The Pause Problem
My seventh grade class and I are reading aloud, in Chapter 9 of Catherine
Patterson's famous young adult novel, Lyddie. Most of the students
in the class don't especially like to read, but, for now at least, the
group seems quite caught up in the narrative, as the main character goes
to visit her new friend, who, according to her housemates, is a notorious
labor agitator. Around the middle of the chapter, the class encounters
the word "phrenologist," complete with sufficient context to
enable the students to make a very reasonable guess at its meaning. I know
that, according to recent high-stakes, high-profile statewide testing,
students in my school are not especially good at determining meaning from
context; and so I am tempted to interrupt the reading process here to do
a little direct teaching, or perhaps just to remind students to use techniques
that they already know to glean the meaning of the unfamiliar word. If
I don't stop now, I know that I'll lose an opportunity to do some good
teaching--the occasion just won't be as fresh if I wait until we reach
the end of the chapter. But, of course, if I stop the process now, when
the students are enjoying a real aesthetic encounter with the printed word,
I may lose in motivation more than I gain in skill-building.
"Wouldn't it be great," I muse, "if the author of this
story had built into the story's design lots of good stopping places--places
that occur frequently, not just at the end of chapters, and places that
work aesthetically, not just pedagogically?" But, of course, novels
are not built that way.
I decide to take the phrenology pause. The kids are pretty patient and
attentive, and I manage a bit of clear, direct teaching, but nobody likes
breaking the story up this way, and the rest of the chapter is just not
as powerful, though I keep subsequent interruptions to a minimum.
The next day, the same class is reading a passage in Arthur:
the Quest for Excalibur (1989), a novel-length work of computer-based
interactive fiction by Bob Bates. As the main character, the youthful,
pre-coronation Arthur, approaches a peasant's cottage, he finds something
called a "slean." Does the class pause in its reading process
to figure out what a slean is? In the context of interactive fiction, the
question is absurd. Of course we have to figure out what a slean is. If
we don't, we probably won't be able to continue reading the story at all,
at least not for very long. Unlike the Lyddie class, this group
doesn't mind the pause at all. Indeed, the author, in constructing his
story, has made an aesthetic judgment that just such a pause belongs at
this point in the tale.
Interactive fiction is a computer-based form of literature in which
the reader plays the part of an important character, deciding, within limits,
what action that character will take. By typing ordinary English sentences
at the keyboard, the reader or, frequently, a group of readers decides
where the main characters will go, what objects they will pick up and use,
how they will solve problems, and how they will interact with other characters.
Many students find interactive fiction, also known as IF or adventure gaming,
an enjoyable way to gain experience with all of the major elements of literature
(although point of view takes an unusual twist or two), and teachers who
are comfortable with it soon find that it works well in even the one-computer
Some Quick Samples of Interactive Fiction
Some quick and convenient examples of IF, including a short version
of the famous story Zork by Dave Lebling and Marc Blanc (Infocom, 1981),
are available to web users at <http://www.pond.com/~russotto/zplet/ifol.html>.
However, readers new to IF may want to learn how to communicate with interactive
fiction before attempting one of the stories. A primer on IF communications
resides at <http://pages.prodigy.net/desilets/diff_com.html>.
Also, new users of IF will probably find that they "get stuck"
on particular problems or puzzles from time to time, but it's easy to find
help with Zork at <http://www.csd.uwo.ca/Infocom/Invisiclues/zork1/>.
These puzzles, of course, are part of the fun of the story, but, for teachers,
they offer the unique advantage of pausing the reading process in many
of the right places.
For the purposes of this article, and in many other discussions of the
current topic, the term interactive fiction refers to a genre that communicates
entirely or almost entirely through words, not pictures. My World Wide
Web site called "Teaching
and Learning With Interactive Fiction" <http://pages.prodigy.net/desilets> has, for the last four years, offered a close look at four of the advantages
of this sort of IF for the classroom, including its unique fascination
for kids, its forthright way of addressing all the major elements of
conventional literature, its potential for helping
students become better problem solvers, and its very
modest cost and technological requirements.
Interactive Fiction and Student Motivation
The way kids take to interactive fiction is really quite striking. Since
1985, I have introduced about five hundred kids aged eleven through fourteen to the genre. A clear majority of them like it. In fact, it quickly becomes the most popular form of literature with most of them. Students like interactive fiction mainly because it's an exciting way to read a story, a way that lets them feel very active and involved.
They enjoy using IF to gain experience with all of the major elements of
literature, such as plot, setting, and point of view. Many young people
also like the problem-solving that comes with the IF experience. These
kids appreciate interactive fiction because it challenges them to recognize
and solve problems in ways that no textbook seems able to match.
Given the choice of reading conventional literature or interactive fiction,
most of the students in the author's classes choose IF. This result may
seem unremarkable at first. After all, most children like to try something
new. However, even after numerous opportunities to choose over a period
of months, and even when the available hard-copy reading includes hightly
motivational books, magazines, and newspapers, about seventy percent of
seventh graders prefer to work with the always-challenging computer-based
Interactive Fiction and the Elements of Conventional Literature
A second important advantage of IF is that it offers a straightfoward
way for students to learn about the elements of conventional literature.
For example, though the IF reader has great control over what the main
character of a stories tries to do, a work of IF still has a largely conventional
plot, with an exposition (often in the form of conventional text), a rising
action (albeit one in which the order of events can vary somewhat from
one reading to another), a climax, and a denouement (or, occasionally,
more than one possible ending). Unlike many other electronic storytelling
environments, such as Multi-User Simulated Environments or Habitats (MUSEs or MUSHes), interactive
fiction does not present itself as a way for students to create their own
stories by interacting with other authors within a digital mini-world.
Instead, IF remains much closer to the experience of reading a well-contructed
novel or short story.
Problem Solving and Interactive Fiction
A third positive trait of IF for the classroom is the way it challenges
readers to solve a variety of intriguing problems, providing a remarkably
rich milieu for teaching critical thinking. The thinking processes involved
in interactive fiction may be understood as an application of Robert J.
Sternberg's componential theory of intelligence. Expressed in a 1984 article
in Educational Leadership ("How Can We Teach Intelligence?" Sept., 38-48) and elaborated on in his book Intelligence Applied (Harcourt, 1986), this theory tries to understand intelligence partly
in terms of three kinds of component processes. "Metacomponents"
control intelligent behavior by planning, monitoring, and evaluating it.
"Performance components," such as inferring similarities and
differences, actually carry out the plans for thinking that the metacomponents
decide upon. And "knowledge acquisition components" enable the
thinker to gain new information, including information that the other kinds
of components may use. For example, if I were deciding to buy one of two
automobiles, the metacomponents of my intelligence would enable me to choose
comparing and contrasting as part of my strategy for making a good decision.
I would also use metacomponents to monitor my strategy as I used it and
to evaluate its outcome. The actual comparing and contrasting, though,
would be performance components; and my techniques for gathering information
about the cars, such as reading about them or directly inspecting them,
would be knowledge acquisition components. Interactive fiction, like any
kind of literature, involves all three kinds of components, but it offers
an especially compelling approach to metacomponents in that it forces readers
to think about how they are controlling their thinking.
For example, at the beginning of one popular work of interactive fiction,
Steve Meretzky's Planetfall (Infocom, 1983), the reader must exercise
a metacomponent that textbooks seldom ask students to use but that Sternberg
considers essential to intelligent behavior: namely, the ability to recognize
and define the nature of a problem. Here is the beginning of the story:
Another routine day of drudgery aboard the stellar patrol ship
Feinstein. This morning's assignment for a certain lowly ensign
seventh class: scrubbing the filthy metal deck at the port end of Level
Nine. With your patrol-issue self-contained multi-purpose scrub-brush you
shine the floor with a diligence born of the knowledge that at any moment
dreaded Ensign First Class Blather, the bane of your shipboard existence,
What exactly are the problems here? Well, one problem seems to be to
get the deck clean, a problem that seems to call for persistent scrubbing,
and so we might try typing in at the computer keyboard, "Scrub deck."
If we do so, the program responds with the not-too-exciting, "The
deck looks a little cleaner now." But perhaps a more important problem
we face here is a lack of knowledge of our surroundings. Maybe we should
activate a knowledge acquisition component and explore. Our location at
the start of the story, Level Nine, offers two exits, a corridor to starboard
and a gangway leading up. If we go up to Level Eight, we meet another character,
the aforementioned "dreaded Ensign Blather," who assigns us twenty
demerits and belligerently orders us to return to our post. Here we have
another apparent problem, which may suggest solutions such as obedience,
arguing, or a punch in the jaw. In interactive fiction, we can try out any
or all of these approaches. If we do so, we find that punching Blather
causes him to dismember us (not to worry, though; in interactive fiction,
death is just the program's way of telling us we've taken a misstep), that
arguing with Blather at length causes us to be thrown into the brig, and
that going back to work leads to a comic encounter with a broccoli-like
alien ambassador who drips slime all over the deck we're shining. Eventually,
though, we learn that the last of these approaches works best, since the
ship we are on soon explodes and our position on Deck Nine proves especially
convenient to an escape pod. In the pod, of course, we must again identify
the nature of the problem(s) we face and try to deal with them; and only
after we land on the planet to which the pod takes us, will we figure out
that the central problem of the story is to bring the planet's inhabitants
back to life and to return to the stellar patrol.
Wishbringer (Infocom, 1985), an award-winning work of IF by Brian
Moriarty, offers an amusing instance of a second ability which, according
to Sternberg, underlies intelligent behavior, the ability to decide on
how to represent problem information. In this relatively easy interactive
novel, the main character eventually finds himself in the lair of a dangerous,
light-hating monster known as a grue, as he searches for, among other things,
grue's milk. In the lair, he finds a sleeping baby grue and a refrigerator.
When he opens the refrigerator door, he notes that a small light goes off,
but since he's carrying his own source of light, he can see a bottle of
milk inside. Unfortunately, though, because of the light, the baby grue
wakes up and howls like "the screeching of a subway," summoning
a horrible monster with "a calico apron and slavering fangs,"
which promptly dispatches the protagonist. Now, after using a few simple
keystrokes to recall to the computer's memory a "snapshot" of
the game just before the opening of the door, the readers have a problem
to solve, a problem that will probably lead to the question, "How
can we get the grue's milk out of the refrigerator?" However, with
(or better, without) a little coaching, readers may see that other, more
complete representations of the problem can facilitate a solution. They
may move to, "How can we kill the baby grue in order to get the grue's
milk safely?" but since there are no weapons in the story, this formulation
doesn't help much. Sooner or later, though, they will probably try, "How
can we keep the baby grue asleep in order to get the grue's milk safely?",
a very helpful version in that the protagonist has easy access to a blanket.
Of course, other readers may solve the problem through other sorts of alternative
representations, for example, by drawing mental or physical pictures of
the scene, thus using visualizing techniques that English teachers often
urge students to try.
Like the problem-recognition instance in Planetfall, this problem-representation
example is by no means unique to one particular work. In fact, almost every
good piece of IF challenges the reader to use these abilities and many
more that Sternberg stresses. IF readers must carefully monitor their solution
processing because surprising, and sometimes even random, events can occur
at unexpected times in familiar settings, as in Wishbringer, when
the Boot Patrol, a magical police troop consisting of gigantic, smelly
boots, suddenly threatens. Readers must evaluate their solutions, since
some apparently good results, such as the killing of a bellicose stranger
in Marc Blank and Dave Lebling's Zork III (Infocom, 1982), may turn
out to be serious mistakes. Mental and physical resources must be allocated
to various problems as in, for instance, deciding which of the many available
objects to carry around in Planetfall. Readers must apply old relations
to new situations, as in deciding whether to respect the orders of Perelman,
an important character in Meretzky's A Mind Forever Voyaging (Infocom, 1985), a work of serious science fiction that many readers regard as
the finest piece of IF yet written. Likewise, readers must make automatic
some elements of their information processing, by mapping the fifty-five
Wishbringer locations, for example.
The Costs of IF
A fourth advantage of interactive fiction is its remarkably low cost.
To begin with, the stories themselves are ridiculously inexpensive. One
can buy most of the best commercially published interactive fiction, for
both PC and Macintosh computers, in one magnificent collection called The
Masterpieces of Infocom. Eric
Sansoni's Web Site offers advice on how to purchase this collection
and other Infocom products, and Masterpieces is also available directly
from Activision's Online Store.
The price? Around twenty dollars for a collection of thirty-three interactive
Newer interactive fiction, as published on the Internet, is even less
expensive. It's mostly free, though the reader has to know a bit more to
get it to work. Plenty of help is available at the Interactive
Fiction Page, especially in a document called "Playing
the Interactive Fiction Archive Games."
The computer hardware needed to read interactive fiction is about as inexpensive as the stories. Virtually any PC or Macintosh computer, even a very early
model without a hard drive, the sort of computer that most school systems
and businesses now throw away, has plenty of speed and power for IF. I once provided an IF-running computer for each student in my class using IBM Model IV computers that were literally pulled from a dumpster.
Under these circumstances, interactive fiction provides an ideal opportunity
for teachers who would like to assign students some computer-based literature
without making unreasonable demands on their resources. The stories can
be made available on floppy disks for running on home, school, or dorm
computers; or, in many cases, they can be distributed, at no cost, over
local area networks.
Further, IF requires no expensive LCD panels or projectors for effective
use in the classroom. A single student, sitting at the front of the room
and reading aloud from a small computer screen, can provide a remarkably
rich experience for a class; and, if a teacher wishes the whole class to
read simultaneously, she can accomplish this technical feat with a relatively
box," connected to a large monitor or television set. Newer IF
"interpreter" programs, the freely distributed products of a
dozen or so very generous programmers, make this sort of display possible
by allowing the user to adjust the size of the type in a work of interactive
And, just as important, managing IF instruction in the classroom has
no special costs, in time or money, for teachers who are comfortable with
this new form of literature. Generally, it is helpful for each student
to have an interactive fiction folder to keep together print materials,
such as background information and maps, which are necessary for most of
the stories. The folder's cover makes a good place to have each student
record class goals for studying IF, such as learning about a new form of
literature, learning to manage his or her thinking more effectively, and
learning about a variety of literary techniques, such as plot, character,
setting, and point of view.
The folder may also contain lists of problems encountered in each story,
perhaps in a small "blue book" of some sort. Each problem should
probably have a page of its own, to allow room to record restatements of
the problem, possible solutions, and confirmed solutions.
If students are to work on stories individually, whether in or out of
the classroom, they will generally need a more generous supply of printed
aids than those who have a teacher always at hand. These materials may
include more detailed hints, maps, or even "walkthroughs," which
present solutions to a story's problems. It's often quite fascinating,
and surprising, to see how much careful reading and problem-solving a student
must do to complete a work of IF, even if he or she has a walkthrough in
Pausing In Interactive Fiction
A fifth advantage of IF in the classroom, as outlined at the beginning
of this article, is its way of providing--and, indeed, forcing--aesthtically
valid pauses in the reading process. Of course, not all interactive fiction
works equally well in offering the pedagogically best pausing points. In
truth, many early, and, in some ways, primitive works of IF, such as a
well-known series by Scott
Adams (not the cartoonist) offer little evidence that the author has
made literary calculations about the placement of pauses for puzzles. In
these stories, there are no extended passages of text to interrupt, just
a series of interrelated problems, connected with a tight little plot;
and the reader soon comes to expect that the solution to one puzzle will
lead immediately to the next problem-solving exercise. Several of these
pieces, such as Pirate Adventure and Adventureland (1978), can certainly engage
and entertain a puzzle-loving reader, but they offer little in the way
of theme and character development.
But works of interactive fiction in its more mature variations offer
a dramatically different set of opportunities for literature teachers.
Some of these, such as Adam Cadre's brilliant interactive short story "Photopia,"
(1998) move away from lengthy problem-solving altogether. The reader must
still pause often, sometimes briefly and occasionally at greater length,
to decide on what action a character should take, but the appeal of the
tale stems almost entirely from conventional literary elements, especially
an intricately woven plot and highly engaging characters. In one scene,
for example, a father and his precocious little daughter look up at the
sky outside their garage and talk about one of their common interests,
astronomy. The reader has no real problems to solve, but must stop to make
some choices about what one of the characters, in this case the father,
will say, and these pauses offer a literature teacher some remarkably
teachable moments. Gradually, the thoughtful student reader, with the right
kind of help, comes to see that the astronomical concepts that emerge from
the a touching father-daughter dialogue illuminate another subplot of the
story, one in which the daughter, some years later, weaves a tale of space
travel for a younger girl who idolizes her.
Other mature IF stories, however, such as Arthur: the Quest
for Excalibur and Once
and Future by Kevin Wilson (1998) take a different approach, maintaining
an extensive puzzle-solving dimension, but adding rich narrative elements.
Often, in these stories, some of the puzzles are far less mechanical than
those in the earliest IF, depending more on a good, clear sense of plot,
character, and theme. At one point in Arthur, for instance, the
reader, in the role of the title character, encounters a knight who challenges
the young Arthur to a joust. Before the combat begins, the knight shows
a gentlemanly sense of fairness, insisting, for instance, that Arthur wear
the appropriate protective equipment ("Knight in shining armor and
all that, don't you know?"). But as the mock combat progresses, the
knight feints in a way that suggests that he may be about to cheat. If
the reader accepts the feint as sufficient evidence of duplicity, the knight
will always win the joust. If the reader understands the knight's character
well enough to see that he would probably not cheat, Arthur will win, gaining
fighting skill and a useful trophy. Here, once again, the teacher has an
excellent opportunity to guide students in the operation of an important
literary element, with the help of a pause that the author has structured
into his narrative.
Evaluation in Interactive Fiction
IF, then, with its unique structure of narrative pauses, offers special
opportunities for direct teaching. However, it also adds an evaluative
dimension of considerable instructional power, an element that operates
even when the teacher isn't around. How many teachers have felt exasperated
at a student's declaration that he or she has completed the reading of
a work of literature without understanding it at all? And how many students,
at least the more conscientious ones, have felt even more frustrated in
the same circumstance? With most IF, though, it is simply impossible, short
of getting the problem solutions from someone else, to finish a story without
understanding it in some depth. The careless or unskilled reader will become
"stuck" on one or more of the problems and will thus be unable
to continue beyond a particular point. The aesthetically-placed pauses
for problems thus become, among other things, compelling and integrated
reading comprehension tests, perhaps the only such tests that most kids
will take voluntarily.
Desilets, Brendan. "Reading, Thinking, and Interactive Fiction."
English Journal, March 1989: 75-77.
Lancy, David F. and Bernard L. Hayes. "Interactive Fiction and
the Reluctant Reader." English Journal, November 1988: 42-45.
Sternberg, Robert J. "How Can We Teach Intelligence?" Educational Leadership Sept 1984: 38-48.
---. Intelligence Applied. New York: Harcourt, 1986.