One of the hardest things about being an English language arts teacher is teaching writing, especially fiction—students tend to believe that a person either is or is not a writer and that they are one of the nots. To counter this, I’ve always looked for ways to engage students in writing for nontraditional purposes. That’s not easy, but I’ve found a great new way to engage students in writing fiction by connecting it to their love of games.
For teachers who are new to the world of gaming, I’d suggest exploring the world of text-based games, one of the oldest types of computer games. In these games, players are given text-based descriptions of what is happening in the game, and they type what they want to do next (like “go west” or “pick up the ax”). To get a sense of what kinds of storytelling are possible in text-based games, check out the Zork series.
When I started doing research into these games, I discovered that they’re a type of interactive fiction. I’ve found that when used well, interactive fiction is a fantastic way to teach literacy skills.
Here are some of the skills that interactive fiction develops:
- Plot: Interactive fiction helps students recognize the different aspects of plot (such as protagonist, antagonist, conflict, and resolution) and apply them to their writing.
- Proofreading: Proofreading game code to make sure everything is where it needs to be is crucial—and needs to be constantly practiced. It’s also a habit that transfers easily to writing: The importance of punctuation in coding is the same as the importance of punctuation in standard writing.
- Descriptive writing: When you’re creating a game that requires people to read everything in order to understand what’s going on, strong description skills are needed. This is a wonderful way to help students work on their imagery skills. The more details they provide in their stories, the better the game will be.
I developed an original project incorporating all of these skills that you can use with your students. I also created my own game, which you can use as an example for students before you start the project.
Note: You don’t have to know how to code to do this lesson—don’t let the coding element scare you away!
In order to get the most out of this lesson, I recommend giving your students seven or eight class periods to write and code their stories. If some of your students are more into storytelling than coding and others are more into coding, you might consider allowing them to team up, with one student in charge of the story and the other writing the code. At the end, the team can present the finished product to the class.
Days 1 and 2
To begin, I introduce my students to the Raspberry Pi RPG tutorial program, which helps students learn how the code works. Students will need access to a computer or laptop—but not necessarily a Raspberry Pi—for this lesson to follow along. These first couple of days are all about understanding how the code works in the examples provided by the tutorial and learning which pieces of code they need to copy verbatim and which pieces they need to adapt by adding information that is specific to their own story. Proofreading skills are really put to the test here because everything needs to be copied exactly as it is written or the code will crash.
Days 3 to 5
Students start to build out their games. They work on their descriptive writing as they flesh out the environment of their game and build multiple rooms. This is a great time for the teacher to connect with students to see how their stories are shaping up and help them with their imagery.
Days 6 to 8
Final proofreading and debugging should take place to ensure that the games are ready to share with the class. Trinket allows users to share links to their games so that others can remix them and try them out. Students can easily share links using Google Docs or Google Classroom.
When I did this lesson with my classes, my students were highly engaged as they began to explore the more complex ways to create their game and build their narrative. In their games, every turn and move had a consequence they needed to account for in the code. This helped students take a deep dive into their stories and plan far ahead. The maps they created were very complex, but that helped them visualize their games in order to code them. Students who did not consider themselves coders were having a blast and sharing their game with their friends.