Screenshot of Zork in 1980
Image by the-tml via Flickr

Though it has taken me much longer than I planned to get back to this topic, I want to share with you today what I believe is an outstanding and probably very obscure tool that would be excellent for gifted students.

Think back a few years. No, further back. A little further. When home computers had memory measured in kilobytes, an 8-color monitor was high resolution, and disks were floppy.

The cutting-edge trend in computer entertainment was something called a “text adventure game.” Zork is the classic example of games in this genre, but there were dozens of them. They had no graphics and no need for a controller, because the entire means of interacting with the game was through text.

For those who have never played a text adventure, here is a typical sequence of moves you might see in one of these games (this is part of the sample transcript that was in the instruction manual for the original Zork):

West of House
 You are standing in an open field west of a white house,
 with a boarded front door.
 There is a small mailbox here.
>OPEN MAILBOX
 Opening the mailbox reveals a leaflet.
>READ LEAFLET
 (taken)
 "WELCOME TO ZORK!
ZORK is a game of adventure, danger, and low cunning. In it you
will explore some of the most amazing territory ever seen by
mortals. No  computer should be without one!"
[...later in the adventure...]
>APPLY THE BRAKES
The Frobozz Magic Go-Cart coasts to a stop.

Moss-Lined Tunnel, in the Go-Cart
This is a long east-west tunnel whose walls are covered
with green and yellow mosses.
There is a jewel-studded monkey wrench here.
A bent and rusty monkey wrench is lying here.

>TAKE THE WRENCH
Which wrench do you mean, the jeweled monkey wrench
or the rusty monkey wrench?

>JEWELED
You can't reach it from inside the Go-Cart.

>WEST
You're not going anywhere until you stand up.

>GET OUT OF THE GO-CART
You are on your own feet again.

>TAKE THE JEWELED WRENCH
Taken.

>WEST
Lumber Yard
This is a huge room lined with metal shelves. There are exits
to the east, northeast, and west.
There is a small cardboard box here.
Piled on one of the shelves is a supply of lumber.

>TAKE THE BOX AND THE LUMBER
small cardboard box: Taken.
supply of lumber: Your load is too heavy.
The basic idea is that the user types simple commands telling the computer what you want to do as the character you are playing. You can pick up objects, examine them, move around, put things on top of other things, and so on. The object of most of these games is to explore the world of the story and solve puzzles of some sort.

When computer graphics got better, computer games became more visual and never looked back. But a few people kept the concept alive, and today there is a thriving community dedicated to actively developing what is now called Interactive Fiction (often called IF). There are even people who do academic research into the theory and practices of IF and its applications.

What is exciting today about IF is that there are now free tools available for creating your own stories. Two of the most mature and actively developed are TADS and Inform. I am interested in the possibilities of using these tools with gifted students for a number of reasons.

First, students writing IF need to actively develop a variety of important skills that are particularly of interest to gifted educators:

  • Design
  • Logical reasoning
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem solving

What is especially interesting is that all of these skills are organically integrated into the development process. Students must think about the design of their geographical world and the design of their plot. They must anticipate many different actions and avenues that the player might take. They need to contemplate the subtleties of language and learn about the logic a computer uses to parse words and phrases into meaningful computer code. They need to plan and execute puzzles, and leave enough clues for the player to be able to solve them, but not so many that the solutions are trivial.

The best part: even young students have the capability to plan and build simple interactive stories using these powerful tools. So much of the complex programming is built into the system and the language that students can create functional, complete scenes with just a few simple sentences of text.

The possibilities and implications are far too extensive for me to go into more detail here, but the Inform site has an entire section devoted to teaching with IF. Peruse that a while, learn about how to download and play some games—there are many that are quite suitable for kids, including one that I’ve written myself (the reviews were mediocre, but finishing the project was to me a major accomplishment). What other ideas do you have about using IF in education? What possibilities does this raise? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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