Stranger in These Parts – An Interactive Fiction for Teaching

One of the things I want my students to engage with in my ‘cities and countryside in antiquity’ class is the idea that in antiquity, one navigates space not with a two dimensional top-down mental map, but rather as a series of what-comes-next. That navigating required socializing, asking directions, paying attention to landmarks.  I’m in part inspired by R. Ling’s 1990 article, Stranger in Town, and in part by Elijah Meek’s and Walter Scheidel’s ORBIS project. Elijah and I have in fact been talking about marrying a text-based interface for Orbis for this very reason.

But I’m also interested in gaming, simulation and storytelling for their own merits, so I’m trying my hand at an interactive fiction written using Inform 7  along the same lines. Instead of interfacing directly with the model represented in Orbis, I’ve queried Orbis for travel data, and have begun to write a bit of a narrative around it. (One could’ve composed this in Latin, in which case you’d get not just the spatial ideas, but also the language learning too!).

Anyway, I present to you version 0.1, a beta (perhaps ‘alpha’ is more appropriate) for ‘Stranger in These Parts‘, by Shawn Graham. I’m using Playfic to host it. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts. (And a hint to get going: check to see what you’ve got on you, and ‘ask Eros’ about things…)

Obviously, some things are lacking at the moment. I’ll want the player to be able to select different modes of transport sometimes (and thus to skip settings). There’s a point system, but it’s meant more to signal to the students that there is more to find. Depending on which NPCs a student talks with, different kinds of routes should become available. Time passes within the IF, and so night time matters – no travel then.  As far as I know, there’s no such thing as multi-player IF or head-to-head IF, but that’d be fun if it were possible: can you get to Pompeii before your classmates?

In terms of the learning exercise, the students will play through this, and then explore the same territory in Orbis. In the light of their readings and experiences, I’ll be asking them to reflect on the Roman experience of space. Once we’ve done that, now being suitably disabused of 21st century views of how to navigate space, we’ll start looking at the landscape archaeology of other ancient cultures.

That’s the plan, at any rate.


Masters and Doctoral Theses on Serious Games

A list maintained by Katrin Becker at SFU, ‘Serious Games Pathfinder‘:

The following is a list of Master’s and Doctoral theses that have been completed that have to do with serious games (and in some cases more broadly with digital games). Doctoral Theses are marked in bold. You can get more info on each thesis by clicking on the associated ‘details’ link.

Note: I am just starting to develop this list. So far, almost all the theses are Canadian ones. If anyone has a thesis they would like me to add, please let me know the following:

Name, Title, Year, Degree, Country, Institution, Department, Abstract, URL to the thesis (If you are willing, I’d like your nationality too).

Please send info on theses that are about DIGITAL GAMES ONLY (I am not interested in theses about Game Theory (i.e. math), ELearning, Virtual Spaces, Social Websites, Blogging, Graphics, AI, … UNLESS they specifically focus on applications to or for digital games)

I reproduce below the listing she has for 2008:


details Applications of CSP solving in computer games (camera control) Ali, Mohammed Liakat
details The invention of good games: understanding learning design in commercial video games Becker, Katrin
details Gamers as learners: Emergent culture, enculturation, and informal learning in massively multiplayer online games Chu, Sarah
details Consistency Maintenance for Multiplayer Video Games Fletcher, Robert D. S
details Homeless: It’s No Game – Measuring the Effectiveness of a Persuasive Videogame Lavender, Terrance
details The “Heat Game”: an augmented reality game for scientific literacy Rees, Carol
details Beyond Fun and Games: 
Interactive Theatre and Serious Videogames with Social Impact Shyba, Lori
details Believability, Adaptivity, and Performativity: Three Lenses for the Analysis of Interactive Storytelling. Tanenbaum, Joshua Glen
details Adolescent problem gambling: relationship with affect regulation, Internet addiction, and problematic video game playing Taylor, Robyn N
details Video game expertise and visual search and discrimination Wu, Sijing
details Computer-aided exercise Yim, Jeffrey W.H

International Digital Storytelling Conference – Call for Papers

Submission deadline extended: July 13, 2009

Conference site:

Scope of Conference:

Interactive entertainment, including novel forms of edutainment, therapy, and serious games, promises to become an ever more important market. Interactive Digital Storytelling provides access to social and human themes through stories, and promises to foster considerably the possibilities of interactive entertainment, computer games, and other interactive digital applications. ICIDS also identifies opportunities and addressess challenges for redefining the experience of narrative through interactive simulations of computer-generated story worlds.

Interactive Storytelling thus promises a huge step forward for games, training, and learning, through the aims to enrich virtual characters with intelligent behavior, to allow collaboration of humans and machines in the creative process, and to combine narrative knowledge and user activity in interactive artifacts. In order to create novel applications, in which users play a significant role together with digital characters and other autonomous elements, new concepts for Human-Computer Interaction have to be developed. Knowledge for interface design and technology has to be garnered and integrated. Interactive Storytelling involves concepts from many aspects of Computer Science, above all from Artificial Intelligence, with topics such as narrative intelligence, automatic dialogue- and drama management, cognitive robotics and smart graphics. In order to process stories in real time, traditional storytelling needs to be formalized into computable models, by drawing from narratological studies, and by taking into account the characteristics of programming. Consequently, due to its technological complexity, it is currently hardly accessible for creators and end-users. There is a need for new authoring concepts and tools supporting the creation of dynamic story models, allowing for rich and meaningful interaction with the content. Finally, there is a need for theoretical foundations considering the integration of so far disjunctive approaches and cultures.

Before ICIDS, two European conference series had been serving as main platforms for these topics:

  • ICVS (International Conference on Virtual Storytelling)
  • TIDSE (Technologies for Interactive Digital Storytelling and Entertainment)

While the venues of these events were traditionally bound to France and Germany, ICIDS is set to overcome also this geographical limitation.

ICIDS 2009 will be held in the Centro Cultural Vila Flor, in Guimarães, Portugal, EU. It is organized by the University of Minho and the CCG Centro de Computação Gráfica, supported by several partners.

Interacting with Immersive Worlds Conference II – registration open

The second edition of Brock’s Interacting with Immersive Worlds Conference is taking place this summer. Registration is now open. I was able to attend last year, and it was the highlight of my conference season. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend this year, so I’m going to miss out on some brilliant sessions.

Interacting with Immersive Worlds
An International Conference presented at
Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario
JUNE 15-16, 2009

Register to attend at:

Focusing on the growing cultural significance of interactive media, IWIW will feature academic papers organized along four streams:
-Challenges at the Boundaries of Immersive Worlds features creative exploration and innovation in immersive media including ubiquitous computing, telepresence, interactive art and fiction, and alternate reality.
-Critical Approaches to Immersion looks at analyses of the cultural and/or psychological impact of immersive worlds, as well as theories of interactivity.
-Immersive Worlds in Education examines educational applications of immersive technologies.
-Immersive Worlds in Entertainment examines entertainment applications of immersive technologies, such as computer games.

The IWIW conference also features 4 keynote speakers:
-Janet Murray, Director of Graduate Studies, School of Literature, Communication and Culture, Georgia Institute of Technology
-Espen Aarseth, Associate Professor, Department of Media and Communication, IT University of Denmark
-Geoffrey Rockwell, Professor, Department of Philosophy and Humanities Computing, University of Alberta
-Deborah Todd, Game Designer, Writer and Producer, and Author of Game Design: From Blue Sky to Green Light

Visit the conference Web site at

Organizing Committee:
Jean Bridge, Centre for Digital Humanities, Brock University,
Martin Danahay, Department of English Language and Literature, Brock University,
Denis Dyack, Silicon Knights, Catharines, Ontario,
Barry Grant, Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film,
David Hutchison, Faculty of Education, Brock University,
Kevin Kee, Department of History, Brock University,
John Mitterer, Department of Psychology, Brock University,
Michael Winter, Department of Computer Science, Brock University,
Philip Wright, Information Technology Services, Brock University,

Teaching with Interactive Fiction

I and some collaborators have a paper on using Interactive  Fiction in the classroom, for promoting straight-up literacy (not to mention computer literacy) skills. Hopefully, it’ll be coming out soon (ish). In the meantime, Jim Aikin has been using Inform 7 in his teaching: one to watch!

From his blog:

My first three-month adventure teaching interactive fiction to kids has come to an end, and a new class is scheduled to start next week. It’s tricky to generalize on the basis of one group of eight students; maybe these kids (ages 11-14) are unusually intelligent or motivated. But my impressions so far are completely positive. And I think maybe I understand why they enjoyed the process.

With interactive fiction (IF), it’s not just the end product — the text-based computer game — that’s interactive. The process of game development is also extremely interactive. That may be the key ingredient. If you’re, say, 12 years old, writing a conventional story may very easily look like drudgery. You may have some neat ideas. You may write a few paragraphs, or even a few pages. But then the stuff you’ve written will just lie there, on the paper or on the screen, staring at you. It’s static. It doesn’t come alive.

When writing IF, you can create a few rooms and a few objects and then take your work for a test drive. You can walk around in the little world you’ve imagined and experience it as a participant. The computer responds to you, and what you’ve written also responds to you. All this makes the process of creativity more involving.

If there are bugs in your code (and there will be…), you have a little puzzle to solve. You can make changes in what you’ve written until it works as you intended. You’ll go through this cycle over and over. This fosters a feeling of mastery and control that isn’t readily available to the author of static fiction. With static fiction, the question of whether it works is not just subjective but altogether murky […more…]

Jim’s thoughts mirror many of my own, when it comes to the value of Interactive Fiction for teaching. IF for historical literacy – now that’s my longer-term goal…

Interactive Fiction – bibliography and other directions

Denis Jerz writes of IF,  “Interactive fiction requires the text-analysis skills of a literary scholar and the relentless puzzle-solving drive of a computer hacker. People tend to love it or hate it. Those who hate it sometimes say it makes them think too much”

I like IF. I’m crap at solving puzzles, but I like it all the same.

For the bibliophiles amongst us, some bibliography from the academic literature on Interactive Fiction – you’ll note that most of the academic interest in IF waxed and waned in the late 80s, early 90s. But, there has been a resurgence in interest lately, mostly due to the literary qualities of IF. If that’s the sort of thing that interests you, check out:

Douglass, J. (2007). Command Lines: Aesthetics and Technique in Interactive Fiction and New Media. Dissertation, U. California Santa Barbara. link

as well as the complete oeuvre of Nick Montfort, including his ‘Twisty Little Passages‘. Nick also has a ‘harcover‘ of an IF he created, for sale:

An annotated bibliography of academic IF, published in 2002, lives here.

Emily Short’s articles on the art of creating IF may be found here. If you’re at all interested in the possibilities of creating IF, you must start with Short’s work!

Finally, a blog worth following for the literary qualities of IF and other species of computer-mediated writing: Grand Text Auto ‘A group blog about computer narrative, games, poetry, and art’

Right. Here’s the bit o’ bibliography that I’ve scraped up this morning:

Baltra, A. (1990). Language Learning through Computer Adventure Games. Simulation & Gaming, 21(4), 445-452.

Blanchard, J. S., & Mason, G. E. (1985). Using Computers in Content Area Reading Instruction. Journal of Reading, 29(2), 112-117.

Bonnaud-Lamotte, D. (1986). Contemporary Literary Lexicology and Terminology: An Inventory. Computers and the Humanities, 20(3), 209-212.

Brackin, A. L. (2008). Tracking the emergent properties of the collaborative online story “deus city” for testing the standard model of Alternate Reality Game. (1)U Texas At Dallas, US.

Broadley, K. (1986). Past Practices and Possibilities with Computers. Australian Journal of Reading, 9(1), 41-50.

Clement, J. (1994). Fiction interactive et modernité [Interactive fiction and modernity]. Littérature (Paris. 1971), (96), 19-36.

De Souza E Silva, A., & Delacruz, G. C. (2006). Hybrid Reality Games Reframed: Potential Uses in Educational Contexts. Games And Culture, 1(3), 231-251.

Desilets, B. J. (1989). Reading, Thinking, and Interactive Fiction (Instructional Materials). English Journal, 78.

Douglass, J. (2008). Command lines: Aesthetics and technique in interactive fiction and new media. (1)U California, Santa Barbara, US.

Finnegan, R., & Sinatra, R. (1991). Interactive Computer-Assisted Instruction with Adults. Journal of Reading, 35(2), 108-119.

Howell, G., & Douglas, J. Y. (1990). The Evolution of Interactive Fiction. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 2, 93-109.

Lancy, D. F., & Hayes, B. L. (1986). Building an Anthology of “Interactive Fiction.”. Report: ED275991. 15pp. Apr 1986.

Lancy, D. F., & Hayes, B. L. (1988). Interactive Fiction and the Reluctant Reader. English Journal, 77.

Marcus, S. (1985). Computers in Thinking, Writing, and Literature. Report: ED266468. 20pp. Nov 1985.

McVicker, J. (1992). Several Approaches to Computer-Based Reading Study. CAELL Journal, 3(4), 2-11.

Newman, J. M. (1988). Online: Write Your Own Adventure. Language Arts, 65.

Niesz, A. J., & Holland, N. N. (1984). Interactive Fiction. Critical Inquiry Chicago, 11(1), 110-129.

Packard, E. B. (1987). Interactive Fiction for Children: Boon or Bane? School Library Journal, 34.

Pea, R. D., & Kurland, D. M. (1987). Chapter 7: Cognitive Technologies for Writing. Review Of Research In Education, 14(1), 277-326.

Sampson, F. (1987). Interactive Fiction: An Experience of the “Writers in Education” Scheme. Children’s Literature in Education, 18.

Simic, M., & Smith, C. (1990). The Computer as an Aid to Reading Instruction. Learning Package No. 27. Report: ED333393. 50pp. 1990.

Tavinor, G. (2005). Videogames and Interactive Fiction. Philosophy and Literature, 29(1), 24-40.

Thomas, S. (2006). Pervasive learning games: Explorations of hybrid educational gamescapes. Simulation & Gaming, 37(1), 41-55.

Interactive Fiction Competition

The latest IF competition is underway. Emily Short reports on the works she’s played so far this year here. As a historian or humanist, you should really take a look at what is being accomplished in this particular medium. A decent work of IF is as immersive as any whiz-bang 3d online world, but far more intimate in that it is your own experience generating the fireworks (like the old Infocom add had it, the brain is the fastest graphics card there is…). Note the different approaches of the various works. I’ve tried my hand here or there writing IF that seeks to immerse the student in the process of doing history – sifting through, evaluating, etc, various real documents – in order to progress through the game. Reading Emily’s review, I’m inspired to take it up again, to learn from these works to try different approaches.

For instance, the work below might suggest a great way to incorporate scanned historical materials into a work:

Everybody Dies. A short story with good writing, easy but effective puzzles, and quality illustrations. Speaking of those illustrations, I found them to be a fantastic solution to the question of how to present subjective material in the context of IF: these weren’t a mere add-on or embellishment but an absolutely essential part of the story. This was, by a nose, my favorite game of the comp. But it had strong competition.

And one that suggests a way to use historical biographical materials to resurrect the dead –

Violet. Polished and bursting with personality; though in form it’s a one-room puzzle game, in content it’s a romance with a memorable NPC. Other games have played with divisions between the parser and viewpoint character, or the player and the protagonist, but most often they’ve used those divisions to subvert expectations or produce unexpected surprises. Violet goes another direction, by making the whole content of the game into an effective conversation with the narrator, on the subject of your relationship and its prospects. It’s a fabulous idea and it worked very well.

I know I’ve said it time and again, but if time/money/energy allows, I’d love to enter a piece in the competition that had educational/historical aims. Could writing effective IF be considered an academic publication? (It’d certainly be all postmoderny)

Interactive Fiction, Passively

PMOG:The Passively Multiplayer Online Game

An interesting feature of Pmog ‘missions’ is the way that so many of them are really guided tours of specialty websites (e.g. this one). This is a handy approach if, say, you teach via distance and you want to show your students what constitutes ‘good’ research sites.

Yet, that’s really nothing a powerpoint couldn’t already do. An interesting variant on these missions is the ‘puzzle’ mission, where creators exploit a glitch in the game to create breaks in the flow of the mission. The only way to progress is to solve the riddle to learn what website to go to next – whereupon the mission resumes.  Some of these, like ‘The Mystery Machine‘, require you to read the page to fill in the blanks: each word represents a letter in an ultimate URL. If you’ve got the right letters and you complete the last URL, the resulting webpage represents the ‘Victory!’ screen.  Others are more complex, more devious. My own mission, ‘The Case of the Missing … Something” depends on anagrams of URLs (which is mean, I know). I can’t solve ‘The Lost Gold of Dr. Nes‘, since it depends on a gamer’s knowledge of nintendo, but the principle is good.  ‘Meet Felix Klein‘ takes the player on a tour through various flickr photographs to create a kind of visual story. No puzzle, but it certainly *feels* like an old-style text adventure.

All of these represent a new twist on “interactive fiction”, with the fiction layered on top of the day-to-day internet (perhaps a riff on augment reality, too?).  In a way, they are like the ‘Prisoner Escape from the Tower of London‘ game created by mscape: the fiction intersects with daily life to create the game, with events being triggered by your physical or virtual location in the game space. Unlike regular interactive fiction, the game creator does not control that game space – other people intrude (in Pmog, other players might lay, for reasons unrelated to the mission you happen to be on, mines or portals on pages within a mission, which could -perhaps- prevent you from completing it).

The archaeological angle: simple show and tell of vetted sites is good, for starters. Using Pmog (or other AR) to create layers of information/meaning on top of the information is even better. You could imagine a student creating a pmog mission on curse-tablets. This might begin as simple show and tell. Other students could then play the mission, leaving mines on pages they think are ‘bad’ (poor information, bad research, whatever) or portals to ‘good’ sites… the game records the play, and the meta-analysis afterwards with the prof would spark a deeper discussion. Inserting puzzles into the mission would force a deeper engagement still, and completing a puzzle mission would constitute a formative assessment exercise.  Creating missions could also be exercises in public archaeology for the students,  if built around a decent resource (say the British Museum, or Chaco Canyon).

What I’m arguing for is that we, as educators, need to be using things like Pmog to get our students to engage with online materials in a deeper fashion. They are too often uncritical users of what they find. They need to interact passively.

Canadians on the Nile

The first piece of interactive fiction that I wrote (and continue to work on) puts far too many words into the mouth of Major Boulton. I need to make the conversation there far more natural – a menu system has been suggested, so I’m slowly learning how to implement that. The general idea of the piece is for it to be a one or two room rambling conversation, over the course of which, the player discovers truths about the Northwest Rebellion.

In the interests of overloading my work schedule, I’ve started working on a second piece, that isn’t quite so literal. In ‘Canadians on the Nile’, I’m taking my inspiration from the expedition to relieve General Gordon at Khartoum by using logdrivers and river men from the Ottawa Valley to Manitoba to navigate the Nile (living in the Ottawa Valley as I do, this is one of my favourite historical episodes). This one is less ‘faithful’ that the Northwest Rebellion, since I’m putting words into my characters’ mouths that they didn’t actually say…  Right now, there are two non-player characters, in the opening scene which ends with the player’s enlistment. Ideally, there’d be several npcs for the player to interact with, learning the historical background, etc… and then self-contained episodes reflecting the real historical course of the expedition. Eventually.

Here‘s what I’ve got so far.  (…the though occurs: I’m a Romanist, by training… why am I not trying Roman themes…?)

Northwest Rebellion – early stages work of an Interactive Fiction approach to writing history

Charles BoultonOne of the neat things about the Great Canadian Mysteries series is how ‘doing history’ is constructed as ‘solving’ a mystery, by examining the primary historical documents. In the interactive fiction (IF) below – which is only an early *early* draft – I am trying to accomplish the same thing. Here, the ‘game’ will be to explore and construct and interpretation of the Northwest Rebellion, by interacting with the historical characters who were there… and who speak to you in their own words. Just about anything Major Charles Boulton says come from his own published historical reminisces. Now, an interactive fiction requires plot, pacing, a story arc, etc… or can it simply be as simple as ‘talking’ with a simulated person…? Right now, this IF just shows how such a writing of history could be accomplished. I need to program the non-player character of Major Boulton with a bit of artificial intelligence so that he can respond to a wide variety of interactions with the player. My model is Emily Short’s Galatea, which won the 2006 IF prize. I don’t want this work to be a simple kind of chatterbot.

So, here’s an early version of the Major Charles Boulton and the Northwest Rebellion Interactive Historical Fiction, by Shawn Graham.

Damnatio Memoriae, a work of Interactive Fiction by Emily Short

I am, amongst other things, interested in interactive fiction for teaching, learning, and research. And of course I’m not a dried-up old prune: I like these things to be fun too!

Emily Short is currently one of the best writers of interactive fiction – here’s a piece by her with a Roman flavour, ‘Damnatio Memoriae’

“14 AD. Agrippa Postumus, grandson of the recently-deceased Augustus, tries to avoid death at the hands of the next emperor, Tiberius. At his disposal: a couple of old manuscripts, a lamp, and a recalcitrant slave. And a powerful knowledge of the Art of Venus Genetrix, of course — the magic eventually known as the Lavori d’Aracne.

Damnatio Memoriae belongs to a series with the author’s previous game Savoir-Faire; though it can stand alone, the game’s mechanics will make most sense to players already familiar with that work.

It is a fast, timed game, taking only a few minutes to play once, but probably requiring multiple attempts to bring to a satisfactory conclusion.”