Digital Game-Based Language Learning with Interactive Fiction (PART 2)
The first post in this series explored how digital games, and how text-based Interactive Fiction in particular, might offer language learners a potentially more engaging and interactive learning experience. Being both a digital game and a form of electronic literature, it encompasses the unique learning and cognitive affordances of both mediums, allowing for deeper interaction with narrative text and more authentic and meaningful reading/writing skills practice . You might even consider IF to be the ultimate ‘gamification’ of reading and literature. Before looking at the specific ways in which IF can be beneficial for language learners, we should first discuss where to get it, and how to choose an appropriate game for use with learners.
The following text has been adapted from posts on IF Only: Interactive Fiction and Teaching English as a Foreign Language.
Where to find Interactive Fiction games (and yes, most of them are free!)
- The Interactive Fiction Database – http://ifdb.tads.org/
The IFDB is my preferred platform for finding IF games and learning more about them. The layout is attractive and very clear. Story files and information on games can be found by using a search engine (by game name, author or tags). The best aspect of the IFDB is its community-based wiki-like interface, where users can leave comments about games and create lists or polls of games based on topics, such as: Plot-Heavy IF; Active Non-Player Characters; Best Short Games; and First and Third-person narratives. These lists and polls make finding a game that fits specific criteria very easy and is a great way to discover new games to play. Users of the IFDB can also ask the community for recommendations or help in finding specific games or information about them. Each page devoted to a single IF game will contain downloads for various story files, any existing documentation (including walkthroughs) and links to play online. Additional links to reviews of the game and recommendations for related games can also be found. All in all, it’s an amazing resource backed by a fantastic community.
Running an IF game
IF can be either be played by loading a story file into a piece of software called an ‘Interpreter’, or played by accessing the game online in a web-browser at http://parchment.toolness.com/ or http://iplayif.com/ (links to these online versions are also accesible via the individual game pages on the IFDB). Being able to play IF in a web-browser offers a very quick way of setting up multiple computers to run a game and eschews the need to download and install an interpreter (possibly requiring admin rights) and a story file, but necessarily has the drawback of requiring an Internet connection. A further disadvantage is that the player is unable change the presentation of the screen and is only allowed 1 save-game slot (a bookmark function which allows the reader to go back to a previous game state at any time). For the most complete reading experience, I would recommend playing IF using a story file (downloaded from the IFDB) and an interpreter. An IF story file is a very small document, usually ending in a a .z5, .zblorb or .gblorb extension. There are many interpreters which can play these files available for pretty much every digital operating system. For the most common operating systems, I recommend the following:
- Mac OS X : Zoom or Gargoyle
- Windows: Gargoyle
- Linux: Zoom or Gargoyle
- iOS (iPhone and iPod Touch and iPad): Frotz (free on iTunes) – currently my favourite way to play IF
- Android: Twisty
Once you’ve installed your chosen interpreter, you’re ready to load up your game file. This is done through the traditional File – Menu – Open dialog. The story will open in a window, and you’re ready to play!
Choosing an IF game to use with students
Choosing the right IF game to use in a lesson for the first time is a very important decision – the students’ first impression can make or break the idea of using IF as a pleasurable and useful learning tool in and outside of the classroom. One of the main reasons I use IF with my students is to promote its use as an autonomous tool for practicing reading fluency. Most of my students do not read books in English at home (and many not even in their native tongue), so if by using IF in a lesson I can get 1 student interested enough to try it at home afterwards, then I have succeeded in my mission (and this is usually the case). However, in order to instill this sense of wonder in students (remember, this is very likely the first time many of them have ever seen anything like IF), then we have to tailor their first IF experience to be fun and memorable – while at the same time fitting in with the context of the group, setting and possibly even the course syllabus. If we can captivate them with the first game they play, chances are they will want to try another – on their own or as part of a lesson. Like using any other kind of media with learners, it is very difficult to match the tastes of everybody in the class. Every student and every class is different and even the day of the week or the time of the class can have an impact on how students will react to an activity. When considering IF games to use with learners (and even to play yourself), I suggest thinking about the following 10 points:
- 1. Genre/theme – Modern IF has been created in many literary genres, from Lovecraftian horror and futuristic spy thrillers to real-world drama involving the death of a loved one, writing a dissertation or even conversing with a statue. I have found that games somewhat grounded in reality are better to introduce IF game-play mechanics. Because students will likely have the schemata of how to act in common situations and are familiar with most real-world objects and how they may be used, they will have an easier time solving puzzles and progressing in the game. I would suggest using a game with a familiar theme with students the first time around, and then move on to a more fantastical setting afterwards, so they get a idea of the flexibility of IF and how it caters to different tastes.
- 2. Plot – The vast majority of early text adventures had very little plot to speak of besides collecting a certain number of treasures or escaping from one’s current location. Modern IF can have plots as complex as a Christopher Nolan movie, with surprises around every corner. Based on experience, I would suggest using a game with a specific (supposed) goal – for example, getting to work or finding a lost pig. Of course, being examples of good literature, the twists and turns the story will take before allowing the player to reach that goal are what make it a worthy reading/playing experience.
- 3. Length – Much of the pre-modern era IF could take weeks, months and even years to complete because of a badly implemented parser or fiendishly difficult puzzles and the lack of easily accessible hints or walkthroughs. There are still difficult and geographically vast IF games created today, but most of what is released is promoted through the various annual IF competitions, which require that submissions be short enough to be finished in 2 hours. Being able to do this, may of course depend on the player’s prior familiarity with IF and puzzle-solving ability. However, thanks to the Internet and numerous IF communities, a hint or walkthrough is never out of reach. Many games have been written which can be played in under 30 minutes or 1 hour. I strongly recommend introducing IF with a game which can be completed in the time available in a given lesson (for ex, a 45 minute computer room slot). If it proves a success, then longer games can be attempted over a series of lessons (using the SAVE command, which functions as a bookmark), or integrate into homework assignments.
- 4. Geographical Size – In IF, locations are called ‘rooms’, even if the ‘room’ represents an outdoor space such as a garden or the interior of a vehicle. The rooms in IF are what constitute the game world and movement within these rooms is what immerses the player in the narrative by giving her a sense of spatial orientation. Older text adventures would boast hundreds of rooms to explore as a selling point (and many of these were often mazes – now considered to be taboo in good IF). This of course led to the need for ‘mapping’- drawing little boxes to represent locations and listing the object found within them and all possible exits. Mapping is still an important skill to have when playing IF and can certainly add to the enjoyment when playing certain geographically complex games. These days, most writers prefer having a good story and innovative puzzles compared to numerous rooms which serve no purpose but to confuse the player. This is evidenced by the numerous single-room games that have been created in the modern era of IF. However, I would not recommend using a 1-room game to introduce IF with students. Firstly, because we want to introduce IF as a simulated WORLD, not a single simulated space. Students might get the wrong impression that all IF takes place in a single location. Secondly, my own students have shown a preference for multi-room stories because of the sense of movement and exploration they entail. This is in line with the theory of spatial immersion mentioned earlier. Commanding the player-character in Bronze to move West into The Great Dining Hall is like the reader herself moving there as well and the flooding memories of Beauty, likewise become the memories of the reader. Until students become experienced with how to communicate with IF and what is expected of them, I would advise not using a multiple-location game that is too vast or too confusing (ie. with many UPs and DOWNs, and NEs and SWs, for ex.). Adding the need to map the game as they play while they are still grappling with basic IF mechanics may lead to cognitive overload – although this may be effectively incorporated into a pair/group work scenario.
- 5. Puzzle or no puzzle – IF games are often categorized as being ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’, related to the level of difficulty and importance given to puzzles in the game. Text adventures, by definition, are narratives with logical puzzles which need to solved in order for the story to progress. Indeed, the earliest text adventures were basically a series of puzzles with the barest of narrative to string them together. One of the innovations of modern IF was for the puzzle aspect to take a back-seat to the storytelling. This has led to the creation of ‘puzzle-less’ games where the player still interacts with the story (albeit, in a perhaps less-immersive manner). With regards to puzzles, for an introductory IF game, because it is important to give learners a general idea of what IF is, I would recommend a game WITH puzzles – but which are not too difficult, nor numerous in quantity. Puzzle-less games, although satisfying on a literary level, are usually not as well-received by students because of the large quantity of uninterrupted text and because reduced input removes the interactive element of IF, making it solely a reading experience and not a reading/playing experience. It is also important that you, as the teacher, know how to solve the puzzles yourself so that you can guide students towards a solution, if needed. In IF, getting stuck at a puzzle can lead to frustration and without some support, this can lead to giving up. Some learners like problem solving and are good at it, and others don’t. Again, like choosing a genre, predicting how well students will be able to solve a game’s puzzles is not easy.
- 6. Quality of parser – A game that understands a wide range of input and which provides more varied responses will be more pleasurable to play and able to captivate players for a longer time (Lost Pig may well be the prime example of this). In general, modern IF games will have better implemented parsers than older games, especially pre-Infocom and 2-word parser games, which should mostly be avoided.
- 7. Humour – Many games have humorous text (especially in responses) or involve humorous situations. Introducing an IF game with with a humorous slant might make it a more enjoyable and memorable experience (again, Lost Pig excels in this).
- 8. Hint system – As you, the teacher, will be there to offer the learners support, a built-in hint system, available in many of the better-quality modern IF games is not strictly necessary. Of course, the system can also be abused, but if told that their enjoyment of the game will suffer from using hints, most students will persevere until they are really stuck. However, games with hint systems are ideal for autonomous learning scenarios. Bronze and Lost Pig have excellent hint systems.
- 9. Replay value – One of the unique aspects of IF is the ability to go back to a point in the game and make different choices and take different paths. Despite this, most games still have only one true ending which players will be guided to by overcoming the various obstacles set in their way. However, some IF games require multiple playings in order to reach various different endings or to see a more complete picture of the narrative (9:05 is a good example of this).
- 10. Language difficulty – Because the whole reason we are talking about IF is to use it for language learning, consideration needs to be given to the difficulty of the language presented in the game. Almost all IF games are examples of authentic texts – they haven’t been scripted for language learners. There are a few works of IF which were created specifically for language learning, but as with any ‘educational’ game, something gets lost while making them educational and many of the ‘fun’ elements of the game are no longer present. Playing IF entails focusing on the process (using top-down reading strategies) , not the product (using bottom-up reading strategies). Fluency and comprehension are stressed above grammatical analysis. By pre-teaching the vocabulary you deem to be more difficult, learners will be better prepared to interact with the text and students will naturally attempt to infer meaning of further unfamiliar words from context. It is of course, necessary to go through a game yourself first and decide if the content and language is appropriate and at a level where your learners, with support, will be able to understand the text.
This last point is very important: play through the game beforehand so you know what vocabulary to pre-teach, the solution to puzzles (in order to give gentle nudges in the right direction when necessary) and whether there may be certain paths worth taking in order to produce interesting narrative results. To help you with this, hints, maps and walkthroughs are for the most part, readily available on Internet.
My recommended game as an introduction to IF ?
The phone rings. Oh, no — how long have you been asleep? Sure, it was a tough night, but — This is bad. This is very bad.
The phone rings.
Based on the guidelines above, 9:05 is the perfect introduction to IF for the following reasons:
1. Genre/theme – the game is real-world based and the world model is easily assimilated by newcomers. It starts off with a basic everyday problem.
2. Plot – having one of the best twist endings in IF, the plot seems clear – to get to work ASAP!
3. Length – this is a very short game- it can be completed in 20 minutes, leaving time for further replays.
4. Geographical size – although it takes place in 2 separate locations, with a car-drive in between, the number of rooms is very small and mapping is unnecessary.
5. Puzzle or puzzle-less – the only ‘puzzles’ involve the simple manipulation of every-day objects.
6. Quality of parser – the parser, while not a poor one, is the weakest element of the game (still not too bad, considering it was written in 4 days).
7. Humour – an excellent example of dark humor, only to be discovered at the end.
8. Hint system – there is no hint system, but then again it is not necessary as there are no difficult puzzles.
9. Replay value – there is immense replay value as there are 3 different endings (a ‘good’ one and 2 ‘bad’ ones) and students should be encouraged to go back and find evidence to corroborate the bad ending.
10- Language difficulty – the level of language is not too difficult and by pre-teaching 20-25 words, it can be easily completed by upper-intermediate students. 9:05 is an award-winning work of IF and rightly so – it deftly places you in the story and then yanks the floor out from under you! Devised as an experimental piece of IF, it plays on standard IF tropes and demands replay in order to prove the narrator wrong. I always discuss the ending(s) with my students afterwards and mention how this type of story would be impossible to do in a traditional book. It is usually an enormous hit with students and they remember the ending long after playing it. As I don’t want to give anything away, you will really need to play through it first in order to decide if the content is suitable for your learners – it might not be for everyone, but it is a MUST-play for anybody curious about IF.
You know where to find the best IF and what to look for in game to be used with students. What now?
> GO DOWN RABBIT HOLE
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.