Composing Interactive Fiction 1: Writing with Frustration and Exhilaration

(Note: This is part of a short series I am sharing about trying out Interactive Fiction as a writer. Today, I am sharing the overall experience. Tomorrow, I will share the first story that I wrote, and well as provide some advice on how to play it. Later in the week, I will try to share out resources that I have discovered. – Kevin)

I’ve had the idea of trying out Interactive Fiction on the back burner for a long time — at least two years. I even bought a large resource book about Inform (the software built for Interactive Fiction) and did a little bit of research on text-based gaming adventures, but then lost that thread of interest. I can’t say why. I was/am intrigued by the use of writing and language in a gaming system that is not visual, which is such a difference from the video games kids are playing now. Interactive Fiction reminds me a bit of Choose Your Own Adventure stories, mixed with a Dungeons/Dragons map idea and computer programming thrown in (you don’t program code, but it can feel that way at times.) But wrapping my head around the concept was difficult.

Then, I saw this post over at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site by Jason Sellers, explaining how he brought Interactive Fiction into his English classroom, and I got intrigued all over again. While Jason’s high school students are older than mine, I began to wonder what using Interactive Fiction might look like in my sixth grade classroom. Could it work? On the surface, it seems a nice fit: writing and technology and critical thinking, plus publishing for authentic audience. And Jason’s post turned me to a site called Playfic, which is built off the Inform platform, but seems easier to use.

Or so I thought.

The reality is that I needed to dive in myself and figure out what composing Interactive Fiction is really all about. The result was a lot of frustration and then intense exhilaration, and yet, I am still unsure of how I can bring this into the classroom. The frustration began with my story construction. I had this idea of a story in which the player has to choose which writing device to use for getting an idea down: a Tablet, a PC computer or paper and pen. Each device is in a room off a hallway. I drew out a map (see above for a version of the map) to help me think it all through, and then read/played a few stories on Playfic (including Jason‘s). I thought I had the concept down.

I was wrong.

But each time I tried to build my story, I got error messages from Playfic.  Lots of error messages. The messages, by the way, are very helpful, on one hand, because they are written in a way that feels as if a guide is sitting next to you. I appreciated that. But for an inexperienced IF writer like myself, there were a few messages that I just could not make heads or tails of, and it was no doubt a reflection of my lack of background knowledge in the structure of the Inform code that Playfic is built upon. Later, I was reminded  of a message on the homepage of the site, which tells the writer that:

Writing Playfic games may look like English, but it can be confusing.

You got that right.

I thought I was doing it correct but I apparently wasn’t, repeatedly, and I could not for the life of me figure out what was wrong with my writing. Was I missing a word? A punctuation? Was that sentence phrased right? Was it my syntax? It was a bit of a feeling of getting a research paper back in college where you were told you had done it wrong, but the advice to make it better was undecipherable.

Looking back, it is clear that I had not grasped (and maybe still don’t) the nuance of the language of Inform/Playfic, and how specific words have specific meaning/power. I almost gave up on my story at that point, and then I was struck with a better idea. Why not use Playfic’s option for looking at the code of other stories, grab someone else’s story, and then rebuild it off the basis of that?

So, I did.

I became an Interactive Fiction thief, which is acceptable practice at Playfic (every story comes with a link to the “cheat code” so you can examine what a person did to build a story to learn from that experience). And it worked, and when it worked, I felt this wave of triumph that comes from hitting a wall and then finding a way to scale that wall (even if you use the ladder left behind by the person in front of you). My story worked. (And I will share it out with you tomorrow.)

The larger question: could I bring this to my classroom? I don’t yet know. It seems like I would need to plan for a simplified process that allowed students some success early on, and then have them emulate (steal) coded stories to build their own. That runs the risk of every story reading the same, though. Still, I remain intrigued by the possibilities and appreciate that Playfic has built a site that opens the door to experimentation. (and thanks to Jason for his post)

Peace (in the fictional paths),


App Review: GarageBand

For less than five bucks, the Garageband App on the iPad is an amazing steal. I hadn’t quite realized it until I sat down yesterday morning to work on a new song that my guitarist/friend John had started writing as a sort of theme song for our band, Duke Rushmore. The idea is to have a short, jumpy song to get us into the night. He asked me to write some lyrics, and I decided to use GarageBand on the iPad to replicate his riff and add some drums.

I am still waiting for an adaptor that will allow me to connect my Snowball Microphone directly into the iPad, so I had to bounce down tracks and email the master file to my laptop, where I worked on adding the vocals. But the music was all done directly on the iPad. I really love the drum feature, which is built as an intuitive touchscreen creator. You move elements of the drums around a cartesian coordinate system (loud/soft, simple/complex) and the beat changes. For the bass and keyboards, I turned off the automatic chords (which are fun to play with) and plucked strings/hit chords and notes on the keyboard to create the music, and while it is not perfect, it worked for a demo.

I also handed the app to my 8 year old son and my 12 year old son, and within minutes, they were creating songs, and having a blast. It’s that simple to use. And I like the feature that allows you to email the file or set up an account on Soundcloud to instantly share the music that way, too. There’s a lot to like, and for $4.99 — it’s got to be on the best deals out there.

Here is the song that I ended up with: Dancing with the Duke. Remember, it’s only a demo. We’re going to funk it up a whole lot more than this.

Peace (in the muse),
PS — this is a great tutorial site for the app.


Check This Out: A Computer-Created Movie Script

Have you heard about Cleverbot? It’s a computer program that answers questions and has a pretty advanced algorithm (for a machine). Sort of like Siri’s cousin but with more of an attitude. Filmmaker Chris Wilson used Cleverbot to create a script for a short movie, and then created this amazing (and funny) video.

Peace (in the share),

Close Reading: The Story of Electronics

We wrapped up our discussions about Digital Lives yesterday by moving our topic from issues like identity and privacy and behaviors in online spaces to something more concrete: the lifespan of electronics and the environment. It also gave me a chance to guide my sixth graders to be critical close readers of a video as text, which is difficult and which will require much more practice. The topic of the day was about what happens when companies build for “planned obsolescence” (ie, put out the newest model every six months to a year) and we buy new stuff, only to toss away the old stuff.

The video we used — The Story of Electronics — is an offshoot of the larger The Story of Stuff (worth watching, too) and it provides a great opportunity to talk not only about the issues of e-waste and production cycles, but also about point of view, use of “facts and data,” and visual persuasion. This video has it all. While it is a powerful indictment of the ways electronics are endangering the health of workers and others on production lines, it also mostly avoids bringing in a balanced view, uses data without much direct citation, utilizes powerful animated images to evoke an emotional response, and more.

I won’t lie and say we had as full a discussion as I would have liked. The video came near the end of the period on the day before February vacation, and after a vocabulary quiz. But even so, the video did spark lots of discussion about the ways my students and families view electronics, and that sharing gave me avenues for pointing out the techniques of the video. We’ll be revisiting this topic later in the year, for sure.

Peace (in the stuff),


App Review: Newspapers

I ‘m a news junkie. I admit it. It comes from spending a decade as a newspaper reporter. So I have been pleasantly surprised by an app I found called — wait for it —  Newspapers, and what it does is synchronize and provide access to hundreds of newspapers around the world.  It’s free, too, and pretty easy to use. You just use the globe to find countries (or the search engine), and then choose the newspapers you want to read (some are in English and some are in native languages. Both experiences are pretty neat.) You can favorite newspapers, too, to make it easy to return to their sites.

For example, I just went from looking through some Russian newspapers to learn about local reaction to the meteorite event that happened last night, and then bounced over to a New Zealand newspaper to read about developments in the Pistorius case, and then ended up closer to home with my local newspaper — all off the same app. One thing that this kind of news traveling does is remind you of the lens in which countries and publishers see and report the news of the world.  Biases can be uncovered, and even political filtering noticed.

It would be an interesting to use this app to do an analysis of a single news event across various newspapers.

The Newspapers app is a potentially valuable tool for learning, but also for grazing for information. (Note: some newspapers do have paywalls but mostly the front pages are free for access. Also, some newspapers are better at updating their online versions in a timely fashion than others. The St. Petersburg Times in Russia, for example, was still showing a front page from two days ago when I took a look.)

Peace (in the app),


Teaching about Passwords


We had some interesting discussions in class yesterday about passwords. Stories about getting hacked by friends, about sharing passwords as a sign of friendship, of never even considering how easily a password could be cracked, of forgetting a password. And most of my sixth grade students admitted they think very little about the passwords they come up with, and most use the same password everywhere. (I suspect the same can be said for many adults.) The discussion was part of our Digital Life unit, and I shared an interesting tool that tests the hackability of a password. The kids were jazzed about testing the strength of passwords, and then were suitably shocked when the site would say that their passwords could be hacked “instantly.” The video from Common Craft hit all the right spots, too.

Again, I downplayed the fear factor in all this, and turned it around to a positive, and guided them to think about how we can use language and writing to create strong passwords. This includes reminding them of memory devices for creating passwords that might seem like nonsense to the outside world but will make perfect sense to them. We talked about how the use of symbols and numbers, and mixing upper and lower case letters, all help strengthen a password.

Here is the site we used:

Password Strength Meter Checker

And I did not show this video, but it cracks me up everytime, as this comic laments passwords. Very funny.

Peace (in the password),


Cyberbullying: Upstanders Make a Difference


We’re nearing the end of our Digital Life unit, and yesterday, our topic was cyberbullying and bullying, in general. It was a deep conversation across my sixth grade classes, rich with questions and insights and, unfortunately, experience. One of the topics we discusses is the role of the bystander, and as luck would have it, I came across this activity/event in my National Writing Project network.


It has to do with thinking through and understand the role of the bystander who takes action. The term is a bit odd to say — upstander — but I had my students write down what they thought it meant before we talked about what it meant. Some of those notes have become part of this presentation that I will be sharing with my students and families, and also, submitted to the Upstanders, Not Bystanders event.

See the slideshow: The Role of the Upstander

Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app for iPad
This also reminds me a presentation that I gave at last year’s NCTE meeting around cyberbullying (thanks to the invite by Kylene Beers). I’ll share it here, too.

Peace (in the strategies),


A Collection of Avatar Creators

Last week, we were talking about online identity and avatars, and my students are now working on creating a visual representation of themselves for our Glogster space. Here is the list of avatar creation sites that I shared with them (the Lego one was the most popular).

Peace (in who you are),



Conversations with Anna: Of Constellations and Communities

This is part of a larger conversation I have been having with Anna Smith about digital writing and literacies (and which we are archiving at Jog the Web and the National Writing Project Digital Is site.) Here, I ponder how we “find” communities of other folks who are exploring, writing and teaching the things that we believe in, too. One one hand, accessing the digital world opens up doors. On the other, it has a tendency to create insular communities, too.

While Anna and I are having our conversation, we always and encouragingly invite the world in, too. So, feel free to add your thoughts to our voicethread. The second slide is where my main sharing is, just so you know.

And, as usual, I reflected a bit on what I was after and how I tried to achieve it, in comic form.
Reflecting on Voicethread Podcast

Peace (in the sharing),