I’m starting to think more seriously about how I would teach interactive fiction to a bunch of kids (or adults) at the local library. Writing it, of course, but first I suppose they’d have to experience a few classic games to understand what they’re trying to do.

That’s really why I decided to write my next game in Inform 7. That and simple curiosity. And self-defense — it’s too popular in the IF community to ignore.

So I’m embroiled in writing a large and entirely goofy game, and I’m finding that I7 is a bit less intimidating or annoying than it seemed at first. I still have issues with some of its syntactic preferences, which is a way of saying that I’m still writing stuff that makes sense to me and then getting error messages from the compiler. But last night I was able to implement a rather cool puzzle without needing to post a plaintive message on the newsgroup saying, “How do I do this?”

I expect I’ll need a projector to throw the monitor up on a big screen. I can see getting a bunch (bunch = 3 or more) of kids in a room, starting a game, and having them all talk about what we should do next. I think that might be fun for them. I can’t quite see it being fun for adults, but maybe I’m being too pessimistic.

Once kids have experienced playing one or two games, I can see them getting excited about writing their own. Cooperatively, even. Start by asking them, “What room should the story start in?” Let them talk that over. Then type in the name of the room. “What’s in the room?” Add to the description of the room, and add some scenery. “What other rooms are nearby, that we want to go to?”

For adults … well, I know a few amateur writers around town. What might appeal to them (to a few of them, anyway) is the idea that they can reach a tiny but devoted audience of enthusiastic readers who will explore and care about their work. Amateur writers have a very tough time reaching any sort of audience at all, so that factor might tip the balance.

Plus, reading an interactive story is an involving, engaging experience. The reader is not passive: If she’s reading your work at all, you can be pretty sure she’s not doing it while half asleep, or while watching TV with the other eye.

Then there’s the mental discipline angle. Writing IF encourages you to think in detail about what you’re writing. You can’t just write, “Bob was sitting in his living room when the phone rang.” (That would not be a surprising way for a short story by an amateur to begin.) You have to think: What’s in the living room? How can I better convey the mood of my story by describing the couch?

There are other reasons to want to teach this stuff. Even if you’re just playing the games, it’s a more active entertainment experience than just about anything else I can think of, short of playing a game of tennis. And since most folks (in the affluent suburbs of Northern California, anyhow) have computers already, IF is an entertainment experience that won’t cost them a penny.

For kids, it’s not really about teaching them to do computer programming. Very few of them will ever go on to become professional programmers (a not very scintillating employment opportunity, I would have to add). It’s about teaching them that they don’t have to be passive consumers of entertainment: They can be creators.

So yeah, I have a hidden anti-capitalist agenda. One that I’m rather proud of, in fact.

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2 thoughts on “Inform-Ant

  1. Hi Jim, I haven’t stopped by here in a while, but I’ve caught up with most of your articles. They are excellent as usual.

    How popular are these text based games these days… is there still a good following for the well-designed ones?

    Boy, I can remember some of the greats from my younger days. I think “Bard’s Tale” was by far my favorite.

  2. How popular are they? I’d have to say, “Compared to what?” Worldwide, the number of people who play text-based games on a semi-regular basis in 2008 probably numbers in the hundreds. Maybe a thousand or two, but surely no more than that.

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