Choosing to Make A Game Out Of Reading

Part of our responsibility as educators and librarians is to remind students that reading isn't just about sitting in a circle listening to each other read, or reading something that is required in order to write a book report or complete a worksheet. The goal is to show them that reading can be both a means to an end and a pleasure in itself.

Late in 2014, R.A. Montgomery - one of the primary publishers of the hugely popular Choose Your Own Adventure series - died, and an entire generation collectively felt nostalgic about his creation. In its lifetime, the series included over 230 different titles (with titles both mundane and imaginative, like Statue of Liberty Adventure, Terror on the Titanic, and my personal favorite, Your Code Name is Jonah) and sold over 250 million copies.

The series, originally published in the late 70s, got its own facelift in the mid-2000s. The industry was surprised when children of the new millennium didn't fall in love with the series, but a recent episode of the podcast Rendered, interviewed one of the series' authors, Edward Packard, and discussed what had changed since it was first introduced.

In short, 70s kids loved them because they viewed books and stories as static, unchanging, and inflexible, but Choose Your Own Adventure flipped that idea on its head entirely. You could decide which path the hero chose and if you didn't like the outcome, you could just flip back to the choice you made and make a different one.

That level of interaction with the content you consume is not foreign to today's children, though. Storybooks respond to your touch and characters in movies and television sometimes converse directly with the viewer, a la Dora the Explorer. Video games now feature branching storylines and character development that my 11-year-old self could only dream of.

Which brings me to the point of this post, and introduces a series of blog posts that will be added here in the coming days: interactive fiction. Imagine a Choose Your Own Adventure book where the choices aren't listed, and you must decide for yourself how to proceed.

If there's a window in the room, you might look outside it (and view the author's description of the world outside) or open it (and find that it's locked by a key hidden somewhere in the cushions of a nearby sofa). The story and all possible combinations of outcomes is already written for the reader, but they have to discover it for themselves.

All of this is accomplished with a computer, some simple software which now can live entirely within your Internet browser, and imagination, of course.

The most famous example is Zork; and if you've ever heard someone reference a "grue", they're probably talking about this game and its signature villain. Over 7000 pieces of interactive fiction have since been created and can be found online at The Interactive Fiction Database. In my next post, I'll be highlighting some of my personal favorites, some award-winners, and some that I think have some exciting applications in the classroom.