Connecting dots of digital learning

Digital game-based language learning with Interactive Fiction (PART 1)

Video games (also called digital games) are serious. While the people who play them have known this for a long time, it’s taken over three decades for society in general to accept them as something other than a way to pass the time in virtue of doing “more serious” work. The fact is, video games are serious – if not to the casual observer, then certainly to their players.

What makes people want to spend so much time and money playing video games? According to McGonnigal (2011), it’s because it makes them feel ‘good’.

Of course, the specific source of this ‘good’ feeling is subjective and depends on the person playing the game as well as the game being played, but in video games, feeling good can come often from:

  • Taking on the identity of someone else and controlling their actions
  • Being involved in the telling of a story
  • Being put in a situation you would not normally be in (yet being safe)
  • Facing challenges and having to overcome them

Linguist James Gee (2012) defines a digital game as being:

“a play-based, well-designed, problem-solving experience meant to create motivation, engagement, and often creativity” and adds that “humans learn best from well-mentored, guided experience centered on interesting problems to solve, clear goals, copious feedback, and a relatively low cost for failure. This is what good games supply”.

It’s because of these inherent motivating, engaging and creative characteristics of video games – because they are serious, that they can be applied to teaching and learning.

Digital Game-based language Learning

As a teacher of English as foreign language, and an avid gamer, I have long been interested in using digital game-based learning (DGBL) with my students. For language learning, video games can be used in two ways:

  1. Language is provided by the game itself during game-play, which learners must interact with in order to make progress in it (eg.  reading/listening to information that gives back story or that informs you of immediate goals).
  2. The game promotes language use around game-play, through pre-, while- and post-playing tasks (eg. a pre-playing discussion based on the topic of the game; a post-playing focus on form task based on happenings in the game – eg. the third conditional : “If she hadn’t rung the bell, she wouldn’t have …”).

Modern theories of second language acquisition (SLA) state that language is learned by using it – more specifically, by making mistakes, noticing them (yours and others’), making the necessary changes to correct them and then using the language successfully without errors. For DGBL, the most complete source of input and output needed for SLA can be found in collaborative online games where a strong speaking and listening component exists alongside the need to read and write. However, it may be difficult to implement social-based online games in the classroom due to the absence of short, contained tasks, in addition to the often high technological requirements and experience necessary to play them. It is this last point – experience (or lack thereof) which keeps many teachers from experimenting with DGBL in the classroom – video games just look too complicated and many teachers feel completely out of their depth in their ability to play and relate to them in a classroom context. Granted, many modern games do have complex graphical user-interfaces and fiddly control mechanics which add a learning curve to the potential technical issues which may need to be resolved. However, not all video games look and behave the same.

When I first began teaching, I quickly noticed that most of my students did not have good reading habits. They did not read outside of the classroom to practise reading fluency or for the simple pleasure of reading (neither in English, nor in Portuguese). Furthermore, and perhaps linked to this, many of them were not very imaginative and had difficulties in thinking critically and laterally in order to solve logical problems – they were unable to ‘think outside the box’.

When I began to look into how to help them overcome these barriers, I realised that I knew of a genre of video game (one that I had been playing since I was 10 years old) which is:

  • Extremely interactive and more engaging to read than a standard text – thus, potentially a way for learners to improve their reading fluency
  • Usable in the classroom and at home – the perfect tool for autonomous reading practice, possibly leading to an interest in reading for pleasure
  • In line with modern principles of SLA, especially with regards to the ‘input/output hypotheses’ of Krashen (1985) and Swain (1995)
  • An example of authentic material with a meaningful goal as per the communicative language teaching approach (CLT)
  • A game where the totality of the game-play involves interacting directly with language, mostly through reading and writing
  • A game perfectly suited for additional speaking and listening activities and grammar-focused activities through the implementation of pre-, while- and post-playing tasks designed around the content of the game
  • Heavily dependent on problem-solving skills and a healthy imagination
  • Completely text-based with natural language input and output. No confusing graphical interface, no complicated control schemes: a perfect primer to DGBL for language teachers, as they are experts in the domain of  language, thus giving them a feeling of empowerment in a area where students often have the upper-hand.

This video game genre – ‘Interactive Fiction’ (first called ‘text adventures’), could, in my view, be used very effectively for digital game-based (language) learning. And it was – and continues to be effectively used, with all my students.

What is Interactive Fiction?

interactive fictionInteractive Fiction (IF), once famously quoted as being “a narrative at war with a crossword”, is a form of electronic literature, but also a digital game. It is a narrative – one that is shaped by the player as she explores and interacts with the game-world, and it is a series of logical puzzles within this world, which must be overcome in order for the narrative to advance. The narrative will only reveal itself with interaction from the player and unlike a traditional book, the narrative is not linear, but is brought to life and forks in whichever way the player decides to explore the game-world. As such, IF is a unique form of non-linear participatory story-telling.

IF differs from other types of participatory storytelling such as Choose Your Adventure books and Hypertext fiction (which are often erroneously labeled as ‘Interactive Fiction’) due to having the following characteristics (Montfort, 2003):

  • it is a text accepting and text generating computer program, and thus can only be played on a digital device. Additionally, it understands natural language (to an extent) and replies to this input in a meaningful way
  • it is a simulated world, which can be explored and interacted with and the player’s actions has an immediate effect on that world
  • it is a potential narrative which is co-created by the reader, and her actions and choices will create a slightly (or sometimes completely) different narrative each time it is played through
  • it is a game, meaning that it  is played voluntarily, has a specific goal, and rules which must be followed.

IF, is at its best, both a rewarding reading experience and a challenging game.

The IF game interface typically looks like this:

Bronze by Emily Short (2006)

Bronze by Emily Short (2006)

At the very top of the screen, the ‘Status Line’ traditionally presents information such as the current location of the protagonist of the story (ie. you) and game-specific information such as a score, move or time counter.
In this case, Emily Short’s fractured fairytale masterpiece ‘Bronze‘ further aids the player by not only providing a mini-map of possible exits fromt the current location (The Entrance Hall, in this case), but it also indicates which rooms have yet to be visited for the first time. Unfortunately, not all IF games are as user-friendly as Emily’s games and the manual mapping of the landscape is often necessary to successfully play geographically complex games.
Below the Status line is where the narrative comes alive. The name of the current location is followed by it’s description, what can seen of note within it, and any possible exits. Exploring these locations and interacting with the objects and people found in them is what creates the narrative – usually told in the second person of the present simple so as to create a stronger bond between the author and the reader and to create the illusion that you, as the protagonist, are actually there in the story, and you are there right now.
The > symbol is the ‘command prompt’ – it indicates that the game is waiting for input from the player. Most IF games will not produce further text unless the player gives the game a command. A typical IF exchange might look something like this:

>GO SOUTH
On the table in front of you is a silver bell. From where you stand  you can see that there is something engraved on its side.
> TAKE BELL
You take the bell. It is much heavier than you imagined it would be.
>INVENTORY
You are carrying a silver bell.
> EXAMINE BELL
The engraved writing is in a language you do not know. Elvish, maybe.
>DECIPHER THE ELVISH ENGRAVING
Sorry, I don’t what that means.
>READ WRITTING
Sorry, I don’t know what ‘writting’ is.
>READ WRITING
You can’t seem to pronounce any of the words. Maybe someone can translate it for you.
>RING BELL
The bell starts ringing in your hand until it shakes so violently, you let it drop. The noise subsides upon impact with the floor and the bell becomes still.
>PICK UP BELL
The bell has become so heavy you cannot lift it from the floor!
>RING BELL
You are not carrying the bell.

As can be seen in the exchanges above, the player’s input meaningfully affects the state of the game-world. Player input which is understood and makes sense within the context of the story/game-world produces new text, which becomes part of the story. An error message is produced if the game does not understand a command due to a spelling (as was the case with WRITTING), syntax or vocabulary related error, or simply because the action is not possible or irrelevant to the story. While modern IF games are able to understand many common verbs and their synonyms, they can’t understand EVERY word the player types (as was the case with DECIPHER). Paraphrasing is therefore, an essential skill in being able communicate effectively in IF. A list of many common verbs and IF-specific commands can be found on the IF For Beginners cheat sheet:

IF for Beginners by Plotkin and Albaugh (2010)

IF for Beginners Cheat-Sheet

Conclusion (for now…)

Interactive Fiction, being a narrative which is co-constructed by the reader, but also as a challenging game, can potentially provide a very motivating and engaging way to practise language skills. The text-based nature of IF and the need to carefully explore the game-world and solve logical puzzles by giving the game commands in natural language, requires deep interaction with the text, going far beyond what is needed when reading traditional static texts. The next post in this series will look more closely at puzzles in IF and at the linguistic and cognitive interactions involved in solving them.

The IF game mentioned in this post – ‘Bronze‘, is beautifully written and a marvel of IF coding. It implements many user-friendly commands so as to make IF more appealing for first-time players. However, it is also extremely puzzle-based, which may leave many newcomers to IF scratching their heads as how to progress quite early on in the story. Having said that, it also boasts an incredible hint-system for when you do get stuck. Nonetheless, it is not a game I would recommend for use with language learners, at least at first. I have showcased it here because it exemplifies how literary and how intelligent IF can be.

If  you want to try playing IF right now (and who can blame you?), I recommend starting with 9:05 by Adam Cadre. It’s very short and entertaining and implements only basic object-manipulation puzzles. Click on ‘Play Online‘ for now (you can try using a software IF interpreter and game file later), but be sure to print out the IF for Beginners cheat sheet first!

>PLAY INTERACTIVE FICTON

A new world for you – and your students, has just been discovered…

Author Bio

Joe Pereira teaches English as a foreign language in Porto, Portugal. He specialises in digital game-based learning with a specific focus on Interactive Fiction (text adventures). To learn more about him, visit his blog: IF Only: Interactive Fiction and Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

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