So last summer, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess taught my 5-year-old son to read. More specifically, he wanted to play the game, but needed Mommy to read the subtitles to him. Over the course of the summer, he learned how to read them himself.
(As a side note, my wife went from Just Reading The Dialogue through the Helping With the Hard Parts stage right into Move Over Kid This Is Mommy’s Game Now. She’d never played a Zelda game before last summer, but all she wanted for Christmas was Skyward Sword. Too easy. Meanwhile, Ivan the Terrible still hasn’t played the game himself.)
He’s only gotten better with time; I estimate his reading ability at somewhere between 4th and 6th grade, though his comprehension varies wildly as a function of limited life experience. The trick is finding books that are challenging enough for him to improve his reading, but whose subject matter is still at least vaguely appropriate. I do not historically have the best judgment on “age appropriate” entertainment. (Some think that Jurassic Park is not a good birthday present for a 6-year-old. I’m not one of them.)
Enter unobsolete technology.
I haven’t posted about it here, but among my huge list of interests (which I keep trying to pare down without anything resembling luck) is interactive fiction (IF), what used to be more widely known as “text adventures.” Without getting into too much detail, even when the market for Zork-like games died in the late 80s, the community never entirely went away, and in the last few years has actually grown substantially. A big piece of that is the development of fantastic tools like Inform 7 and Twine, which drastically reduce the technical know-how required to put together your own works. Normal people (well, writers who are not necessarily computer nerds) are doing remarkably interesting things with the medium.
I have thought for quite a while that there is a lot of untapped potential for teaching using these tools, whether in terms of creating curriculum with them or using them to teach concepts in writing or programming. (As with most of my ideas, I’m quite late to this party.)
Anyway, I go in phases where I will barely think about IF for months at a time, and then I will play feverishly for a few days, and then repeat. (Much like my numerous and mediocre musical endeavors.) I’ve been playing again for a few days, and it occurred to me yesterday that my eldest could probably help me play one on a lazy Saturday.
Enter The Pig
I won’t go into a general review of Lost Pig, which has made regular appearances on IF best-of lists since publication in 2007. It’s been on my play wishlist for four years, and I’ve even started it a few times, but only today did I finally make time to play it, and this time with my children sitting in my lap. In addition to teaching Ivan interactive fiction logic (i.e. how to play), I took the opportunity to teach him a few other odds and ends:
- Maps. It’s neither a big game nor a complicated one, but a map is helpful to visualize directions. Of course, I first had to explain cardinal and relative directions and show how to draw a map as we played. This was reinforced throughout play, e.g. “We want to go to the Broken Stairs, and we’re in the Table Room, so we need to go which way?” We followed this up by spending some more time with Google Earth, which both kids (and their dad) find endlessly fascinating. Ivan referred to the compass rose he drew himself throughout game play and has been carting it around (pun intended) ever since.
- Parts of speech. Thanks to a wall poster from Granny, Ivan knows what the parts of speech are, though he has no real idea what they mean; it’s just something he’s read (probably hundreds of times while fighting off sleep, as he can recite some of them by rote). After entering a new room, I would have him find the nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and also identify the exits (for the map). Then we would talk about which nouns were actually in the room and what verbs we might use with them, e.g. “What can you do with a lever?” (Zarf’s IF-For-Beginners card was invaluable here; Ivan insisted on having it up on the other monitor.)
- Reading dialogue. Most children’s books at his age level aren’t really big on dialogue, but are mostly straight narration. Since he read most of this himself, he got more practice on intonation and natural pauses and whatnot.
- Reading for essential elements of information. We got to practice consciously determining what the important things in the description were: what are the exits? What are the objects or people we might interact with? Necessarily, this meant reading for detail a little more than your average 6-year-old is inclined to do, but it was good practice.
- Typing. A little tedious for me, but he was starting from ground zero. Toward the end game, Daddy did most of the typing at his direction.
We talked about how games without pictures require us to use our imagination, and how we have to read carefully to get all of the information we need. (We had to hit Google Images for “orcs” so Ivan could grok the protagonist, whom he decreed “a monster, but a nice one.”) I suggested drawing a victorious Grunk and pig, but was unable to interest him in an applied art appendix to the lesson, at least so far. (We might try writing about the game later, too.)
Lost Pig is a great story for this particular application, despite being targeted at an older audience. The game was amusing and child-friendly without being overly childish or condescending. The only time Ivan got bogged down at all was after meeting the gnome, which necessarily involved a lot of “ask gnome about x” and reading the lengthy answers and not much doing. Still, it kept his interest for a solid two+ hours, and he won’t even sit still that long for an animated movie.
The small problem is that, like a favored movie, he wants to play it again. Immediately. Probably multiple times. The bigger problem is that we ought to try another one, and there aren’t nearly as many well-written and well-implemented stories targeted toward my son’s particular demographic; the Interactive Fiction Database (IFDB) lists only six stories with the kid-friendly tag. This will probably require me to do some digging and play testing ahead of him to find something both well-done and appropriate.
- The Interactive Fiction Database (IFDB) is sort of the central nexus of the modern IF scene. Direct links to downloads or online play with reviews and tagging and all sorts of other goodies. It’s not flashy (or Flashy) and it works.
- Planet-IF.com aggregates many of the better blogs.
- Esteemed writers and thinkers of IF who have forgotten more about the art than I will ever know:
- Jimmy Maher, the Digital Antiquarian, IF author, and author also of the excellent Let’s Tell a Story Together, which chronicles IF’s history as of 2006. (The reading of which is how I got started.)
- Emily Short, who has been involved in just about every aspect of the community.
- Aaron Reed, author of quite good IF and also the excellent Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7, one of the finest books I’ve read without ever coming close to actually employing the things I learned.
- Play Lost Pig in your browser. Huzzah! Or check it out at the official home page.