Category Archives: Education

Text Adventure Games and Interactive History: Educational Questing

This is a guest blog post by Tara Fickle.

When I first started designing an online game based on the Japanese American internment, I must admit that I was a little apprehensive about how it would be received. Everybody that I talked to agreed that increasing awareness about this oft-overlooked historical injustice, especially among the younger generation, was an important and valuable venture. But my friends and colleagues seemed less enthusiastic about the whole game component; at best, they considered it a necessary evil, a caramel coating to conceal the good-for-you apple within from the suspicious minds of pleasure-seeking, learning-averse students. For some, too, the words “internment” and “game” were more than just uneasy bedfellows; the notion that I would even use them in the same sentence was offensive, trivializing, un-PC. I suppose I should have expected the latter reaction; if you look up “Drama in the Delta,” a 3D role-playing video game about the Jerome, Arkansas internment camp, you’ll find no shortage of outraged comments. One response, on an article in the Chronicle, pretty much sums it up: “[The internment] wasn’t summer camp, this was an illegal action taken by the US government that violated its own citizens Constitutional Rights, not a friggin game. My god, what an insulting travesty.”

So why did I end up creating Inside the Japanese Internment anyway? Well, because the real point I wanted to make is that it’s not about being forced to bring together game and history; when it comes to the internment, and, indeed, to Asian Americans as a whole, the fact is that you can’t separate the two. In the national imagination, Asians have always been stereotypically cast as game players; they scheme, they dissemble, they present their inscrutable poker faces to the world, faces whose intentions cannot be read, whose emotions cannot be detected. And after Pearl Harbor, that was precisely how supporters of the internment justified the relocation program: as a national strategy, a way of separating the loyals from the disloyals, the truth from the bluff. (This is an argument that I flesh out in detail in the first chapter of my dissertation, which you can read here). The internment was already a game – of the most serious sort. Inside is meant to make you realize that.

That’s why I don’t think of Inside as just an educational game – what Tom Cole aptly dubbed “a game with an educational skin” – but more like an interactive museum. It’s based almost exclusively in historical fact; I’ve changed most of the names, but the vast majority of the situations that players encounter – from cosmetic surgery to the Rescue of the Lost Battalion to the Tule Lake Uprising – are documented in historical accounts and court cases. Much of the game’s content is also adapted from novels written by internees like John Okada and Hiroshi Nakamura; in those cases, it’s not about whether the events really happened or not, but about understanding what and why those authors would choose to fictionalize – and about exposing their novel literary styles to the larger audience that they so greatly deserve.

And that’s really what I hope that Inside will accomplish in the broader sense: that it will expose individuals to different, radically new ways of thinking about the internment and about Asian American literature; about how history gets written, who writes it, and how technology has the potential to change it. In the immediate future, I’d love to expand the game and get it installed as part of the permanent exhibit on internment at the Japanese American National Museum, a Los Angeles-based institution which has George Takei on its board of trustees. I also hope that educators, at both the high school and undergraduate level, will consider adopting it as part of their units on World War 2.

But ultimately, I have a more wide-ranging goal: that Quest (the software which I used to design Inside, generously made available by the folks at textadventures.co.uk) will be integrated into all sorts of classrooms, especially in Literature and History courses. Because interactive text games have an incredible amount of potential as educational resources, a potential which has gone largely untapped. As an instructor of English at UCLA, one of the biggest difficulties I and my fellow teachers face is getting undergraduates to think about literature as something to be engaged with, not just passively read. When you are trying to get a group of 18 year olds to read Shakespeare or Chaucer, and especially when you’re asking them to write an essay about these canonical authors, you often immediately sense the trepidation and anxiety: “What do I, a lowly undergrad, have to say about a famous text that’s been written about five million times before? Everything’s already been said!”

But Quest gives students a voice, a sense of agency that they often feel they lack when faced with a mass of words on a page. What if, instead of asking students to write a paper on the theme of fate in Romeo & Juliet, we first asked them to choose a scene and recreate it as a short gamebook using Quest? Suddenly, they’re able to use their imaginations, their writing and critical thinking skills, their artistic sensibilities, to create something. Now they’ll have to ponder the same “what ifs” that Shakespeare himself contemplated when writing the play; what if Romeo hadn’t taken the poison? What if Juliet hadn’t confided in her nurse? In creating an interactive text adventure, students are now thinking about why these actions occurred in the first place – and deciding how to bring that thought process to life for the game player. Not only can this activity get students to read more closely, but more actively; and that’s the key to developing an essay which has a strong argument, not just plot summary. Plus, once they’ve created their games, they can be easily shared and made accessible as teaching modules for future classes.

In the coming months, I’m planning on offering some tutorial courses for my fellow teachers at UCLA (and hopefully finding some funding which will allow me to create an online teaching module to address a wider audience), to decrease the sense of intimidation that the older generation especially commonly feels when confronting unfamiliar technology. Quest is incredibly easy to use, and yet it’s versatile and sophisticated enough to let you do almost anything you can think of: author complex and customizable characters with diverse qualities, skills, and abilities; map out massive worlds that players can explore at will; add images, links, and even user-driven content. I’ve had absolutely no formal training in computer programming or game design (in the computer science course I ultimately dropped as an undergraduate, I got as far as creating a “Hello World” program before losing interest). Which is part of why Quest is so exciting: it has the potential to bridge the interdisciplinary chasm that currently exists between the humanities and other fields. It can bring the study of literature, history, and many other fields to the cutting-edge and give us humanists yet another strategy for articulating the relevance of our fields, allowing us to defend the university as a whole from the growing budget cuts that threaten to impoverish higher education for teachers and students alike. This is part of what burgeoning digital humanities initiatives like 4Humanities are all about; and I’m immensely grateful that Quest has allowed me to be a part of that movement.

Tara Fickle is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), specializing in 20th century American and ethnic fiction. She has recently completed her dissertation, Serious Play: Race, Game, Asian American Literature, and has published articles on Asian American cultural politics, contemporary literature, and game studies in various scholarly and popular journals. More information can be found at her academic website: http://www.ficklet.wordpress.com.

ActiveLit Launched – interactive fiction for schools and groups

After several months of beta, we have now launched our new service ActiveLit. Many thanks to all of you who have signed up and given us your feedback so far.

ActiveLit provides you with a safe, private, curated area in which to play and create text adventure games and interactive fiction with a group or class. After setting up each of your students or group members with their own login, they can access your ActiveLit area from anywhere – on your own premises or at home. They can play and create their own games and stories directly in their browser, whether that’s on a desktop, laptop, phone or tablet – there is no need to download any software.

To get started, sign up and request an account. ActiveLit is free for groups of up to 10, and we have various packages available for larger groups – with an introductory half-price offer until 31st December 2013. You can switch to a larger package at any time, so you can try ActiveLit with a free account and then upgrade later.

When we process your request, you’ll receive an email with instructions for logging in to your admin area.

ActiveLit Admin

The admin area lets you add members to your site. It also shows you the web address where they can log in – it will be something like activelit.com/yourschool. It’s quick to add users, and passwords can be generated automatically, but if you have a large number of users to set up, email us and we’ll import them for you.

Playing Games

Choose the games you want to display to your group. You can choose any game from textadventures.co.uk. It is easy to search, and you can also browse by category.

Choosing games for ActiveLit

Clicking the game name shows you the description of that game, where you can play it and also jump to the listing at textadventures.co.uk to see the reviews and comments.

Viewing game information

Once you have chosen the games you want to display, you can customise how they are shown.

Customising the games list

You can choose which order they appear in, and you can also give them your own description – for example, to set a particular game as homework.

Customising a game description

When group members log in to the area, they will see the list of games you have selected.

An ActiveLit area

They can click on the game to view your description, and play the game in their browser.

Customised game description

After playing a game online, as the group administrator you’ll be able to see session transcripts in the Reports area.

ActiveLit Reports list

An ActiveLit report

Creating Games

Group members can build their own interactive stories online using Quest. When they’ve finished creating their interactive story, they can publish their game to the area to share it with other group members.

More coming soon

Sign up and give us your feedback! Stay tuned for more updates – we’ll be continuing to add functionality over the coming months, so do get in touch and let us know what will help you with using interactive fiction in your group.

Making it easier to use text adventures and Quest in the classroom – ActiveLit

Recently, more and more teachers are starting to use Quest and text adventure games with their classes. Some teachers have used text-based games to inspire children to read; others use it as an introduction to programming; others get their students to create games around a set historical theme.

The main textadventures.co.uk site isn’t particularly optimised for educational groups, however. Some teachers find it a pain to set up user accounts for a whole class full of students, and others would prefer to restrict their classes to playing a pre-set list of games instead of giving their pupils unrestricted access to everything available on the site.

For these reasons, I’m setting up a new site called ActiveLit, which is designed for schools, colleges and youth groups who want to play, create and share text adventure games.

ActiveLit

ActiveLit is currently being built, and I’m aiming to focus the first stage of development on the features which will be most useful to the most people. So, if you are a teacher, or run a group getting children or students to play or create text adventures, please express your interest by filling in the form at activelit.com. You’re not committing to anything at all yet, and I’m not going to spam you – you’ll genuinely help me build the product that best suits you, and you’ll get to be one of the first users.

My current plans for ActiveLit are that it will enable you to…

  1. Create your own private area of the website:
    • Curate a list of games which your group is allowed access to.
    • Allow your group to share games they’ve created only among other group members.
    • Direct your group to a dedicated URL – using activelit.com/your-group-name or via your own subdomain. (This would allow your network to block the main textadventures.co.uk domain, if required)
    • Control who can access your private area by generating accounts automatically.
  2. Get activity reports:
    • Access game transcripts, so you can see who played which games, for how long and how well they did.
    • Export student activity data to other platforms such as Moodle.
  3. Help your students out:
    • Link to worksheets and assignments directly from the website.
    • Toggle editor functionality on and off – give your students a simplified editor view that is tailored to the games you want them to make.
    • Game templates – give your students the bare bones of a game which they can flesh out, instead of starting them all on a blank slate.

If you’re using the Windows desktop version of Quest, there will also be a way to configure it to take its game feed from your private area instead of the main website.

If there’s anything else that would help you with running your text adventure group, please let me know via the comments section on the ActiveLit sign-up form.

Wondering how to use text adventures and Quest in the classroom? Take a look at the Education page – and if you’re using Quest with your group, please let me know and I’ll add it to the examples.

Any questions or anything else I can do to help, please email me alex@textadventures.co.uk.

"Escape from Byron Bay" now available for iPhone and iPad

The text adventure game Escape From Byron Bay is now on the App Store.

Available on the App Store

The game is written by Allen Heard, a teacher from Wales who wrote the game as an introduction to interactive fiction for his Year 8 class.

It’s the game I’ve been using when running Quest workshops – it can be completed within about half an hour by children who have never played any kind of text-based game before.

It will run on any iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch running iOS 4.3 or later.

This is the second Quest-powered iOS app, the first being The Things That Go Bump In The Night which was released last year. Over the next few months I’ll be releasing even more games into the App Store, and Android versions too, so look out for more games coming soon!

Text Adventures on Tablets

This is the first text adventure app I’ve released that resizes properly to fit the iPad screen, and I think it works nicely. With hyperlinks and a dismissable on-screen keyboard, the tablet is the natural home for interactive fiction – it makes the idea of playing a text adventure on a desktop computer or laptop feel like the kind of niche activity it has always been, until now.

Interested in writing your own game?

Any game written with Quest can be turned into an app – see the Quest Apps Guide for more information. I really want to bring more high quality games to the app stores, so please contact me if you have any questions or if there’s anything I can do to help.

Quest workshops at GameCity 7

I’ll be running several Quest workshops at GameCity 7 in Nottingham, UK on 22, 23 and 24 October.

For more details and tickets please see the festival schedule. Suitable for all ages from 8 to ∞.

These will be similar to the workshops I ran at Games Britannia – so no prior knowledge of text adventures or programming required. In the space of two hours we’ll be looking at what text adventures are, how to play, and then creating our own. Tickets are free so all you need to bring is your imagination!

Quest at Games Britannia

MagnaI had the great pleasure on Tuesday of leading two workshops on Quest at Games Britannia, the schools videogame festival held at the impressive Magna Science Adventure Centre – a former steelworks in Rotherham.

Each workshop lasted two hours and there were about 15 children in each, with a range of ages maybe from about 8 to 15. Out of 30 children in total, only 3 had ever even heard of text adventure games before.

To get them familiar with how a text adventure works, I got them to spend the first 20 minutes playing Escape from Byron Bay. At first the groups were very quiet as they read the introduction to the game and started trying things out, but things quickly became more animated as the children started asking each other for help and shouting out as they solved puzzles. It almost seemed a shame to stop them before they completed the game, but time was tight and I wanted to get them started on creating their own!

Quest workshopEach student had their own laptop – some using the desktop version of Quest and some using the web version. I gave the students a quick overview of how Quest works – how to add rooms and objects to a game, add exits, set object descriptions, and allow objects to be takeable. This only took a few minutes to demonstrate and was enough to get the children started on mapping their own small game worlds.

I certainly didn’t need to help anybody choose what to write – the creativity of the children was amazing. They were bursting with ideas, and quickly set about creating their rooms and objects.

I then gave a quick demonstration of scripting – showing how to display pictures, and how to add a small puzzle (using an “if” script to allow an object to be picked up only if the player has already taken another object).

After that, I let the children carry on building their games, answering questions that came up – sometimes giving quick demonstrations to the whole group when topics came up such as containers, or adding verbs. I was impressed at how much ground we covered in the space of a two-hour session, especially given where we had started, from zero knowledge even about the existence of text adventure games in the first place.

Quest workshopIt was also really useful for me to see more children using Quest for the first time – a free usability testing session! I’ve definitely gained some new ideas about things I can improve. One attendee even managed to consistently reproduce a bug in the desktop version of the editor which I hadn’t seen before.

The feedback from the sessions was really positive, and I hugely enjoyed them too. I would be happy to run a similar session again, so please do contact me if this is something you’d be interested in (or if you’d like more information on running a similar session yourself).

I’d also like to extend huge thanks and congratulations to the organisers of Games Britannia, who have worked incredibly hard with limited resources to put together an amazing event – truly inspirational. Also thanks to Andy Stratton (who was running his own Quest workshop on Wednesday) for helping the workshop run smoothly.

TeachShare on 27th March: Using Text Adventure Games in the Classroom

I’ll be presenting an online TeachShare on 27th March, giving an overview of Quest and discussing its uses within the classroom.

It will run from 19:00 – 20:00 UK time (UTC+1).

See the Vital site for more information

It’s free to join in, and the session will be recorded so you should be able to watch it later if you can’t make it.

Hope to see you there!

Text adventures in the classroom – Quest day at Perins School

I had the pleasure of spending Wednesday at Perins School in Alresford, Hampshire, where the entire Year 7 (11-12 year olds) went off-timetable for the day to start creating their own text adventures with Quest.

Timetable for the day

Timetable for the day

This was part of their “Transform” programme spread over five Wednesdays. In the first week, the school had a visit from a local author to talk about writing and creating characters. In week two, they started looking at text adventures, playing The Things That Go Bump In The Night. In week three, they started planning their own games on paper (limiting themselves to four rooms to give a realistic chance of being able to implement the entire game).

Student plans for their own game

Student plans for their own game

I joined them for week four, where the pupils got to create a Quest game for the first time.

To get everybody up to speed, instead of diving in to create their own pre-planned games, the students were given the same game to implement. This was split up into various “Builds” consisting of step-by-step helpsheets, with only about 30 minutes for each Build:

  • Build 1: Creating a new game, setting font and colour options, adding rooms, exits and objects
  • Build 2: Adding descriptions to rooms and objects
  • Build 3: Taking and dropping, containers, lockable objects, adding verbs, winning/losing the game
Students learn about creating exits

Students learn about creating exits

After the break, various workshops run by myself and Kristian Still. We covered destroying objects, switching objects on and off, locking and verbs, and any other questions the students had such as keeping a score.

I must admit, I thought the timetable was pretty ambitious – these students hadn’t seen the Quest Editor at all before the day, yet by the end of it, most of them were getting on really well. They had covered everything they needed to implement their own games next week.

Kristian grabbed a few of the students for some quick “phonecast” interviews, and asked them how they found the day:

  • Overview of the day
  • Planning their own games “I found it was so simple, I just couldn’t really resist – I’m doing one at home now. It’s a very fun system.”
  • Is it difficult? “It’s great fun. It was exciting trying to think up ideas”. According to this student, coming up with the ideas is the hard bit, and implementing them is just pressing some buttons! I guess that means they found the software pretty easy to use.
  • Switching objects on and off
Testing the game

Testing the game

It was really great to see the students getting on well with the software, and I look forward to seeing their finished games.

Game Based Learning – Interactive Fiction at LWF Free Festival

Learning Without Frontiers (LWF) is at London Olympia on Wednesday 26th and Thursday 27th January, and alongside the (expensive) main conference there is a free festival, featuring a variety of sessions on digital learning.

On Thursday from 10.30 – 12.00, iO are hosting a session on Game Based Learning at Salon Bourdieu (S2):

This session will cover three different areas of the use of games in learning and most importantly games creation in creating learning opportunities for students. The session will draw on practical experiences that have already taken place in schools, refer and develop thinking based on newly released research outcomes, and give delegates solid starting points for them to take away and develop in their schools or organisations.

As part of this, myself, Kristian Still and Tom Cole will be talking about Interactive Fiction and Quest.

This session will explore how classroom practitioners have enabled their students to start writing, creating and engaging with Interactive Fiction games. The speakers will examine how disengaged readers are now reading and even better engaged in writing games. Examples of how IF is being used in other subject areas such as Science are being explored and developed.

Register for the festival – it’s free.

More details are in the full schedule (annoyingly there seems to be no way to link to a particular session, so scroll down to Game Based Learning at 10.30 on Thursday. Also for some reason the programme has me down as “Alex Ward”).

Hope to see you there!