'pedagogical IF' and Voices from Spoon River

First, by pedagogical IF I mean interactive fiction written around ‘the art of teaching.’ I am primarily interested in games/text adventures/interactive fiction that either introduces literature, or more importantly, includes interpretation of the literature or otherwise guides the reading in a particular way.

The only example I have found, and one that arguably only introduces the stories and does not attempt interpretation, is “Voices from Spoon River” (game available here). I have only found the SPAG review; any other reviews or impressions of the game, feel free to share. I will use the review on SPAG (here) to bring up some questions/comments I have on game design of IF in this genre.

This is perhaps why “Voices of Spoon River” is most attractive. But is the point of literary-pedagogical IF to be immersion into the world of the original work? At most, this seems only a beginning–and not necessarily the best one. It seems unlikely one can ever offer greater immersion into the text than simply rereading the text. And thus, I think the content of pedagogical IF must not simply seek a recreation of the original work, but provide critical content.

It should be said this review is several years old. I think that perhaps IF has reached a point where an ending can be “a downer” and even have a somewhat unsatisfying resolution in terms of the character, but still be enjoyable to the player.
This quote addresses an important question, fundamental to any game/recreation with the intentions of “Voices of Spoon River”: how closely must the plot/puzzles/endgame be involved with the thematic nature of the original text? I think that Masters’ thematic construction is weakened by this game. Perhaps the player gains temporary immersion in the world of Spoon River, but the game does not promote any greater understanding of Masters’ characters or themes. The resolutions offered in “Voices of Spoon River” ultimately detract from Masters’ entire project.
I think that adding on “happy endings” or other solutions that do not jive with the original content is not detrimental in itself; resolving puzzles in a way counter to the original work and/or its themes can result in endgames that, though “winning”, is heavy-handed about missing the lesson. This can be done either by strongly criticizing the particular action or solution to a puzzle or by encouraging the correct behavior in the “incorrect” endgames. I believe that for pedagogical IF, the designer should probably be fairly heavy-handed and perhaps suggest the correct behavior in the incorrect endgame, simply for the sake of making the game playable in a short amount of time (classroom setting or at-home use). A solution that displays an understanding of the work’s theme (not just plot) can give a list of THINGS TO DO like in Infocom’s hintbooks, and thereby get to read the other endgames, that may be somewhat amusing.
And a final quote:

I am curious what other people think regarding manipulation and game environment in a work of pedagogical IF. I see no problem with a work being sparse in manipulation. NPC interaction, in most cases, can add to immersion and to providing a method of interpreting the original work–so I am mainly talking about items and devices in terms of interaction. For the most part, it seems like ‘less is more’ if you’re trying to impart a lesson. Certain devices could be necessary–an oven in Hansel and Gretel, a spinning wheel in Rumpelstilskin–but locked containers and hidden doors would almost certainly draw away from the pedagogical function of the work.

Are there thoughts on more-or-less decorative manipulation in pedagogical IF–its value or its dangers?

[should i post this at raif?]

I would disagree with that idea in its absolute terms. On the other hand it’s kind of a setup, isn’t it, since you’d presume that a master writer (assuming any IF you create in this vein would be to teach ‘important’ texts) created their work so that it works perfectly in its medium. Just like everyone says the book was better than the movie.

There’ve been a few Shakespearean IFs I think, that might add to the body of work you’re looking at.

Well, it wasn’t very absolute; the word unlikely isn’t definitive. But yes–it is a setup. Anyone willing to spend enough time with a text to create pedagogical IF will probably choose a text of very high quality writing. It seems naive to aspire to Faulkner, Pynchon, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Mishima, and on and on and on.

I don’t think that the point of IF based on a novel/story should be immersion into the world of the story. It should certainly not be the point of pedagogical IF. Can immersion into a story’s setting really add to the understanding of the original work? I think it may appeal to some people, but I don’t think it can really serve a pedagogical function (with the possible exception of Shakespeare, Chaucer, etc–see below).

Let’s take Raymond Chandler or Lovecraft/Cthulu-Mythos–you can base IF off of some detective fiction, gothic novel or Lovecraftian universe and it can be arguably more immersive than the original text. Or, perhaps a classic example, “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.” In all honesty, I remember the game as well, and in many scenarios better, than the original books. I certainly spent more time on the damn game (especially if you don’t give the dog a cheese sandwich). But while perhaps the IF may further develop the type of plots and (if well-written) the type of language used in genre fiction, I don’t think that there is any intention to “teach” the player anything.

I take a lot of exception to your last comment, and I don’t think the discussion can be reduced to “the book is better than the movie.” How many movies are out there, based on books, that intend to give a better understanding of the themes of the original text? (I’m going to bar film adaptation of plays, because that gets into a whole different subject.) Most successful film adaptations try to follow the original plot, but there is rarely an attempt to emphasize the themes that were at play in a book. In many cases, the thematic material of the original work is abandoned in the film in favor of a simpler, feel-good theme; perhaps the producers believe the book was successful because of its setting, characters and plot and not the writing or the theme.
I can only think of one movie on a moment’s notice that is an example of my point: Apocalypse Now, based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Comparing Apocalypse Now with Heart of Darkness can be fruitful, but discussions of “which one is better” will probably come down to taste. I think that pedagogical IF should take note of the relation between AN and HoD–instead of recreating a journey up the Congo, the same themes can be developed in the Nam. Now, the statement you took issue with, that rarely could anything be more immersive than a rereading of the text remains true; watching AN is not the same as immersing oneself in Conrad’s world. Rereading Heart of Darkness would certainly give one a better sense of the setting, the characters, the plot, individual symbols, etc. But watching AN after reading HoD highlights and reinforces several motifs from the text without trying to “immerse” the audience into the text.

I think immersion can be useful technique–a work of IF doesn’t have to put the same themes in a new setting. But, I think the emphasis of game design should be on conveying theme rather than creating an immersive environment.
And that leads me to the exceptions:

I have not played much (any?) Shakespearean IF, but this is already somewhat distinct from Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. Most importantly, there is the use of language. Pedagogical IF written on Shakespeare (Chaucer, the King James Bible) can focus on teaching vocabulary, for example “>SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN TO COME UNTO ME.” This may give the impression of being as immersive as the original works plays, but I think this comes because it is so difficult for today’s students to immerse themselves thanks to a language barrier.

Rather than trying to recreate Richard III or one of the great tragedies by trying to be the most accurate to Shakespeare’s vision, it would probably be more instructive to include ‘puzzles’ that can be solved according to Elizabethean manners/etiquette, as well as solutions that go against those same social mores. Arguably, this would cut down the realism of/immersion into Shakespeare’s world (allowing player to act outside of Shakespeare’s roles)–but based on the solutions to the puzzles, the game author can be heavy-haned in how the player’s actions do or do not fit into Shakespeare’s world and consequences of these actions. A more difficult task would be effectively taking Shakespeare’s themes and transcribing them into a different setting; I have heard this done surprisingly well with radio drama, and it has worked with film (Kurosawa jumps to mind). I think that pedagogical IF must find ways to teach, to encourage critical thinking and intepretation, rather than hoping that reproducing setting and characters will give students/players a better feel for the texts.

On that note, if you have any specific recommendations on Shakespearean-themed IF, I would love to see what they are all about.