Interactive Fiction for Reading, Writing, and Grammar

Hello and welcome to another edition of the TESOL Games and Learning blog! Many of us continue with remote learning, and keeping students engaged from the other side of a webcam has become a consistent challenge. In this month’s post, we’ll explore text-based games, sometimes referred to as interactive fiction, and how we can use them as the foundation for engaging reading, writing, and grammar activities.

Text-based games are similar to the old choose-your-own-adventure books. Players are presented with a short, descriptive paragraph and then tasked with making a choice to determine how the story progresses. What is great about these games is the player controls them through text-based commands. These commands can be simple noun/verb combinations, such as “open door” to fully structured sentences (“open the door with the gold key”), which provide students opportunity to focus on forms.

Because each choice players make alters the outcome of the game, each player will end with a different experience. This provides students a rich opportunity to share their in-game experiences with the class via verbal or written reports of their gameplay.
Following are just a few games to get started in the world of text-based games.

Zork

Where better to start with text-based games than one of the earliest created? Originally released in 1980, Zork established a standard for text-based games with a robust story centered on the quest for riches in an underground empire. What makes Zork great for the language classroom is that it moves beyond the simple noun/verb commands typical of text-based adventures and instead allows for users to input basic sentences.

In Zork, students can use grid paper to map the game as they explore—a task that requires them to translate the written text of the game into a visual image.   For more on using Zork, check out the lesson plan at the end of this post.

Seedship

Seedship is a sci-fi story about an artificial intelligence–controlled ship ferrying the last of humanity toward a new home among the stars. The game has a simple mechanic: The ship arrives at a planet and the player must decide to establish a colony or keep moving through the vastness of space. Each time the player chooses to move on, they risk the dangers of deep space and possibly incurring damage to the ship.

Seedship repeats much of its vocabulary, making it accessible to intermediate-level learners who can journal their trip through space, documenting the plants they encounter to share with the class. Other ways to incorporate the game into class could be by having the students write stories about the colonies and the new home humanity now inhabits. For a speaking exercise, students could be placed into groups and must debate and decide as a committee whether to colonize a plant or continue to explore the vastness of interstellar space.

Device 6

Device 6 is a clever text-based adventure that creates the map of the game through the text of the game itself. The game centers on a player-character named Ana who must solve a series of puzzles to escape an island. The language and underlying story may be a bit complex for students at anything less than an advanced level, but its innovative structure and novel gameplay is sure to engage.

Device 6 might best be played in small groups where students can work together to solve the puzzles and document their journey through the game. When all the groups are finished, they can then present to the class how they navigated their way across the mysterious island.

Façade

Façade is an interesting piece of interactive fiction created in 2005. It revolves around a simple premise of the player-character arriving at the apartment of their friends Trip and Grace, who have just ended an argument. From here, the player can decide their level of involvement into the altercation and whether the couple resolve their issues or part ways.

What is interesting about Façade is the sophisticated artificial intelligence system the game had upon its release. The player can input complex sentences that the game is able to parse and respond to with a fair level of naturalness. As a result, it can be an interesting sentence-writing activity for students as they sort out the drama of Trip and Grace’s relationship.

Syrian Journey

Created by the BBC, Syrian Journey explores the experiences and harsh realities of Syrian refugees as they struggle to reach Europe. In this interactive experience, the players are tasked with making a series of choices each step of the way as they travel from country to country in search of safety.

The game was built using the lived experiences of Syrian refugees and is accompanied by text, media, and interviews that can be incorporated into your lesson plans. Note that though its inclusion into class should be done with the consideration of the experiences of your students, it showcases how interactive fiction can immerse players into the struggles of others.

Mission US

Mission US is a series of games centered around events of American history. Each game personalizes aspects of American history often glossed over in textbooks, such as the forced relocation of native peoples, the immigrant experience, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Each game comes with a teacher’s guide featuring activities, background materials, and primary sources.

Though not strictly interactive fiction, these games are well worth including as they are a great example of how narrative-focused games can incorporate real-world events. Students can play Mission US stories and then work to build their own historical narratives using the following tools.

Create Your Own Interactive Fiction

  • Twine: Twine is a simple web-based editor for creating your own interactive fiction. At its most basic, Twine allows the user to input text in a series of boxes and then link those boxes together to create a branching narrative. For more advanced users, Twine allows variables, conditional logic, images, CSS, and JavaScript to enhance the game.
  • Inklewriter: Inklewriter is another option for creating interactive fiction. Inklewriter’s web-based platform allows users to create stories with no programming experience necessary.
  • Lesson Plan: K–12 educator Steve Issacs has created a lesson plan that introduces students to interactive fiction and then challenges them to create their own. In his easy-to-follow lesson plan, you can find classroom-appropriate games and tools to get started in adapting this plan for your own class.

Have you used interactive games with your students? Are you planning to try? Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments box, below!

About Jeff Kuhn

Jeff Kuhn
Jeff Kuhn serves a split appointment at OHIO University, working for the Office of Instructional Innovation and in the Games Research and Immersive Design (Grid) Lab. He frequently delivers talks and keynote addresses on games and learning, game design, and the need for games literacy in educators. He is one of the founding moderators of the Electronic Village Online’s Minecraft MOOC, a community of practice for teachers learning to use Minecraft in the classroom. He has served on the TESOL CALL-IS steering committee, as the Gaming Special Interest Group chair for CALICO, and in the U.S. Department of State’s English Language Specialist program. His research interests include game-based learning, second language writing, and computer-assisted language learning.
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