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Students choose their own learning adventures with interactive fiction

By Sherry Jones
March 24, 2016
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Ever read a Choose Your Own Adventure book? Or played a text-based game on a Commodore 64 or IBM clone? If the answer is yes, then you have experienced an interactive fiction (IF).

Interactive fiction reads like a story but plays like a game, with branching narratives that lead the reader to experience different story outcomes and experiences depending on the choices they make. In fact, the same narrative structure is common in the design of interactive books, films, sites and games. Numerous popular game titles offer branching narratives to provide multiple plots and alternate endings, such as:

  • Puzzle games like Portal and Minecraft.
  • Episodic games like Life is Strange and The Longest Journey.
  • Action role-playing games like Witcher.
  • Experiential games like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and Her Story.

As a literary genre, interactive fiction challenges the traditional notion of what a narrative can and should be. While traditional texts limit readers to consume a story in a specific order determined by the narrative structure, IF gives readers some agency to “co-author” the narrative by choosing the path of the narrative progression.

But IF is not just for language arts classes. Imagine how much more engaged social studies students would be if they could learn about a concept or historic event in the context of an interactive learning experience instead of a traditional textbook.

Beyond the engagement factor, having students consume interactive fiction works or create their own builds media literacy while addressing the ISTE Standards for Students for creativity and innovation as well as critical thinking, problem solving and decision making.

Read on to get the IF basics, along with tools, tips and resources that will help you start integrating IF into your lessons.

Using premade IF narratives

You can substitute an IF narrative or game for a static text in a literature, history or even science class, or you can offer IF as an enhancement to reading traditional texts for increased engagement and skill building. Since most IF works available for K-12 are text based and have minimal graphics, almost any student can access them with few connectivity or technology barriers. The majority of IF works are also free for anyone to play.

Your main role as the teacher is to find and evaluate IF stories and games for their relevance to your pedagogical goals. To get you started, here are a couple of our favorite free IF games with educational potential:

Inside the Japanese American Internment. This IF game serves as a great introduction to the real historic events surrounding the U.S. Supreme Court case of Fred Korematsu, who became a fugitive during World War II rather than face imprisonment at an internment camp. The game’s basic hypertext interface makes reading easy.

Gods Will Be Watching. Although this IF work’s graphics may seem basic, the story offers a sophisticated nonlinear narrative structure that makes students experience and consider the implications of every decision they make under pressure. Players face the challenge of surviving 40 days in the wilderness while the hypothetical world is about to end. The game can be used in a variety of disciplines, such as English language arts, civics, history or ethics.

To learn more about IF and find other works that fit your learning objectives for elementary or middle school students, peruse the list of works in the Interactive Fiction Database, which has the look and feel of Reddit or an older wiki. Community members can review and rate the IF games they’ve played. But make sure you review any games yourself, just as you would any content you bring into your classroom, to make sure they are indeed appropriate for your students and specific learning goals.

Creating their own IF games

If your students can write stories, then they can create IFs. Because these games are mostly text based, you can use them at any lexical level to add extra oomph to any type of writing lesson, including creative writing, argument writing, definition writing, cultural comparative writing and historical analysis. The genre is limited only by your creativity, course learning outcomes and time constraints.

In addition to exercising their creative, critical-thinking, problem-solving and decision-making muscles, IF creators build a number of narrative skills, including:

Narrative logic. The story/game must lead players along viable paths without repeating options.

Narrative consistency. Students must devise options and consequences that make sense within the overall story.

Narrative design. Students must form a concise and clear mental model of a fictional or nonfictional world.

Although professional narrative designers employ complex design methods and various programming languages to create IF works, you do not need to know complex, narrative design techniques to help your students become beginner IF creators.

Here are some basic, narrative design techniques for creating a framework for an IF work:

  • Determine an interesting theme as the starting point of a story, such as “30 minutes until the world ends,” “everything is opposite,” “something disappeared,” etc.
  • Brainstorm some possible events that can occur according to the selected theme.
  • Draw a sketch of the storyworld map with locations in which the events will take place. Then, draw sketches of the environment and objects that exist within specific locations.
  • Create a storyboard of events that will take place within and between the locations.
  • Create characters that will be involved in each event. (Beginners should limit characters to four or fewer for easier storytelling.)

Once students have developed a story with storyboard and sketches, it is time to give students the tools to create an IF work. Students can use free IF tools to further design narrative actions, dialogs, plot sequences, etc. Here are three IF tools recommended for ease of use:

Twine. This open source tool helps students create interactive stories that make use of conditional logic, images, CSS and JavaScript and publish in HTML without the need for coding skills.
Inklewriter. This online tool helps students keep their story branches organized as they write, and it allows the teacher to make accounts for the students. Stories can also be published to Kindle.
Interactive Story. This app is offers collaborative features for team writing.

Ready to kick the engagement up a notch? Once you and your students get some experience under your belts, you can enter students’ works in competitions, such as the Interactive Fiction Competition, which the IF community has been hosting for more than 20 years. Judging is crowd sourced, and anyone can be a judge if they are willing to play and rate five games.

Story is the basis for how people learn, and interactive fiction is one way to use storytelling to bring any content area to life for all grade levels. 

Sherry Jones is the game design and psychology subject matter expert for Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in Colorado and an instructor of philosophy, rhetoric and game studies. She is the co-founding facilitator of The Metagame Book Club of ISTE’s Games and Simulations Network.

Kae Novak is an instructional designer for student engagement and assessment at Front Range Community College in Colorado. She designed and taught the Colorado Community College System Games MOOC from 2012-14 and was principal investigator on the grant. She is currently the chair ISTE’s Games and Simulations Network and a member of the Mobile Learning Network Steering Committee.

Looking for resources with digital learning experiences aligned to the ISTE Standards? Check out resources that have earned the ISTE Seal of Alignment!