Saturday, November 14, 2009

Interactive Fiction: The Missing Link

From Ooze: Creepy Nites
While absentmindedly browsing through the content of the "abandonware" website House of Games one night before going to bed, I discovered a game called Ooze: Creepy Nites. Expecting some moderately entertaining, slime-saturated action game from the late ‘80s, I said “what the heck” and clicked the link to a description and download. There was probably slime there somewhere, judging by the screenshots, but something in the review made me forget all about cheap horror thrills: The game, they said, is an “interactive fiction” title.

For some reason, before seeing the phrase “interactive fiction” on that web page, it had never occurred to me that the genre is brimming with education possibilities – especially in the English language arts field. It was exciting moment for me, even more so than if Ooze had been the forgettable Super Mario meets The Blob experience I had anticipated.

For those of us who are late to the party, interactive fiction is a genre of video games that presents information and gameplay textually. The idea is to immerse the player in the story in the same way a novel would. Older games of the genre have no graphics, only text. Newer titles like Ooze: Creepy Nites utilize some graphics, but the words are still the most important part of the game. The player interacts with the game by typing commands such as “go west,” “take credit card” or “use hamster in microwave,” depending on what’s in his or her inventory and what's available in the surroundings. Interactive fiction games require the player to carefully read pages and pages of text, to keep track of many small details, and to creatively solve problems.

The swanky contents of The Lurking Horror game box
Games like Zork, Beyond the Titanic, The Lurking Horror and almost every other title ever made by the company Infocom belong in the interactive fiction category. I’ve always called games like these as “text-based adventures,” but that’s probably because I’m a console player at heart and these kinds of games are mainly PC/MAC affairs. I guess that before reading that Ooze: Creepy Nites review, I was sort of out of the interactive fiction loop.

You might be thinking: "Okay, so you play the games by reading text. Big deal."

But here’s where it gets really exciting for educators: According to Nick Manfort and Paulo Urbano, authors of an extensive article on interactive fiction called “A Quarta Era da Ficção Interactiva” originally printed the Portuguese magazine Nada about three years ago, interactive fiction works can be understood both as literary narratives and as video games. That’s a powerful assertion: Perhaps interactive fiction is the truest and most practical melding of education and video games to date.

I think one of the reasons that some students find the standard English fare boring is because they’ve grown up in an interactive world and the ELA cannon is about as linear as possible. In a era where entertainment comes in the form of minute-long YouTube videos and the user is basically in control of every second of his or her leisure time, the methodical pace of classic works like Dickens’ Great Expectations and Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is putting off our students. Interactive fiction games might be just the thing to reverse situations like this.

I’m not suggesting that we dumb down the classics by using interactive fiction versions to further fracture the attention spans of today’s youth; it’s quite the opposite, actually. By tapping into their need for stimulation by putting them in control of interactive fiction games, our students might be motivated to read the often sizable blocks of text in between player actions. As they get used to reading and comprehending – having been reintroduced to an ancient art though a modern medium – they’ll perhaps be more willing and capable to tackle the English cannon and reading in general.

Taking it one step further by having our students create their own interactive fiction games or websites is another wonderful possibility. Not only would the students have to keep track of plot elements, grammar, word usage and a host of other critical writing techniques, they would also have to learn programming techniques and game design mechanics. By combining the old with the new, teachers might be able to tap into a third set of emerging skills that could help define the next generation of authors.

You know, I still haven’t download Ooze: Creepy Nites, due in small part to the game’s atrocious spelling of the word “nights,” but mostly because my mind has been buzzing with the possibilities of interactive fiction in the classroom. I’m sure the game won’t be that great given the silly graphics and storyline, but it just might be the missing link between gaming and education that I’ve been searching for.

Yeah, I just ended a sentence with a preposition. I’m so exited, I don’t even care.

1 comment:

  1. You have trumped me, guess what we are going to play with soon. You have Zork linked which is a great introduction. I have an additional level in mind, there are authoring tools, so you can have people learning from both sides.
    is one tool I'm very interested in getting people to use.