My first three-month adventure teaching interactive fiction to kids has come to an end, and a new class is scheduled to start next week. It’s tricky to generalize on the basis of one group of eight students; maybe these kids (ages 11-14) are unusually intelligent or motivated. But my impressions so far are completely positive. And I think maybe I understand why they enjoyed the process.
With interactive fiction (IF), it’s not just the end product — the text-based computer game — that’s interactive. The process of game development is also extremely interactive. That may be the key ingredient. If you’re, say, 12 years old, writing a conventional story may very easily look like drudgery. You may have some neat ideas. You may write a few paragraphs, or even a few pages. But then the stuff you’ve written will just lie there, on the paper or on the screen, staring at you. It’s static. It doesn’t come alive.
When writing IF, you can create a few rooms and a few objects and then take your work for a test drive. You can walk around in the little world you’ve imagined and experience it as a participant. The computer responds to you, and what you’ve written also responds to you. All this makes the process of creativity more involving.
If there are bugs in your code (and there will be…), you have a little puzzle to solve. You can make changes in what you’ve written until it works as you intended. You’ll go through this cycle over and over. This fosters a feeling of mastery and control that isn’t readily available to the author of static fiction. With static fiction, the question of whether it works is not just subjective but altogether murky.
You’ll notice I haven’t said anything yet about how easy Inform 7 makes the process of writing IF. On balance, I’m still not convinced that I7 is actually any easier for kids (or adults) to learn than TADS 3 would be. My students sometimes got extremely snarled up attempting to do things in I7 that looked natural to them, but that the compiler didn’t like. In T3, once they reached a certain level of comfort with the basics, their coding mistakes would have been more obvious to them, because T3 code is inherently less fuzzy than I7 code.
What I7 does, which I think is probably essential for kids in this age group, is make it extremely easy to feel comfortable with the initial steps of the learning process. I7 doesn’t look intimidating! It looks inviting. It conveys a powerful message: “Hey, this looks pretty easy. I’ll bet I could do this.” That’s a message that students in the 11-to-14 age group may appreciate more deeply than the rest of us. (I’ll leave it to the developmental psychologists in the audience to articulate the reasons for this, but I can sense them intuitively.)
I honestly don’t think T3 would convey that message at all. I think T3 might convey a positive message to technically minded students in the 16-to-19 age group, for whom I7 might look like “kid stuff.” If a few of my students stay active in IF and get to the point where they release a few games, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or two of them switch to T3 as a development system. On the other hand, if it works, why fight it?
Another factor in their enjoyment of writing IF was, to be frank, the ability to write stories in which people get killed in outrageous ways. Bear in mind, I wasn’t teaching troubled kids. They were all from stable, well-to-do families. But even the girls, once they got used to the idea, seemed to like writing games in which the awful message *** You have died!!! *** figured prominently. Again, the developmental psychologists will have to parse this one. My suspicion is that being able to kill the player gives the author a sense of ultimate power, which middle-schoolers appreciate because they’re at a phase in their lives when they’re becoming slightly more powerful and autonomous and struggling to integrate that new awareness into their lives.
In any event, Inform 7 seems to provide a wonderful creative outlet for kids in this age group. I’m hoping the next class will have as much fun as the first one.