Jason Sellers wanted his 10th-grade English students at the French American International School to improve their descriptive writing skills. So, while subbing for a fellow teacher earlier this year, he launched a three-day classroom project—on writing code.
Sellers, the San Francisco school’s academic technology coordinator and the technology liaison for the University of California Berkeley’s Bay Area Writing Project, says, “You hear a lot about gaming and engaging kids in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects, and I wondered, what does gaming look like in English?”
For three days Sellers found out, adopting interactive fiction as his vehicle. As opposed to programming code such as Java or C++, interactive fiction sites use a pseudo code that’s only recognizable inside a particular game, which organizes the language into commands and variables that tells the game what to do. It’s the principles of code writing, but with more latitude; by stringing together words, kids can create an interactive world, which comes to life onscreen. One of Sellers’ students calls it “3-D writing.”
Lessons are based in Playfic, an online community where users write, share, and play games using Inform 7, a programming system for creating interactive fiction based on natural language. Games are simple to play—users just click and write as they would a text message. While low on graphics and sound, the games can nevertheless be engrossing.
Having played Zork games on a used Commodore 64 when he was a kid, Sellers had some experience with interactive fiction. Even so, he had to spend the previous evening boning up before presenting his lesson to the class. And it was a hit. “It wasn’t just something for their teacher to assess and get a grade,” says Sellers. “They were creating a game for classmates to play and that was fun.”
Most games feature some simplistic narrative, such as rescuing a commando force from enemy fire. But writing narrative code as an English assignment—as opposed to writing code to create a narrative game—not only allows greater creativity in the game design process, but also enhances writing skills and text comprehension in a different genre—an aspect of the new Common Core State Standards.
“What Jason is doing is giving them more tools to create games as producers and not just as consumers,” says Paul Oh, senior program associate for the National Writing Project (NWP). “They’re being given the opportunity to understand the narrative of the game and how to construct their own narrative.”
After posting his project on NWP’s Digital Is site, Sellers has developed a bit of a following. He and four of his 10th graders recently attended the California Association of Teachers of English conference in Santa Clara to present the project, helping teachers in the room craft some code themselves.
Should he try the lesson again, Sellers says he would strengthen the emphasis on descriptive writing, as some of his students were more focused on building a playable game rather than creating a world through descriptive language. But did he feel he got them hooked into a new world of gaming?
“I’m competing with a lot of other ways to spend their free time,” he says. “But I think it’s pretty cool.”