Most interactive fiction, at some level or another, involves problem solving. The games ask players to use critical thinking skills, whether in unravelling actual puzzles or in piecing together a storyline. When playing an adventure game, you have to figure out the problems you're trying to solve, then plan a solution.
Given this, could IF be used to teach critical thinking skills in a school environment? Sure, there is anecdotal evidence that playing adventure games helps your ability to evaluate and solve problems, but can IF truly be a teaching tool?
Brendan Desilets thinks so. Brendan, who has taught English in Massachusetts junior-high and high schools for over thirty years, has spent a lot of time integrating IF into classes.
He began back in the 1980's, using Zork I on an Apple II+ in a summer school class. "Like most English teachers, I'm always looking for ways to help students become more appreciative of literature and more able to understand it. I had eighth graders for three hours at a time, and I found that interactive fiction provided some variety for the kids, as well as a great chance for me to teach a variety of reading skills."
Since then, he's used text adventures in a number of classroom settings. He believes that interactive fiction helps train students to evaluate problems and their solutions.
He also sees many of the unique features of text adventures as being well-suited to classroom learning. Playing text adventures involves pauses—every time you reach the command prompt, you must pause to consider what to do next. These pauses give good opportunities for direct teaching, as the teacher won't be breaking the narrative flow to explain a new concept. And short of consulting a walkthrough or hint page, a student can't finish a text adventure without having understood most of what has gone on. In other words, text adventures have built-in reading comprehension tests.
This is not to say that interactive fiction is a teaching panacea. It's entirely possible to use text adventures in the classroom with little success. It happened to Jamie Raymond, a high-school physics and chemistry teacher. His school decided that teachers would add a problem-solving component to their second-period classes. Jamie decided to use interactive fiction, as he had loved playing it during high school. He thought that it would work well as an outside project that each student could work on individually.
The first year he had everyone play Trinity, but found that students shared solutions too readily. The second year he had each student choose a different game.
In general he felt that the project didn't help teach problem solving skills. "The students for the most part didn't try to develop any kind of general strategies but seemed to randomly work their way through the games. When asked to write about what they did, I basically got walk-through summaries of their experiences." Only a handful of his students during those two years finished their game, and two or three students were very frustrated with the entire project.
Brendan admits there are difficulties to using text adventures in the classroom. "Most of my colleagues read my writings on the subject and tell me that IF in the classroom sounds like a great idea. A few even give it a try, but very few stay with it. Teachers have a very hard time becoming comfortable enough with IF as a literary form to use it well with kids."
Clearly, as when using text adventures to teach ESL, care must be used when introducing text adventures in the classroom. The teacher must feel comfortable with IF, and must be ready to help students out. However, there are potential rewards, including the chance to get students interested in learning. As one student told Brendan, "I like the way you participate, instead of just reading a book. IF also makes you think."
Bonus additional resource: Teaching and Learning with IF, Brendan Desilet's page on the subject.