Home Educational Games & Gamification Interactive Fiction – a Fun Approach to Gamifying Learning

Interactive Fiction – a Fun Approach to Gamifying Learning


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Going Back to the Roots of Digital Gaming to Find an Unexpected Treasure for Teaching and Learning

Back around 1985 I was introduced to the Apple IIE while attending Mercy College. I had developed a good relationship with the teachers and administrators at the little branch campus I attended and worked at in Peekskill, NY. They actually allowed me to take one of the computers home one weekend. I spent much of that weekend playing a text adventure game, which I recently learned is also referred to as “interactive fiction”. I can still see the simple line drawings on little green screen.

Of course, this was over 30 years ago, which in “tech years” is what, hundreds of years? Flash forward to a couple weeks ago when I was attending a NERCOMP sponsored Faculty Innovation PD session at Fairfield University. I have to admit I was rather blown away when Michael Hilborn, Associate Director of Academic Platforms and Development at Harvard, presented a session on interactive fiction and bought me right back to 1985!

Hilborn expained that one aspect of interactive fiction is the text based adventure game, which can also be a fun and unique way to explore a written work. In this session he walked participants through some of an IF game he wrote based around the short Edgar Allen Poe piece, “The Cask of Amantillado”.

A Brief History of Interactive Fiction

Way back in the dim and distant past, as in 1976, Will Crowther wrote the first known interactive text adventure: Colossal Cave Adventure (aka ADVENT). Hilborn told us that Crowther wrote this game based on spelunking a cave to better connect with his kids after having gone through a divorce. The game experienced an interesting evolution as it was expanded on by others. Don Woods added Tolkien-esque elements as the game evolved. It later it landed at MIT and evolved into ‘Zork'. Colossal Cave Adventure is considered one of video gaming's most influential titles.

With the advent of improved computer graphics, text adventures were largely replaced by “graphical adventures”. TAs were later revived (Adventure Game Tool Kit, TADS, Inform). Hypertext Fiction came later as well (see tool Twine at twinery.org).

How do IF and similar games complement teaching and learning?

Hilborn offered many ways in which Interactive Fiction and similar games can lend themselves to the educational process, whether playing the games or if one chooses to try one's hand at developing a game.

  • Tech use: Student (or teachers) have to develop technology skills to play, and even more so, to create.
  • Collaboration and communication: Playing these games in a group setting requires and develops these skills.
  • Experimentation, risk taking: Navigating your way through these games requires taking chances and learning as you go.
  • Problem solving: This is the fundamental nature of the game.
  • Memory: You need to remember key things learned along the way.
  • Explore identities: The potential to play or interact with different characters is virtually unlimited.
  • Assessment: IF games can be used to assess student's understanding of events, timelines, characters, etc.

Where interactive fiction is used on higher education

These are some of the courses and learning constructs which lend themselves to the use of iinteractive fiction and similar adventure games:

  • Digital Literacy
  • Historical Narratives
  • Interactive Timelines
  • Exploring Literary Texts
  • Interactive Maps

Authoring Interactive Fiction

There are various tools available that educators or students can use to create their own interactive fiction adventures.

Hilborn stressed the necessary elements of creating good quality IF:

  • The text must be well written
  • The content must be well researched
  • The experience must be immersive
  • Users should experience continuous challenges & goals
  • Rewards should be immediate and useful
  • Of course, it shoudl be fun!

Tools and Resources

Two popular Tools for developing interactive fiction are Twine (found online at Twinery.org), which is pretty easy, and Inform7 (inform7.com), which is harder to learn and use then Twine, but more powerful. Choicescript was another recommendation.

Hilborn recommended the site Teaching and Learning With Interactive Fiction for additional resources and to learn more.


Thanks for much to Fairfield University for hosting this workshop, NERCOMP for sponsoring it, Micheal Hilborn for delivering it and granting me permission to share and discuss it!



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