George Lucas Educational Foundation
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It was a typical Tuesday in my seventh-grade social studies class. Only, it wasn't. I couldn't coax students to stop writing. I made several announcements to save and export work to Google Drive and to put away computers. Students continued to pore through the books and online sources to learn more details about major battles in the American Revolution. The class bell did not seem to faze anyone.

Students were using interactive fiction tools to reimagine American Revolution battles as text-based adventures, written from the second-person perspective. Interactive fiction is essentially a computer-based version of Choose Your Own Adventure books, in which the reader has agency regarding a story's multiple, threaded outcome.

Writing as a Design Challenge

I presented the project as a design challenge to students. Rather than having them simply retell events, I encouraged them to blend in conspiracy theories to create original historical fiction stories. That idea came from my students. The week prior, for another project, three students asked if they could write a Colonial-era newspaper blaming members of the Illuminati for causing the Boston Massacre. Student choice is one of the 8 Elements of Project-Based Learning, so of course I said yes!

The Illuminati-as-shadow-conspiracy seemed the perfect narrative shell for this project-based learning unit. Were the Minutemen or the Redcoats responsible the "shot heard 'round the world"? Or was it someone -- or something -- else? I also shared a letter available on the Library of Congress website, written by George Washington and warning his friend about the Doctrines of the Illuminati. Upon seeing it, several students exclaimed, "Illuminati confirmed!"

Coding Stories With Twine

Most students used Twine for their stories. A few used inkleWriter, another free app. Twine has been around for a few of years, originally created by Chris Klimas, with whom I spoke in a National Writing Project webinar that I organized last year. Twine is open source and completely free. We used the latest version, Twine 2.0, which works directly in a computer's browser.

I showed students the basics on our interactive whiteboard, and then I showed them the link to the Twine Guide wiki. Each "page" is mapped on a canvas, like a concept map. To write in Twine, first double-click on a box and then enter in text. To create a branch from that box, put choices in two brackets (each side) to turn that part of the text into a link:

An example of how to write in Twine: You see opening bracket opening bracket stairs closing bracket closing bracket and opening bracket opening bracket a door closing bracket closing bracket

When the story "plays" (there's a play button at the bottom right on the page), the text in the double brackets becomes blue, like a hyperlink on a webpage. Clicking "stairs" or "a door" jumps to another thread in the story. Students were applying logic statements to author their nonlinear storylines.

Next, I scaffolded more instructions, building on what students had mastered. I pointed out how the Twine Guide showed a way to embed in images, as well as sounds and music. Beyond writing, students were now applying remix principles (PDF) and becoming more digitally literate. To embed an image, they used Google Search to find an image and copy the link. Then, following the Twine Guide, they copied and paste that link into a single line of HTML code. This code goes just after the text they wrote in a box.

Twine code to add an image: Less than sign img src equals sign quote link of the image quote width equals quote 500 quote height equals quote 300 quote greater than sign

Like working with other educational technology tools, this wasn't a project about how to use Twine; rather, it was an interactive writing project supported with authoring tools. The learning goal was for students to have a deeper experience with curriculum content. Twine does involve a small bit of simple debugging to ensure that the syntax of HTML code is properly spelled. Students needed to understand coding to add richness and texture to their stories using loops, images, and sound effects.

Twine files can be shared from a Dropbox account or from a free hosting website, like I eventually embedded all of the stories onto a shared Google Doc so that everyone could play.

Decisions and Dilemmas

During the project, students began to ask me deep questions like, "Can the reader change historical outcomes?" I referenced other games that used decision trees as a mechanic, such as Telltale's Minecraft: Story Mode, Bethesda's blockbuster Fallout 4, and the brilliant, emotional Life Is Strange. Each game presents players with choices that serve to drive the narrative. Sometimes, however, players are presented with dilemmas, which would have long-lasting consequences. For example, in Telltale's The Walking Dead, players are asked to choose between which characters to save.

I challenged my students to present readers with several difficult choices. Many authored tales that put readers in the position of deciding to sacrifice him- or herself by saving a fellow soldier. One team of girls wrote a detailed story about a young soldier swept into the battle at Saratoga. The difficulty of the player's choices grew as the story unfolded.

Historical empathy was an overarching theme in student work. One team wrote a tale about Paul Revere’s ride. Interestingly, the player is never told who he or she is until the game's conclusion. Only the same decisions that Revere made in 1775 will result in the winning outcome. (Download the file from Dropbox.)

Another detailed story was a Valley Forge simulation. While in the encampment, the player meets Marquis de Lafayette, from France, and Baron von Steuben, from Prussia. The player is then presented with choices translated into French and German, for which the author used Google Translate. As I played her story, I realized how confused these soldiers were -- not only were they young and far from home, but they also had to take orders in foreign languages! (Download her file from Dropbox.)

When the project concluded, many students remarked, "This was actually fun" -- a comment that I'm not used to hearing when it comes to writing assignments. In the end, only some of the students used the Illuminati hook. Many opted to write original stories set during the American Revolution.

Interactive fiction tools enabled my students to engage deeply with content in a meaningful manner. What's more, they took pride in their finished work. What topics in your teaching could you envision students telling with interactive fiction tools? Please share in the comments below.

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Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

The more tools students have in their tool box, the easier it is to customize education. Thanks for writing this great article.

Leona Hinton's picture

Such a great experience, Matthew!
I also like this picture of a smart and engaged student you've attached :)
I'm glad to hear that your students wrote original essays but anyway, I prefer to use a plagiarism detector ( ) in class, it's an outstanding student-teacher collaboration tool which allows kids to send me papers online and see the originality percentage. I agree with Russ Ewell, tech-savvy students demonstrate better writing skills.

Annie Rutledge's picture

Thank you sharing! Interactive fiction tools sound like a fantastic way to encourage student participation and engagement. I love how these tools combine historical analysis and literary creativity, while almost developing technologically literate students. I could see this being used in classrooms across all subjects. Students could be encouraged to use what they learned in their science class and apply it to their understanding of how the early colonists survived in the New World and so forth. The student choice and decision making that is going into these projects is incredibly encouraging. With the level of creativity and analytical thinking they are doing now, it is exciting to think how these types of tools and programs will help further teach and develop students.

Michael Paul's picture

This sounds amazing. I have been thinking for a while to have students write historical fiction in my social studies class but I haven't gotten to it. This has totally inspired me! Thank you.

teknoteacher's picture
Specialist Leader in Education (UK)

I'm a real believer in the potential for using Interactive Fiction to help develop students' current thinking through digital storytelling. I've used this in a number of different settings to focus on specific themes. At this event I ran in London, we used Twine to develop students' and their families awareness of potential risks online and how to mitigate those risks. I wrote a resource for teachers too, linked in this blog post here:

Cheri's picture

I'd love to see the lesson plan or big plan for this idea. Fabulous idea!


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