Ever since I first encountered the Inform7 interactive fiction engine at GLS7 last year, it’s been lurking in the back of my mind, looking for a way into the classroom. The idea of introducing my students to the text-based adventures that I loved as a kid excited me, but actually working it into my curriculum had to take a back seat to my revamped grading system, an entirely new computer technology course, and too many other focus-stealing priorities to list. I was about to give up on the idea until next year when Read Across America rolled in bringing both inspiration and opportunity.
My school has a fantastic community of readers, and as a staff we have dedicated Read Across America (March 2) to reading across all subjects. Every year I eagerly anticipate the day when students, dressed in their comfy cozies, carry around stacks of their favorite books. Teachers from every content area model a love of reading. Some classes allow students to read entirely independently, while others focus on content-specific reading, or readers theatre, or other literacy focused activities. All noble pursuits, but I needed something a bit different for my tech kiddos. Given that this was the first year for my computer tech class, I wanted something that the students would remember, something that would help them with their screen reading skills, but also something that would introduce them to kind of reading they likely hadn’t experienced. The time for Interactive Fiction had come! I was ecstatic, dreaming of a maze of twisty little passages all alike, but I just wasn’t sure if my students, the generation of realistic 3D graphics and visually astounding video games, would engage with a purely text-based game.
In fact, they LOVED it.
After a brief introduction to the genre and a basic list of key actions (N/S/E/W, Examine, Take, Ask, etc) I let the kids dive into Lost Pig, a short yet challenging IF game written in Inform. What followed was a period full of frustration and excitement, successes and failures, groans of agony and screams of elation.
I couldn’t believe how absolutely enamored my students were – eyes glued to their screens as they navigated dungeons, encountered trolls, and solved puzzles. As the challenges got harder, students scurried about the lab trying to bounce ideas off each other. They were playing a game, but it was a game without 3D graphics, or rumblepacks, or really anything beyond elaborately complex textual descriptions. They were defeating their enemies not with hyperrealistic weaponry, but with words and creativity. At the heart of it they were reading, writing, and thinking. And they were loving it.
In fact, they loved it so much that they begged me to teach them to program IF.
I haven’t gotten to the teaching portion yet, though I am pouring over the resources at Gaming the Past in preparation. I have, however, programmed my own game in Inform to get acquainted with the language. Not just a game, but an assessment tool as well, a quest that forces my students to apply their knowledge of computer hardware and networking to successfully escape in tact. It definitely needs some work and revision (comments/criticisms encouraged), but I hope you’ll try your hand at my first text-based game/assessment – Escaping the Gnome’s Cave.