Merging creative writing and coding to create interactive stories.
‘Interactive fiction’ has been around for years. Reminiscing recently about my early computer use I recalled how I enjoyed playing and creating what used to be called ‘adventure games’ on the Spectrum. This prompted me to consider whether I could find a place for this genre in the classroom.
Delving a bit deeper (otherwise known as ‘googling’) it turns out that other teachers have followed similar thought processes. For instance, a recent case study of 9 and 10 year olds found that creating an interactive game helped to ‘improve literary and social skills amongst the students’. Particularly inspired by this post by Jason Sellers, who had taught using interactive fiction with an (albeit slightly older) class of children, I decided to introduce my class to an interactive game, initially as a reading activity, with the intention of getting them to create their own interactive fiction.
Reading / Playing Interactive Fiction
During ‘independent reading time’ one afternoon last week, I shared a link to a game called ‘Mythical Forest’ by Cooper McHatton. The children’s reactions were interesting. Some children were initially disappointed by the lack of visual representations of scenes (Playfic hosted games are text only) while others were clearly enthralled by the game and the problem solving process involved in playing and communicating with game, in order to navigate through the story.
Reviewing the activity at the end of the lesson, a number of children stated that they had been frustrated by the method of controlling the game. Some found it hard to understand exactly what instructions the game would and wouldn’t understand – and a few were annoyed that they could not progress as the computer ‘didn’t get what they meant’. This was the children’s first encounter with the world of interactive fiction and the learning curve was too steep for some. What was clear, however, was that many children liked the idea of being able to ‘win’ a story, rather than simply reading through it in a linear way.
Having initially intended to extend this activity to get the children to author their own game (note how I’ve started to use the words ‘game’ and ‘story’ interchangeably now) I felt that this objective was maybe a bit ambitious using Playfic – at least at this point.
With a little more investigation I soon found Twine – an ‘authoring system’ for creating interactive fiction that incorporated more visual elements than the ‘Inform7’ language that powered Playfic, yet still allowed for the use of coding. A key different was that Twine stories use hyperlinks rather than text input, which I felt was an effective way of bypassing the text input system that some children found problematic.
Writing Interactive Fiction
This morning, as an activity as part of World Book Day, the children started the process of creating their own interactive fiction games using Twine. They began by watching a video of author Marcus Sedgwick from the World Book Day website that gives tips for writing effective descriptive scenes and characters. The stimulus for their stories was the idea of a character (the reader, or player) waking up in an unknown location with amnesia. They were given a simple writing frame with three boxes to help structure their stories, written in the second person. The first box was for the story’s first location. This could be anywhere they liked – indoors or outdoors – but I specified that it needed to have two possible exits. Boxes two and three were for the locations that could be reached through these exits.
Having sketched out their initial ideas I then showed the children what a Twine story looked like, using a quick introduction that I had come up with. Twine stories take the form of a small and easily sharable html file that can be viewed through a browser.
There’s a good introductory guide to using Twine here so I won’t go into detail here, suffice to say that all of the children quickly began to compile their stories in the visual browser, adding links between their locations with ease.
As this was the first lesson and time was short, I only introduced the idea of using slightly more advanced coding (beyond the basics of creating links) to a couple of individual children. This example specifies that once the player has picked up an item (the gadget) then the page will no longer show the item as being present in the room. (This example uses an if / else command and setting a variable called $gotgadget.)
Reflections and next steps
Using interactive fiction provided an effective way of creating interesting texts, combining traditional literacy and technology. All children were motivated throughout the session and the activity catered for children of a range of abilities – with extension provided through the complexity of the stories that the children created, along with ability to merge coding with creative writing.
I plan to continue helping the children to create their stories. There’s certainly plenty of scope for developing these texts beyond the initial stages, providing the children with another outlet for their descriptive writing that also involves problem solving and – significantly – the motivating concept of ‘winning’.