The potentialities of interactive fiction in children and educational publishing

With the arrival of digital technologies (mainly with video games), users began to engage in stories of which they once were mere spectators, now becoming protagonists of them directly or through a customized avatar. To keep the pace with digital change,  literature adapted to this new unstoppable trend: the interactivity that makes feel the reader as part of the story he enjoys.

The reader traditionally played a passive role unrelated to the plot of the story. However, in the eighties (after Rayuela by Cortazar), the children’s explorative hyperfiction made its appearance with Choose your own adventure gamebooks. In this series, children could already decide which development of the story to choose and feel the plot like a personalized story. This was named, among other many expressions, “interactive fiction”.

Interactive fiction is currently experiencing a second golden age thanks to the employment of adult themes, renewed horizons and the use of new technologies. One of the most important contributions of this new era comes from learning applications. It is known that students learn faster if the content is transmitted through the game. Therefore, in this motivated and entertained mood, students are more predisposed to absorb knowledge.. We can point out, as an example, that any child knows the names of all the Star Wars characters while no one has forced them to learn them.

Based on this idea, interactive fiction and gamebooks may prove very useful to educate in historical, political or civic values through literature.

I assembled a list of benefits that interactive fiction brings to learning process in a guide for educators. Just to mention a few of them:

  • Decision-Making: If one thing characterizes gamebooks, which were a literary innovation in their time, it is the readers’ obligation to make decisions in order to carry on with their adventure. These choices or options usually presented at the end of each section (previously each page), which means that the reader-player protagonist is constantly bombarded with situations that require a decision. And that’s not all: the reader of a gamebook doesn’t meet their obligation with a mere decision, but will also be subject to the consequences of the decision, whether they be good, neutral or bad. In order to continue the story being lived through reading, the reader will have to develop an ability to get involved and act. Using this technique, the gamebook teaches the student how to resolve life situations and the importance of decision making to do so.
  • Organization: One of their most noted characteristics, and those that have been reached by pure evolution, is the inclusion of a character sheet and, quite often, a backpack or inventory for storing items. In both cases, the reader must develop and apply their organizational skills. When applying points, there is a maximum number to distribute amongst various options and the reader must evaluate and measure their resources. The use of the inventory is clear: the reader will have to select and organize their belongings because, at one point in the game, they may need an item they had previously discarded. Or, on the other hand, they will see how not everything fits inside and that they have to select what they want. On many occasions, the success or failure of their own odyssey will depend on this organization.
  • Prediction: the player knows this beforehand, as such they will always bear in mind (from the explanation of the rules) that predicting future situations will help their survival. Linked to teaching organization, this characteristic of gamebooks allows us to teach students the importance of planning ahead and the need to be prepared for any eventuality. By necessity, the player-reader will have to expand their intuition and experience in order to play; and, as such, realize the possible development of the game and their story. To achieve this, they must make good use of the tools they currently have and get hold of the tools they will need in a brief matter of time to avoid harmful risks to their avatar.
  • Intellectual Development: What kind of gamebook would it be if you didn’t have to solve brain teasers? From the first gamebooks that appeared on the market a series of puzzles or brain teasers have been With these conundrums or puzzles, the reader will have to hone their ingenuity skills and will not be able to cheat. We oblige them “to think.” These tests may be mathematical, cultural, logical, imaginative, creative… the incentive is not only the challenge of solving them (the reward, the excitement) but also the obstacle presented by not solving them (punishment, defeat). The use of information sources (Internet, libraries…) is, of course, allowed to help them find the solution to these problems. Another variation that has been suggested is the appearance of successive clues that, properly put together, will allow the reader-player to solve the test or mystery.
  • Problem Solving: gamebooks essentially propose various problems, not only of a mental nature. On the contrary, decisions to be made at the end of a section, discarding an item to make room for another, trusting or making enemies with other characters, fighting with certain weapons or changing them for others, choosing to draw a map (or not) when entering a labyrinth, etc.… are decisions the reader has to take. The value, the tool that is learned in this way, is the ability to be decisive, especially during adolescence where doubt and indecision tend to eat away at the personality of many human beings. Using the gamebook (as I said, a way of learning that is harmless by definition) will teach students the need to solve conflicts with the available means, adapting to the circumstances of every moment to ensure the survival of their character and later on, if necessary, changing their behavior.
  • Socialisation: moral values can be taught in the story, practical values, periods of history, philosophical thought… depending on what lies beneath each story. Given that the game is played in the second person (you, reader, are the protagonist) the introduction of certain values is done in a more personalized way. The reader-player-protagonist will have to get into the role of their avatar and will better understand their motivations and problems. Values in social integration, economic culture, encouraging creative solutions, raising awareness of common problems can be included; or, more generally, any message that we want to express to students in a relaxed way using games. To mention a case that applies to adults; recently, collections of erotic gamebooks have appeared in which readers discover new ideas, variations and options that may be helpful in this part of their private lives.

We can already find interesting examples of this trend in the Internet: the city of New York has published guidebooks titled “Choose Your Own Path to Preparedness (tween guide)” to teach children and teenagers to face different problems. Regarding Europe, the Speakers for Europe project explain the importance of voting in the European elections by means of a gamebook. In Spain, the Federation of Associations for Child Protection published a gamebook in which social values of equality and cooperation are transmitted, and that explains to children and teenagers the purposes of the Spanish Strategic Plan for Childhood.

These are just quick examples of several others that we can found in the Internet and which reaffirm what I’m trying to express. I invite readers to investigate on their own: type “webquest” in Google and admire the possibilities offered by this genre from the educational point of view. You can find a good start here.

Due to their characteristics gamebooks  find their ideal place in the digital format. The use of hyperlinks, the basic structural element for decision making in the interactive fiction, becomes very natural in the digital format, which also provides a better user experience than previous solutions based on paper.

New technologies are the ideal tool for the creation of the hyperlinks in gamebooks. There are excellent software applications as Inform7 or Twine that help and ease the work of structuring a gamebook. The company Inkle Studios has created its own tool which anyone can use online and whose code was released recently. We find another example in the American site Adventure Cow.

These applications allow a fast and structured gamebook creation, and run on multiple digital devices. Also, through the proper use of a web server, the contents can be accessed from different places (see here), feature which eases its use.

Another big advantage of these digital products is the immersive experience that can be added as an extra to the literature itself. It is normal to include ambient sounds, music, advanced gaming systems, transition videos between scenes, rewards or badges, etc., and in general, different gamification elements (we have examples by some Spanish development companies as Cubus Games and Ecnaris Games), and finally transforming the gamebook into an app. But we can keep calm: the vast majority of these applications are based on text, where literature is predominant and configures the core of the gamebook, while audiovisual enhances the reading or playing experience.

I should not take longer this article. After reading this brief overview, it should be clear that it is only us to make the most of all these resources and make the gamebooks become one of the best possible tool today for education and training.

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