Currents: An E-Journal Interactive Fiction vs. the Pause That Distresses: How Computer-Based Literature Interrupts the Reading Process Without Stopping the Fun
by Brendan Desilets
John Glenn Middle School, Bedford, MA

Currents in Electronic LiteracySpring 1999 (1), <>

The Pause Problem

  1. 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.

  2. "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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  1. 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 classroom.

Some Quick Samples of Interactive Fiction

  1. 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 <>. 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 <>. 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 <>. 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.

  2. 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" <> 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

  1. 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.

  2. 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 form.

Interactive Fiction and the Elements of Conventional Literature

  1. 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

  1. 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.

Recognizing Problems

  1. 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, could appear.
  2. 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.

Representing Problems

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  1. 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 novels.

  2. 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."

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 inexpensive "scan 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 fiction.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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 hand.

Pausing In Interactive Fiction

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  1. 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.

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