At the beginning of Begscape, a simple text-based game designed to build empathy, your first and only choice is simple: Wander.
Each town you visit has its own architecture and citizens, most of whom resent your presence though a few may toss a coin into your bowl. If you can’t beg enough money to pay for food and shelter you slowly wither away and die in the streets.
Begscape is an example of a stripped-down, text-based game of interactive fiction— essentially the computer version of “choose-your-own-adventure” books. Some educators believe they’re just as valuable in their classrooms as any bright and bouncy ed app for two reasons: they’re easy for teachers to add to their classrooms and they can teach basic coding principles along with social and emotional learning skills.
During last week’s Games in Education symposium in Albany, N.Y., two New Jersey teachers argued games that essentially serve as digital books can compete with modern apps for kids’ attention.
“I don’t think they’re craving flashing lights and buttons,” said Matthew Farber, a middle school teacher and author of “Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game Based Learning.” He argues a good game can be boiled down to a series of interesting player choices.
“The motivation should not be points, badges and leaderboards,” he said, “it should be the series of meaningful choices. Just like casual and indie games on mobile devices don’t have to have amazing graphics for kids to enjoy them. Interactive fiction (IF), I’ve discovered, is everywhere. It’s a little bit slower, but the choices are very meaningful. That’s why IF has potential, and that’s why it’s still around as a genre. It’s really the intrinsic motivation to discover what’s around the next corner that drives these stories.”
Farber said many of his students are driven by IF’s ability to stimulate their imaginations. He said some students respond well to creating text-based games as assignments rather than regular homework. He and GlassLab Product Lead Erin Hoffman designed a piece of IF centered in Boston during the American revolution. In his experience, an app doesn’t automatically trump how a good old-fashioned story can lure students willing to immerse themselves within its pages. Of course, good graphics don’t hurt, especially when they’re paired with an interesting story, but interactive fiction programs like Twine and inklewriter, which Farber helped pilot in his middle school class, are relatively easy for students and teachers to jump into.
Games made with these programs can have social impact, like The New York Times Magazine noticed late last year when a piece of interactive fiction called Depression Quest kicked off what’s popularly known as the #GamerGate feud, in part, because of its focus on generating empathy for people with depression.
Interactive fiction via hard copy books may have enjoyed its heyday in the 70s and 80s, but the form and its ability to blend creativity with player choice is still going strong in certain circles.
“There’s kind of a cult following for IF,” the other presenter during last week’s symposium, Stephen Isaacs, said. “It’s a great opportunity. Kids end up writing a lot more when they’re writing in this format because the multiple choices and endings kind of force that but in a way that kids are more excited to do.”
Isaacs, who’s taught video game design and development at William Annin Middle School for 17 years, said he and Farber are getting “extremely favorable” feedback from educators interested in implementing some kind of game-based learning into their classroom, but aren’t comfortable with video games in general. “A lot of teachers who have not used games in the classroom are concerned about barriers, and the beautiful thing about IF is you can easily stay aligned with curriculum in any content area. It’s a real ‘ah-ha!’ moment for those people: where they can meet with games in a safe space.”
A study released last month showed two-thirds of teachers don’t use or have access to tablets in the classroom.
“As wonderful as Chromebooks are, they’re pretty limiting,” Isaacs said, “but a web-based program like Twine reduces another barrier potentially. Some game software require the best computers in the building by far to be able to run them and have kids develop in that environment.”
Isaacs, who’s taught an array of technology courses, said IF is flexible, but lends itself especially well to history, english or other language arts classes.
Isaacs admitted that not all students respond to IF and educational games like Minecraft attract a much broader range of students, but the accessibility of IF and the attraction to more writing based classes give some teachers more options.
“I have [students] try text-based adventures,” Isaacs said, “and some of them are like, ‘Why would I want to play this? There’s no shooting, no graphics.’ But other kids see the beauty that I saw. They can’t wait to unveil the next bit of text because it’s driving the story and the game. There’s something very special about that.”
Minecraft’s creators seem to agree. A story mode version launched in July, featuring a series of episodes that take place in the Minecraft universe, though it isn’t necessarily meant for the classroom like MinecraftEdu.
Before making their own games, students play a text-based game first to get an idea how they work and why.
Once they start designing their own game, Isaacs, who’s also taught graphic arts, web design and computer programming in children’s summer camps throughout the years, encourages his students to get creative and grades their games on structure, which he hopes frees them to try out different ideas.
“The content of the story I’m not so concerned with, but it should have engaging elements and paths that make their game replayable. But I give them the liberty to make their game that taps into their interests.”
Then they reflect on why it works, play each other’s games, provide feedback and give tips. Once they’re finished, both Farber and Isaacs publish their students’ games so they can be played anywhere.
Isaacs has used other storytelling and game design software like Gamestar Mechanic in his 7th grade class, but the emphasized narrative of IF “has a totally different element that is unique.”
According to Farber, the key is to contextualize the experience for students and explain the important role player agency and choice plays in all types of games.
“Kid’s like authoring and sharing their stories,” said Farber, who points to THIRTEEN’s award-winning Mission US series as an example of how to use interactive fiction in a history game, where personalized storylines and meaningful choices take the lead while real world events occur in the background. “Make sure that there are meaningful choices, and not get bogged down in content delivery.”