Category Archives: play

Beginner’s Guide to Inklewriter

by Hap Aziz

I developed this brief tutorial to help people get up and running in Inklewriter fairly quickly. (If you’re not already familiar with it, Inklewriter is a web-based authoring tool that lets you create Choose Your Own text adventure games. It can be used for many purposes, especially prototyping simulations based on branching choices.


Inklewriter is a web-based software that is used to create Interactive Fiction in the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) format. Interactive Fiction (IF) is a type of computer game that lets the player read a story and make choices that can change the direction and outcome of the story. Using Inklewriter for education purposes, abstracted (text-only) simulations may be created for a variety of learning assignments.

Because IF games are mainly text-based, IF games were among the first kind ever written for computers. CYOA games are a type of IF that give the player specific choices at the end of each section These types of games are also a form of branching scenarios. The player chooses what he or she would like to do, and the branching scenario moves forward based on the player’s selections. Although no longer at the height of their original popularity, CYOA branching scenarios are still quite engaging, and they can be used on their own, or they may be developed as proof-of-concepts for more graphically-intensive simulation.

There can be many different outcomes in an CYOA branching scenario, or the story can lead the player to a single ending. It is up to the creator to decide what the player is able to accomplish. To direct the player’s path through the scenario, the creator must develop a “map” of the story. The map is an outline of the story narrative along with the decisions a player is allowed to make and the places in the story that those decisions may be made. More instruction on this will be provided later in this document.

Inklewriter is freely available. To get to Inklewriter, all you need is a computer with access to the Internet using a standard web browser. You will go to the URL and your screen should look something like this:

Click on the Start Writing button. When you do that, another tab will open up in your browser, and you will see this on your screen:

You will be able to create your own account by clicking the “sign in” button to get to the following screen.

Here, you will click on the Create New Account link.

Once you sign into your Inklewriter account, you will see the screen below.

This is your “blank sheet of paper” for creating your branching scenario. You will learn how to create a basic scenario using Inklewriter, but first we will talk about planning the scenario. It is very important to have an outline of how you want your scenario to “flow” and the choices you want the player to be able to make.

How to Design a CYOA Interactive Fiction Game

The key concept behind creating a CYOA branching scenario is that you must give players the opportunities to make choices during the scenario. These choices should in some way change the actual flow of the scenario. In a traditional story (such as in a book you might read), the story flows in one direction (linearly) from start to finish, like this:

There are no choices to be made, because the storyteller, author, or instructional designer has already decided what will happen and in what order everything takes place. In a CYOA branching scenario, however, certain places in the story allow the player to choose the direction.

The above diagram is an example of a story that branches after the beginning into two different paths. The player may select one of two options, and the result be a different ending. It is possible to have many options in the middle portion of your branching scenario, and this may result in more possible endings. Below is an example.

We see that after the beginning branches into two paths, those two paths branch into two more paths before getting to the four possible endings. You can imagine how big this map could become if you added several more levels that branch in between.

Your map can be as simple or as complex as you like. And it is even possible to have the branches of the scenario come back together instead of always separating. On a map, that might look something like the following:

You can see in the above diagram that there are multiple paths that will take the player to the different endings. Although this is a more challenging scenario to create, it is often the most satisfying to play because of all the choices a player may make.

Planning the Story

When planning your story for the scenario, you will need to do the following things:

  • Gather your materials, just as you would for a formal report or presentation. You will want to find good sources, especially those that might depict a narrative regarding the subject matter you expect to cover.
  • Since your scenario will be in the form of a story, you may want to identify key figures with whom your scenario player might have “conversations,” such as an HR manager, professor, or characters from an historical event.
  • You may want to think about a particular event or activity for your story, such as an employee review, a meeting between colleagues, or even a past war.
  • You will want to decide the location in which the events of your game takes place. That location may be inside a building like a library, a government building, a city, or even a combination of places.
  • You will want to identify objects that might have significance to the story you want to tell. For example, there may be a set of forms that contains information you want your game player to know, or there may be a policy manual to be reviewed.
  • You should create a navigation map on paper first, outlining the story and the action choices where the story branches. Index cards might be a good tool for you to use.

As you write your branching scenario, the places where the story branches into different paths are where the player chooses different actions to take. For example:

You are in a field of rolling hills on a sunny day. Not too far in front of you, you see a jet fighter that has crash landed. The canopy of the jet is open, and the pilot was able to get out of the plane safely. He is sitting on the ground next to the jet.

  • You ask the pilot what happened.
  • You turn around and run to find help.

The paragraph of text “sets the stage” for this part of the scenario. This particular scenario might be about describing historical actions taken during the Six Day War. After encountering the pilot, the player has two choices to make:

  • You ask the pilot what happened.
  • You turn around and run to find help.

For each choice, you must decide what happens next. Let’s look at how to do this in Inlkewriter.

On the “blank” Inklewriter page you would type a title for your scenario (“A Pilot’s Tale” in this example), your name, and the paragraph of introductory text. Then you would click on the “Add option” button to type in your action choices:

  • You ask the pilot what happened.
  • You turn around and run to find help.

To enter text that should be connected to the particular action, you click on the arrow button on the right side of that action. That will bring up another text box for you to enter the next section of your scenario.

To continue the story after the choice of “You ask the pilot what happened,” you should think of the next part of the story and compose the text in a way that makes sense. For example, this could be the next section (as shown above):

The pilot looks up at you and says, “We saw that Egyptian forces were being built up on our border along the Sinai Peninsula. Our air force was given the command on June 5th to launch a pre-emptive airstrike.” He pauses for a moment, and you notice that his lips are chapped.

  • You offer the pilot your canteen.
  • You ask what happened to the Egyptians.

As you build out the different areas of your scenario, you may want to check the progress of your navigation by clicking on the “map” link at the top of screen. This will bring up a visual representation of the flow of your scenario such as the one below. The map that Inklewriter displays as you create your scenario should closely resemble the outline you first made when developing your scenario idea.

From here, you will continue to add branches and narrative blocks in the same manner. You may add as many branching choices as you like to each section, but more than three or four choices becomes difficult to manage. You will continue this process until all your branching paths lead to a conclusion in the scenario.

We have only touched upon some of the most basic functionality within Inklewriter so that your first experience using the system is straightforward. There are a number of resources for Inklewriter available, and within the Inklewriter authoring system there is a “tutorial” link in the top menu bar that provides a lot of helpful information.

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Filed under games, gamification, Hap Aziz, Inklewriter, instructional design, narrative, play, simulation, storytelling, text adventure, text adventure games

The Non-Linearity of Learning

thumbby Hap Aziz

This morning, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote address at the 2016 ATMAE Annual Conference in Orlando. (ATMAE is the Association of Technology, Management, and Applied Engineering). My address was titled, “Virtual Engagement: How Gamification Can Improve the Distance Learning Experience.” I admit the title was a bit of a stretch, as I was truly interested in discussing how gamification can improve learner engagement, no matter the modality of the course or program. And to be clear, “gamification” to me means a set of techniques, some technology dependent, that may appear to have very little do to with actual game playing, on the surface.

One of the points I made is that gamification allows for flexibility in the way content is presented to learners for their consideration. That is, games allow players to move forward via multiple pathways, and this is good for a number of reasons, one being that if a player gets stuck in one part of the game, things don’t have to come to a grinding halt. The player can simply move to a different area, and in the interim, a eureka moment may come that allows the player to come back and solve the previously unsolved part. Formal learning experiences tend to be more linear, however, which is one of the great elements of frustration for students. When they get stuck, there is no place else to go in the course. Until they get outside help, they are often left with no choice but to do something else entirely, while they curse the offending course material for being too obscure or complex or both.

I was pleasantly surprised to find corroboration of this gamification technique in an unrelated article that I happened to find while reading Inside Hire Ed online just a few hours after my keynote. The article by Matt Reed is titled, “Going ‘Full Florida‘,” and it is about Florida’s experiment to drop the requirement for remedial classes coming into college. Reed describes how this (i.e., going “Full Florida”) could actually be a good thing:

Having spent nearly a decade as a chief academic officer at two different community colleges, I’m increasingly sympathetic to going Full Florida. There’s something fundamentally broken about developmental education as it’s currently done, and placement has a lot to do with it. Forcing students who have had bad experiences in a given subject to start by re-taking material they’ve had before, on their own dime, with no credit towards graduation, is a motivation-killer. And it’s based on a theory of knowledge that I don’t think holds water.

It assumes that students can only learn material in one order. It assumes that material progresses linearly, and that students have to go step-by-step to make progress.

I’m just not sure that’s true.

Take languages. It’s possible to teach a language in a linear way, but that’s not how people best learn them. They learn languages by being thrown in the deep end and flailing around a while. Anyone who raised children can tell you that their learning is much more idiosyncratic than linear. Yes, that can lead to gaps, but gaps can be filled.  And the fastest way to shut down a kid’s interest is to reduce it to workbooks.

Notice that Reed writes: “It assumes that students can only learn material in one order. It assumes that material progresses linearly, and that students have to go step-by-step to make progress. I’m just not sure that’s true.” In other words, Reed has observed that people tend to learn better if their learning experience is modeled after the way they play. I certainly agree with this, and I’m gratified to see the idea articulated outside of the direct context of game playing.

Students do not learn material in one order, and, indeed, in many cases they cannot learn material in one order because obstacles can become insurmountable when there are no other paths forward. This is a design problem, not a learner problem, and it doesn’t matter if the audience is in need of remediation or perfectly suited for advanced study. The good news is that this is a design problem that is continually being solved in the gaming world. The bad news, though, is that many educators have not yet determined that the gaming world knows more than a thing or two about how people learn.


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Filed under gamification, Hap Aziz, non-linear learning, play, Uncategorized

The Power of Pretend

thumbby Hap Aziz

My daughter is a pretty typical 8th grade student. She has her friends, and her interests range from anime to archery; from Tom Sawyer to Twenty One Pilots. Her mother and I consider ourselves to be fairly active in her academic life, and education is a strong family value in our home. Her grades are good as she earns mostly A’s with the occasional B every now and then. Like most students, she has her most favorite subject areas and her least favorite. While she usually brings home A’s on her report card and is a good student in both, her favorite class is History and her least favorite is Math.

“In History you can pretend to be anybody,” my daughter says, explaining her preference. “Who wants to pretend to be a plus sign?”

I like to use this anecdote when I discuss the importance of narrative as an essential element of engagement for learners. People aren’t computers, and telling stories is much more effective than performing a data download.

In my last blog post, I wrote about approaching higher education website implementation in different ways, and I made the assertion that an institution’s website should be another tool used for student engagement. Interestingly, the folks over at Usabila have linked the topics of storytelling and website engagement together in a brief article titled, “Storytelling for a Better User Experience.” I especially like this statement from the article:

Stories unify and clarify often complex ideas into something tangible and universally understood because they appeal to something more than just intellect, they appeal to our emotions. Building a real human connection is the best way to engage your users and is the strongest motivation for action.

Considering that in my last post I wrote about a different model of institutional website management, why not explore a different model of institutional website design and implementation? Currently the websites are built according to a rather common format. There is information to be offered to an audience. With a (hopefully) sensible architecture and interface, visitors to the website should be able to find the information they need and move on. Not the most exciting activity, but this is information access based on a transactional paradigm.

How might a website operate if it were designed to interact with users from a storytelling perspective? I might imagine a very simplified interface to begin:

It’s really very simple. The user needs or wants some information, and the website is able to make a query, letting the system do all the work. We already have some indication how such a system might work in the real world: Siri, Google Now, and Cortana. There are some obvious challenges with this design approach, most notably that this doesn’t do a great job of providing information to users other than what they specifically request. Sometimes we don’t know what we should know, and as a result, we don’t know how to ask for it. Bottom line, while this is an interesting approach, website exploration becomes somewhat of a chore. Okay, it becomes more of a chore than it already is. Which brings us back to the idea storytelling and game development as a possible way forward.

In her book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal talks about an online game called Chore Wars that turns doing household chores into a competition in which people can earn experience points and ultimately be motivated into doing more chores. McGonigal writes about Chore Wars:

Individual success is always more rewarding when it happens in a multiplayer context, and this is part of Chore Wars’ successful design as well. The game connects all of my individual activities to a larger social experience… I can see how I measure up to others and compare avatar strengths to learn more about what makes me unique. Meanwhile, as I’m working, I’m thinking about the positive social feedback I’ll get in the comments on my adventure, whether it’s friendly taunts from a rival or OMGs of amazement for getting such a herculean task done.

Can interacting with an institutional website become a competitive task that in which you can compare your browsing and information-gathering experience with other visitors? I don’t see why not (and I also don’t see why elements of the traditional web paradigm can’t be provided alongside). There’s a story in there; a quest, perhaps. Some narrative scenario that sets up the user’s interaction with the website. The narrative may drive the user’s actions or it may simply provide a colorful context for exploration. In either case, it allows us to pretend that we’re doing something bigger or more exciting than figuring out how to sign up for the new semester or where to go for parking passes. That’s gotta be worth at least a few XP, right?

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Filed under Android, colleges and universities, Cortana, experience, games, gamification, Google Now, Hap Aziz, higher education, higher education institutions, narrative, play, Siri, storytelling, website

The Seduction of the Senses

thumbBack in October of 2011, I wrote an almost tweet-length blog entry on the transformation of education through an accident of technology (read it here). While I didn’t provide any details regarding that particular technology, if you have heard me speak on the topic, you know that I’m referring to the invention of  the alphabet.

My basic premise is this: human beings evolved to learn a particular way, which is through the use of all our senses in combination with lived experiences and traditions passed down from generation to generation, usually in one-to-one (or one-to-few) relationships. There were natural limitations to that education paradigm regarding the storage of information, the ability to pass on information without personal presence, and the facilitation of one-to-many teaching and learning relationships. The invention of the alphabet (first hieroglyphic and then later phonetic) essentially removed those limitations over time; however, at the expense of introducing an entirely new barrier to learning content: the requirement to learn how to code and decode symbolic information–the requirement to learn how to read and write before learning actual content.

The invention of the alphabet changed the way in which humans learn, and our model of education reflects the necessary prerequisite of literacy before learning: the first years of schooling is focused on teaching our children how to code and decode the alphabet in order to unlock content stored and conveyed primarily through text. Ultimately, the way in which our civilization has set up the learning enterprise is not the way we humans are built to learn; yet here we are at a point in history where a convergence of modern technologies is dangling the promise of another possible transformation to education. The digital technologies that appeal to our dominant senses of sight and sound have become sophisticated enough to meaningfully engage and (apparently) facilitate learning without the need to code and decode the alphabet. Hand some iPads to a room full of three-year-olds and watch what they learn to do without having to read a word.

This phenomenon hasn’t been lost on educators. There are studies on the use of video games to enhance the education experience (“Effect of Computer-Based Video Games on Children: An Experimental Study” and “Digital Game-Based Learning in high school Computer Science education: Impact on educational effectiveness and student motivation“); there are books and articles published on the subject (What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and “4 Innovative Ways to Teach with Video Games: Educators from around the Country Share Their Best Practices for Using Educational and Consumer Games to Improve Students’ Engagement and Performance“); organizations have been created and conferences are held to share the latest best practices and even how to secure grant and investment funding for new and innovative learning video games (Higher Education Video Game Alliance and GDC Education Summit); and there are even education games being produced by Nobel Laureates ( Intuitively this seems to make sense, and I’m not going to present or argue data here. At the very least there are the educators who feel it might be beneficial to have learners as engaged in course content as players are in their game content.

Several questions come to mind when we consider the use of video games in education. How do we align gameplay with course learning objectives? What technology is required to play games, and how to we ensure access across the digital divide? What is the time commitment necessary to play the game to the point of content relevancy? Perhaps one of the most important questions to answer relates to the cost of game production. The new generation of computer games that is so attractive to so many educators and education policy makers is very expensive to produce in terms of time, development personnel, and funding. Everone seems to want to build the AAA game title in order to excite students about the history of English literature, but who can realistically hire dozens of developers and pay millions of dollars over the course of a year or more to produce that game? How did we get to the point where this is a serious question?

This is all a result of the seduction of our senses when it comes to modern video games. Everyone loves the breathtakingly realistic game visuals and film-like quality. And just like a blockbuster motion picture, the soundtrack and voice talent can tremendously enhance the experience. Make no mistake: these are characteristics that draw in game players, and educators see these as the same characteristics that will draw in learners. However, these characteristics aren’t what make games effective for either entertainment or education.

When imagination is combined with the power of abstraction, the artifact used to engage players (or learners) is a secondary consideration. That’s why a person is able to get as much enjoyment out of reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy as from seeing the films. Or why the same person can play either Call of Duty or chess and enjoy them both as games of war. The power of abstraction is amazingly effective when it comes to experiential engagement.

And it’s that power of abstraction that may allow us to “dial back” on the need for the AAA educational game with the AAA development requirements. As much as I welcome the digital media revolution that is poised to re-engage all of our senses in learning, I would suggest a more technologically humble approach to educational game design that would leverage less resource-hungry production models and recommit to the process of coding and decoding symbolic information: the old-school text adventure game from the genre of Interactive Fiction computer games.

What makes Interactive Fiction (IF) so appealing in the context of education are the same things that are problematic in using more multisensory intense simulation-like games. IF games are less difficult, resource intensive, and costly to develop. As a result, they can be customized for specific learning scenarios, and it is conceivable that micro-teams of instructors and storytellers might build IF game scenarios for individual assignments, tightly aligned with course learning objectives. There is existing research that addresses the learning efficacy of IF games (much of it dated from the mid- to late-1980s mainly because that was when IF games peaked in popularity), and the findings are largely positive regarding learner engagement.

While the traditional IF game was truly a text-only experience, the genre has expanded to include simple illustrations that supplement the narrative experience. In this way, a visual component is added, and the development effort remains low. The result is something that might be more akin to an Interactive Graphic Novel (IGN) rather than the traditional IF game. Consider the IF game 80 Days, designed by Inkle Studios. In a field of games dominated by 3D simulations and fast-paced shooters and RPGs, 80 Days is a testament to the power of abstraction and solid narrative. In a review of the game published in PC Gamer magazine, the reviewer (Andy Kelly) wrote the following:

80 Days can be funny, poignant, and bittersweet. It can be sad, scary, exciting, and sentimental. It all depends on the path you take and the choices you make. The story deals with issues like racism and colonialism far more intelligently than most games manage. Every trip is a whirlwind of emotions, and by the end you feel like you’ve gone on a personal, as well as a physical, journey.

And because there are so many branching paths, it’s extremely replayable. I’ve gone around the world seven times now, and every journey has felt like a new experience. Every time you complete a circumnavigation, additional stories and events unlock, giving you even more incentive to try again. It’s also brilliantly accessible and easy to play, making it the perfect game to share with someone who never, or rarely, plays them.

In other words, this IF game is exactly what we look for in an engaging game experience. What’s interesting to note is that the game was widely praised and recognized for the quality of gameplay. The New Yorker magazine listed it as one of The Best Video Games of 2014. Not only did 80 Days make Time magazine’s Top 10 list, but it it was ranked as the number 1 game for 2014. The fact that 80 Days garnered so many awards and accolades is a strong indicator that the IF genre doesn’t need to take a backseat to AAA titles.

I am not advocating an abandonment of the use of AAA games in education. Rather, it’s important that we use development resources wisely, matching gameplay to learning outcomes. It may make complete sense to pair robust multimedia experiences with particular capstone courses, for example, or in classroom settings that ultimately touch a large number of students. And as the cost in time and development declines while the capability of the production technology improves, we’ll no doubt see more opportunities to integrate AAA games into curriculum. In the meantime, graphically-enhanced Interactive Fiction is a tool that can help educators provide engaging and pedagogically relevant gameplay learning experiences to their students in relatively short order at relatively low cost.


Filed under computer games, digital divide, education, education course content, education funding, education technology, future technology, games, gamification, government funding, grant funding, Hap Aziz, higher education, instructional design, Interactive Fiction, Interactive Graphic Novels, learning, learning outcomes, narrative, play, simulation, text adventure, Text Adventure Development System, text adventure games, Uncategorized, video games

The Role of Play and Learning

foxnewsby Hap Aziz

I originally intended the title of this post to be “The Role of Play in Learning,” but then the typo made more sense to me when I considered it. The idea that play is an essential component to learning is gaining more an more acceptance in the education community, especially filtering up from the work of early childhood educators. This article by Bethany Wilinski, “If Children Are for Learning, Then Let Them Play,” sounds a cautionary note regarding the decline of play and the impact it is having on the attainment of basic skills related to academic achievement among learners. Wilinski’s article cites Alison Gopnik’s TEDTalk “What do babies think?” for insights, and Gopnik’s material is worth a view if you haven’t seen it already.

“Babies and young children are like the R&D division of the human species.” – Alison Gopnik

In looking at the typo, though, I realized that while play is essential to learning, the opposite is also true: learning is essential to play, certainly to continually engage the player. Without learning, play is little more than a series of repetitive tasks with no change in outcomes, no evolution in action, and no stretch to bring the player back to expansion of mastery. Interestingly, a (very) quick scan of the literature hasn’t turned up much in the way of learning as a component of play; most everything I’ve been able to find addresses the opposite, and more obvious, viewpoint.

So I submit the following questions for further consideration on the topic:

  • Can people play without learning anything? What does that look like?
  • Is learning required for play to be fulfilling?
  • Might we assess the quality of play to determine what learning has taken place?

The third question above is especially interesting to me, as the education community continues to wrestle with assessment methodologies. If play can be considered at least to some extent as a proxy for learning, then the assessment of play may provide greater insight into what has been learned. After all, the idea of assessing play, from setting and knowing victory conditions to evaluating individual player statistics across multiple categories of measurement is something we do regularly and fairly well. Well enough for us to improve play and hire or replace play instructors (coaches) based on player performance. Perhaps it is time for us to consider flipping the play and learning dynamic.


Filed under children, gamification, Hap Aziz, play