounds or letters and decode them into recognisable words”. They comment on the value of the finished game by stating “In the very least, a game which highlights the problem of confused medications and shows confusable alternatives is in itself an important outcome. When the game also fosters a improvement of reading and listening skills through raising phonological awareness, it is an added benefit”.

In order to design a digital game which would enable learners to learn difficult vocabulary and improve their phonological awareness of that vocabulary, the authors based much of the game design on the theories of vocabulary acquisition suggested by Nation (2001, pp. 26-28), consisting of these three aspects:

  • form: gaining familiarity of features such as spelling, pronunciation, and the composition of its parts
  • meaning: understanding the meaning of the word and related concepts
  • use: being able to use the word in a sentence, recognising collocations, and having a notion of its frequency.

The authors also stress the particular importance of the first ‘form’ phase, stating that a learner needs to be exposed to a word numerous times before being able to move towards the later stages of the model.

Screenshots of Medicina (Muller, 2012)

Screenshots of Medicina (Muller, 2012)


Both of these chapters (like many others in the book) focus on the use of digital games made specifically for learning, which are known as Serious Games. While developing a game for learning might allow specific learning aims to be achieved, this requires giving a great deal of consideration to balancing out the pedagogic elements and the ludic elements of the game – and having the design and programming skills to put the finished product together. This is not an easy task and is usually a very time-intensive and expensive project (usually linked to the quality of graphics used in the game).

On the other hand, text-based Interactive Fiction is most probably the genre of video game that requires the least amount of resources and money to create – given that most money put into the development of video games goes towards graphics and animation – which parser-based IF avoids altogether. The tools needed to create IF are also all freely available on the Internet and are supported by online communities of users. I’ll take an in-depth look at IF authoring tools in an upcoming post.

While IF works can – and have been designed specifically for learning (see here), from a language learning perspective, there is a vast library of already existing games that can be used with learners to improve reading fluency or to apply literary analysis, in the same way that traditional literature would be used. Because of this, unless one needs to create a game to give learners practise in using specific vocabulary, communicative functions or grammatical structures, there may not be any real need to create an IF game from scratch. Existing works of IF can, in many cases, be perfectly used alongside or outside set programmes of study if used to practice reading fluency or to explore a specific topic or theme.

To this end, the first section of the book – “Teaching with commercial games’, includes my chapter entitled “Beyond Hidden Bodies and Lost Pigs: Student perceptions of language learning with Interactive Fiction” (pp.50-80).

While the categorisation of IF in this instance as a ‘commercial game’ is understood in that the two games I discuss in the chapter – 9:05 and Lost Pig, were not developed specifically for learning, it is something of a misnomer because these games, and nearly all IF created in the last two decades (except for some recent tablet-only versions which are paid apps) are freely distributed on the Internet and are thusly not technically ‘commercial’ games. While this is not a mistake (there really is no other term for non-serious games), I think it is important to stress the fact that most IF is free, as this may be a major factor in its consideration for use with students.



[advanced_iframe securitykey=”7d444b95805c81caaef102d7a091e58939724005″ src=”http://iplayif.com/?story=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ifarchive.org%2Fif-archive%2Fgames%2Fzcode%2FLostPig.z8″ id=”iframe1″ name=”iframe1″]

Play ‘Lost Pig’ directly in the Parchment window!


As was previously mentioned, the book has a strong focus on the practical implementation of DGBL in the classroom, and chapters are organised around the following content structure:







My case study aimed to analyse the perceptions of learners of English as a foreign language on the use of IF to practise language skills, and particularly as a means of improving reading for fluency. The chapter introduces the concept of IF as a text-based genre of video game which blends participatory storytelling, the exploration of virtual worlds, and logical puzzle-solving – and posits that because it is a form of electronic literature as well as a form of video game, and is compatible with the principles of second language acquisition, it can be used for digital game-based language learning.

The first part of the literature review looks at how digital games and digital game-based learning can provide an motivating and deep learning experience. The second part of the literature review looks at how IF is very much a digital game and provides brief overviews of the many affordances that IF has for language learning, which have been touched upon in previous blog posts. The practicalities and technology component sections cover the actual implementation of IF in the computer lab, and again, covers many topics previously mentioned on IF Only. It is the evaluation section, however, that forms the basis of the paper. From data collected through observing learners while playing the games and by their answering a questionnaire with open-ended and Yes/No questions, the learners’ perceptions of the following were analysed:

  • Is IF a game or an educational activity?
  • Is IF a ‘fun’ gaming/learning experience?
  • What aspects of English are being practised while playing IF?
  • What else can be learned from playing IF?
  • What do you find challenging about IF?
  • What elements should be included in an IF game to make it more engaging?
  • Would you like to play IF in the classroom again?
  • Would you use IF outside the classroom to practice English (autonomously/as homework)?
  • Would you play IF outside the classroom as a leisure activity?

What follows is an adapted extract from the Evaluation and Challenges sections of the study (pp.69-73):

“Feedback from the questionnaire showed that nine of the ten students enjoyed playing IF during the lesson. Being a professed gamer, the sole student who said he didn’t enjoy playing IF commented: “I prefer games with images and lots of different sounds. IF is a bit difficult and it takes ten times more time to play the game than if it was on a Playstation.” While unfair comparisons to modern graphical games were to be expected, feedback also produced some interesting data regarding the students’ perceptions of IF as a game or as an educational activity. Seven students, including the one mentioned previously, stated that they considered IF to be both a game and an educational activity. One student, touching upon the engaging and stealth learning affordances of DGBL eloquently noted:

“It’s a game because you have fun playing it and because it has the characteristics of a game. It’s educational because the educational component is always present during the game. In IF, although you are learning English, you sometimes don’t understand it because you are really enjoying the game”.

Other students remarked:

  • “IF is both, because it is a game that interacts with the player and makes us use English (but not any word) – we must think of a strategy to solve the game.”
  • “It’s like a game – we have to reach a goal by doing things that can be tough sometimes and it is educational as we learn English because we pay more attention to what is written because we want to move on.”

The idea of having ‘fun’ while playing IF was also mentioned numerous times:

  • “I had the freedom to make the character do what I wanted him to do and I didn’t know what to expect next – that’s what makes IF games fun.”
  • “I felt like I was living a random story, which was fun and allowed me to use my imagination in order to command my character.”
  • “When playing the game it felt very good when we finally were able to find something important.”
  • “It’s a good way to practise English because you feel the urge to keep playing.”

The students’ use of the expressions “fun, felt very good” and “urge”, can therefore be understood as evidence of IF being a source of pleasure, and therefore, engaging.

With regards to student perceptions on the aspects of English that were being practised when playing IF, seven of the ten learners mentioned vocabulary, with four of them referring specifically to learning about using verbs.

Some examples of this:

  • “We need to think about verbs in order to advance in the game because we are more focused on the text of the game and because in order to finish it we need to pay a lot of attention to find out things that allow us to move on. Besides that, we learn vocabulary.”
  • “You have to know a lot of verbs (but not like the past or past participle of the verbs), a lot of vocabulary.”
  • “It could be an important tool to learn new vocabulary and to use different types of vocabulary that is used in more practical situations and not typical classroom behaviour.”
  • “English is being practised when you command your character and you sometimes have to try to find other words to say the same thing you meant for the computer to understand what you are saying.”

Student perceptions on the most practiced skills, were in line with my own thoughts about using IF for improving reading fluency. Students believe the reading and writing skills are the most practised, followed by speaking and listening. This is interesting for the fact that many of the students were unaware of how much they speak and listen to each other while engaged in computer-mediated collaborative learning (CMCL).

Some examples of students’ answers to the question “What skills do you think can be developed by playing IF?”:

  • “Reading and writing but also a bit of speaking because you try to answer the game really fast, so I think it is helping you to use words and expressions when you’re speaking English.”
  • “Writing and reading and you have to think in English.”
  • “Reading because we need to play a lot of attention to it and writing because we need to write everything correctly or the game won’t accept it.”
  • “You’ll improve your vocabulary, writing, speaking and correct some mistakes that you make.”
  • “All of them.”

In addition to practising English skills, the majority of students commented on how IF was useful for developing problem-solving skills and imagination, as can be seen in the following answers to question “What else can you learn by playing IF?”:

  • “Our imagination and the ability to build a world in our mind around the games story.”
  • “Our minds get faster and you can solve more complex problems in the future.”
  • “Imagination skill, solve puzzles and problems.”
  • “It improves your capacity to solve problems.”
  • “You acquire more logical skills and you develop your imagination.”

It is interesting to note that the students themselves recognised the need for these qualities when playing IF and later used the exact terminology of ‘imagination’ and ‘solve problems’ to answer the open-ended question in the questionnaire. This further shows that the learning affordances of IF can be clearly recognised, even after only playing for a short time.

Several students also mentioned that IF can contribute to learning organisational skills, persistence, and content and cultural knowledge from the story.

From the interpretation of these results, it is possible to conclude that IF is a motivating and engaging way to practise English language skills as part of an English lesson. However, in order to improve their reading fluency, learners need to read large quantities of texts and often, which requires that they be motivated enough to read outside of the classroom. With regards to motivation, which is often reported in DGBL research, Whitton (2007), notes that results of her study showed that “there was no evidence that that there is any relationship between motivation to play a game for leisure and a motivation to use them for learning”. Despite focusing on adult learners with different educational aims than the sample in this study, I believe that IF can actually benefit from this fact. Because it is text-based and does not have flashy graphics and control mechanics, to teachers and learners who are unfamiliar with or wary about using video games for learning, IF does not look as intimidating or give as much of an overt idea of leisure as many other graphical genres of video game. It looks serious – and its more immediate affordances can be quickly measured. Because of this, even gamers, usually fickle about the games they play for leisure, may well give IF a chance as an educational tool, if not as a pleasurable game.

The results of this research confirm that IF can potentially be used as an engaging and entertaining way for learners of English as a foreign language to practise the four skills as a classroom activity, with a particular focus on reading and vocabulary building. Furthermore, seven of the ten students in this case study stated that they would definitely play IF at home for autonomous language practice, lending some credence to the hypothesis that IF is a valid alternative to traditional text for practicing reading fluency.


Despite the students’ universal agreement that IF is an engaging learning tool, some students noted that frustration can easily become a mitigating factor towards their continued engagement and enjoyment of the game.

  • “If we aren’t patient to try everything to solve the puzzle, you can’t find out how to move in the game”.
  • “It got rather frustrating and although I was trying hard I couldn’t move on it takes too much time”.

When asked what they considered to be the most difficult aspects of IF, most replies were related to knowing the right verbs to use, knowing the best way to express themselves and figuring out what to do.

This shows that like any activity, IF games must be carefully chosen so that they are appealing to the largest number of students in the class and are accessible in terms of difficulty and length. Moreover, giving appropriate support before and during the game (ex. pre-teaching vocabulary, giving verb lists, maps, and hints) is essential in order to avoid frustration, which may result in the students giving up on the game and on IF altogether […] an inevitable result of not helping students towards solutions to puzzles as soon as they began to feel frustrated. An additional factor that may have contributed to continued frustration was the constitution of some of the pairs. It is recommended that pairs or groups be a mix of strong and weak students (both linguistically and with regards to imagination and problem-solving skills), so that stronger students can help the weaker ones”.

Pereira, J. (2013). Beyond hidden bodies and lost pigs: Student perceptions of foreign language learning with Interactive Fiction. In Y. Baek and N. Whitton. (eds.), Cases on Digital Game-Based Learing: Methods, Models and Strategies. New York: IGI Global.

Cases on Digital Games-Based Learning provides a very complete overview of how DGBL is being used in educational institutions at all levels, all over the world. The inclusion of three papers on creating/using games for language learning further shows that video games can be successfully used with language learners and this trend will only grow in the future.

The inclusion of a chapter on parser-based IF in a high-profile academic publication on DGBL in 2013 is evidence that IF is still a recognised gaming genre and that there is continued interest in its use by learners and educators. While this will hopefully open up the use of IF for DGBL to educators unfamiliar with it, the fact is that this book, despite its coverage of cases in many different educational contexts, was published primarily for higher-education institutions – with library budgets that permit them to purchase 175$ books.  Although it is very gratifying to have a chapter published in such a distinct collection, I wonder how many educators outside of academia will ever get the chance to read it.

Fortuitously, the Amazon.com preview seems to have just over half of my chapter available for viewing :)

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 May 21, 2013, in Interactive Fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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