"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Monday, March 28, 2011

Interactivity is Authentic

If you've read much of this blog before, you'll know I am a strong advocate of Authentic Learning, having helped pilot a project to develop a community of educators sharing authentic learning design. But as an English teacher, some of the areas we stumble on in creating such designs are (a) ownership of the work; (b) working cooperatively; and (c) identifying or developing a real audience. Our solutions to these challenges can rude toward the crude, for example, in-class presentations of group projects. You have an audience, but it is not a real one. You may not have co-operative work, but parallel work. And who ever felt ownership of the experience of holding up a chart or a poster and talking about it?

Interactive fiction answers a lot of this. For people of my age, who came of age in the 1970s or early 1980s, you may remember these as text-based adventure games, which were infuriating to us old-school types because the rules and procedures are never set out in advance. You were endlessly lost in some cave trying to figure out how to go right or whether you should put down the candle in order to pick up the wand. And endless prompts as we endlessly tried to do the same thing over and over, despite ample proof that it didn't work. (Or anyway, that's what happened to me.)

But as you may have noticed, technology, especially computers and their programming have developed somewhat in the last 30 years or so. Those text adventures are now called interactive fiction, not least because (a) they are far more sophisticated and complex than they were and (b) they can be created by users, rather than merely existed in closed, pre-packaged forms. And they can be created by teams or groups of users. In short, text adventures have morphed into a quasi-literary activity, in which text can be as good or bad, cursory or detailed, reflective or aggressive as the creator or creators wish. And in the course of this development, interactive fiction is (a) owned by its creator(s); (b) mostly written cooperatively; and (c) is capable of developing a real audience, that is, the players who experience a story as a game, with alternate outcomes (which encourages repetition and re-exploration, a hallmark of good literature).

But our students have grown up completely in the era of interactivity, of the democratization of creativity. Stories told by a storyteller in only one way, as in novels and films, are but one way to experience a narrative, and probably becoming a minority taste. Our students have a natural feel for open-endedness, for the hope built into the idea that the end is not yet written, and that a story is not to be heard, but experienced and participated in. What I'm trying to say is that if you are over 45, this may require some mental adaptation, but I believe such an adaptation is not only advisable, but necessary.

The chances are that many of your students, especially the most imaginative and creative students are already doing this with your friends. You should ask who is participating in this, and what kinds of things they like and how they are interacting with their friends. You might want to scaffold your design with a pilot group, who can get you past your initial stumbles, presuming this is a new or new-ish area for you. (If it's not new to you, you really don't need to read this whole post -- just grab the link for Inform and begone with you!)

And, if like me, you're not sure where to begin among the competing aggregations of fiction, message boards and blogs, may I suggest a site and system called Inform, which was brought to my attention by a close friend who knows how enthusiastic yet clueless I can be about this kind of thing. Inform uses plain-language not just for the text that the players experience, but for the programming code. If you are a fogey like me, you need to adjust to thinking of narrative in terms of creating (or describing) an environment and setting rules by which the narrative will proceed. It's simply a matter of learning to turn over the some of the power of the storyteller over to the audience and relaxing one's grip over the order in which information is dispensed.

Obviously, this kind of writing is not going to yield a Harold Pinter or even a Dan Brown, whose craft is entirely based on the slow, calculated release of information in a particular order. On the other hand, many writers such as Cervantes, Dante and Raymond Carver and John Irving do not exert such tight-fisted control of the timeline.

Here is a video tutorial on some of the programming protocols and systems in Inform. You'll see they are fairly easy and intuitive

The challenge remains to incorporate this into our specified course of study. Of course, there are always ways and means to give encouragement, support and course credit to independent writing. But for the less naturally motivated student, interactive fiction can be used as an analytical tool, especially for those works which we teach with a strong focus on the temporal and geographical environment, such as The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, or To Kill A Mockingbird or The Kite Runner. The environmental aspects and the choices made by the persons in the story can be parsed out in a very precise manner so that the player can see to what extent the narrative is driven by environment and to what extent choice.

"Bold, persistent experimentation." If it's good enough for a US president facing the worst economic crisis in our history, it's good enough for me. Plus IF is bound to be a lot more fun than the National Recovery Act.

No comments:

Post a Comment