Thursday, October 06, 2005

Interactive Fiction

One of the classes I'm taking this term is a course on gaming and education. As a class, we are creating an interactive fiction game (think Zork), based around the Spoon River Anthology. Spoon River Anthology is a series of epitaphs in a cemetary. The epitaphs make many different comments about many different things.

To me, the most enjoyable aspect of the class (outside of programming which is at once feverishly addictive, and excruciatingly frustrating) is the core design. The purpose of the game is not to come up with clever puzzles, but to teach the content of the book. We want the students to critically think about the poems of Masters. How do you do this? Well, it's not easy. It's quite hard, but when you hit the mark there is a thrill.

For example, one of the 'puzzles' that we came up with is centered around Carl Hamblin. His poem is a great message. He makes a political statement, one for which he suffered quite a bit. But how do we get the students to critically think about this 'message'? The answer we came up with, and I'm sure there are other ways, is to only give the student the first piece of the poem. They will find a headstone with the following:

THE PRESS of the Spoon River Clarion was wrecked,
And I was tarred and feathered,
For publishing this on the day the Anarchists were hanged in Chicago:

And then we will inform them that there looks to be four holes where a plaque once rested. Here is Carl Hamblin, who lost his livelihood and was physically harmed for printing... Something. The student won't know what. The puzzle will come in the form of finding the plaque, restoring it to it's headstone', and lighting a torch so that the message of the dead can continue to be read by all that visit. When put in that scenario, I feel that the students will value the message more. They will read it a bit more careful. They will understand the weight that the message carries after having to go to a lot of work to find it and 'fix' it.

Anyway, it is quite difficult to come up with puzzles that are not just fun, but that also meet the goal of making students reflect on a poem. Difficult, but quite satisfying.

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