TextJam: Playing with Pedagogy, Textual Spaces, and Remix

Daniel Frank, Clemson University

TextJam

Editor’s Note: The file above is an Ink work that will take the reader from this essay to another webpage. We recommend that the reader right-click on the link to open the page in a new tab.

The game TextJam serves as an example and resource for a pedagogy of using interactive fiction platforms in the classroom by asking students to make text adventure games as a means of  remixing class concepts. TextJam is a text adventure game created dynamically from polled keywords. It’s designed to showcase the creation of an explorable world as well as to model simple game systems such as puzzles, dialogue, and inventory, to inspire students to make their own text adventure games. Ultimately, I believe Textjam’s greatest contribution will be the source code for the game itself: I have written this game as a means of modeling how to create gamelike environments that enact different rhetorical moves. By demonstrating how to create simple puzzles, to craft a spatial world, and to make various forms of state-aware environments and an inventory system, I set students up to borrow aspects of my code and use it to create their own worlds.

Drawing from Mimi Ito (2010) and James Gee (2007), I offer that constructible textual environments promote work within spaces of passion-driven creativity that demand students take their learning into their own hands (Selber, 2004). The creation and playing/reading of an interactive text-world allows for engagement with formal learning expectations such as language proficiency, research depth, and professional performance, while allowing for a playful navigation and exploration of embodied avatar and identity in a virtual space. In what I call a “Text Adventure Remix,” a student (re)creates the world of a class concept or work of literature, building and playing with the characters, themes, and spaces of the text. In doing so, a student must take full ownership of the class content as she works to (re)present it, considering both classical elements of persuasive, creative, and effective writing, as well as modern ideas of effective game design. In making an interactive world from a text, the student will research the historical era and location of the piece, practice close reading and interpretation, practice as a creative writer, reflect upon the relationship between author and reader/player, and will gain fluency in digital environments, game/ludology theory and procedural rhetoric (Bogost, 2007).

Seymour Papert believes that students learn best in constructive environments. His pedagogy of constructionism uses the concept of “microworlds,” where learning happens from many directions as the student is engaged within the environment of the work. Drawing from Papert, Rieber defines a microworld as “a small, but complete, version of some domain of interest,” wherein people learn a domain not by studying it, but by “living” inside it (Rieber, 1996, p. 46). Rieber compares this learning to what happens when a child plays in a sandbox: there are no scripts here, no lesson plans that structure out exactly what and when a child is supposed to learn. Instead, the child plays, and through play, develops a tactile understanding of tools, texture, and density. This learning is focused and “self-regulated.” Rieber defines this “self-regulated” learning with three main characteristics: learners find the environment they are working within to be “intrinsically motivating,” that is, the work within the environment conveys its own rewards; second, that the learning is “metacognitively active,” in which students are aware of and actively engaging in their learning processes by making decisions about what they need to learn and where to learn it in order to do what they want to do; and finally, self-regulated learners are “behaviorally active” in that they actively work within and transform the environment around them in order to achieve their goals (1996, p. 47). Papert offers that we can create microworlds for our students by having them play with programming in the program LOGO, which creates drawings and animations based off of the program input (Papert, 1980).

In taking this pedagogy and enacting it within a writing course, I argue that we can use text adventure platforms to achieve similar purposes for a writing classroom. By working in interactive-fiction platforms, students create worlds of living text. As they weave textual threads together to construct games and adventures, they’re engaged in multiple constructive processes; they are creating and employing imagination, they are writing, revising, and editing, they are learning code, and they are approaching and enacting subject matter in new, playful directions. Students write their “microworlds” of text.

Pulling this all together, I argue that we can use text adventure platforms as the fabricstuff of “microworld writing.” Rather than focusing on any one specific technology/platform, I offer that we present these ideas to our students, to show them the work that has been done in terms of thinking about what digital text can do, what can be built, and how we can go about reading it, and then, we give our students the tools and set them off to get to making, to ask them to build text experiences, poems, labyrinths, and adventures. I want to close by exploring a few program possibilities for ergotic text that you may consider playing with, and then incorporating into your classroom.

Twine: Using a graphical interface to represent chunks of text and lines to represent the links and choices between them, Twine is a powerful program with flexibility, a low floor (“If you can write a story, you can make a Twine game,” it says on the website), and a high ceiling which allows for variables and integration with CSS and JavaScript.

Ink Script: The engine behind a popular series of adventure games in the App store such as Heaven’s Vault, 80 days, and Sorcery. Ink Script is focused on flowing text that branches out but still moves in one particular direction, allowing for diverts and loops and is designed to simulate seamless dialogue and conversations. The Ink Script platform is under active support and offers tools to port developing projects into Unity to allow for expansion into more complex games.

Squiffy and Quest: These two sibling programs serve as tools to create, respectively, twine-style choice-based games and parser-based, open world, textual exploration games. The former functions a lot like Ink Script, with a programming language that lets you write out scenarios, choices, and learn simple variables in order to track choices. The latter is a point-and-click program that walks users through building room after room, and designing the setting, objects, and actions that can be taken within it.

Thus, the TextJam project, where I have attempted to create a game that seeks to demonstrate, first, the accessibility and ease of creating text-based virtual worlds and games, second, the process of allowing other ideas to fuel the creative project, and finally, a set of copiable models and game mechanics that students can adapt for their own text adventures.

At the 2018 Conference on College Composition & Communication (CCCC), I gave a poster presentation on a pedagogical argument for asking students to create interactive text adventures as a means of responding to and remixing classroom concepts. As I gave this presentation, I asked members of my audience to submit slips of paper which contain snippets of ideas: keywords, literary/rhetorical concepts, etc. After this presentation, I used Ink Scriptto create an interactive, textual game that plays with, incorporates, and remixes from the themes offered. The game I created became TextJam.

In creating TextJam, I used the keywords I was provided with to inform the creation of the world. I organized the keywords I received into blocks of five, and each block served to inspire a chapter of the game. In each chapter, I wanted the player to be able to navigate and explore a virtual world, finding ways to uncover, solve, or ‘enact’ each of the five keywords, as well as be challenged to find the exit to the chapter and move on to the next one. Each keyword inspired different gameplay mechanics. For Imagination, for example, my first thoughts went to the stuff of dreams. The player would, then, achieve the Imagination keyword by getting to sleep. But, perhaps the challenge would be an overly-enthusiastic alarm clock? From there, a goal, bed, room, and timeframe all materialized. Other keywords had me research and learn new terms. Anacoluthon, for example, was not a word I had any experience with. Upon researching it, I found it to be a sort of grammatically incorrect sentence. To further my understanding, I had to try to enact the word in my world. This turned into a classic point-and-click adventure game trope: an orator, forever repeating the same sets of phrases (in this case, the first four lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy), would have to be interrupted by the player. By finding some wire-cutters and cutting the microphone wire while the speaker was in mid-sentence, the players create an anacoluthon, such as “To be or not to be, that is the–hello? Can anyone hear me?” The learning here is double-sided; I had to learn the word, on my own terms, in order to use it, and similarly, those who play the game may have to research the word themselves in order to think about how they might achieve it in the game.

It its current beta state, I have completed two chapters of the TextJam project. In future revisions, I may expand the project across one more chapter, depending on available time. I include as part of the TextJam experiment my complete source code for the project. This code can be pasted into the Ink Script platform and can be fully played, modified, and/or copied at will. The code is also commented through, with inserts explaining the functions of each part of the game. The goal of this resource is to equip students with examples of spatial worldbuilding and game mechanics that they can use in their own text adventures. It is my goal that this serves to greatly increase the accessibility of creating these kinds of projects, and to inspire the gamelike, exploratory, puzzle-driven, spatial type of interactive fiction I have modelled here.

References

Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive games: The expressive power of videogames. MIT Press.

Gee, J. P. (2007). Good video games + good learning: Collected essays on video games, learning, and literacy (Vol. 27). Peter Lang.

Itō, M. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge: the MIT Press.

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. Basic Books, Inc. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1095592

Rieber, L. P. (1996). Seriously considering play: Designing interactive learning environments based on the blending of microworlds, simulations, and games. Educational Technology Research and Development, 44(2), 43–58.

Selber, S. (2004). Multiliteracies for a digital age (1st ed.). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.