October 14th, 2013
by Ian Ross
The pedagogical implementations of digital technology have been widely hailed, but are frequently implemented in the form of making traditional pedagogical procedures more conveniently accessible (online classrooms, digital office hours, etc.). However, there is a largely ignored degree to which digital production by students is helpful to composition, comprehension, and critical thinking in the classroom. Unfortunately, the primary roadblock to pedagogical digital production in curriculum centering around this production is the inaccessibility of coding as a means of that writing. However, if this process can be made more accessible, the constructed nature of binary code, as well as its inability to work with logical fallacy, has the potential to illustrate much clearer narratological and argumentative skills to novice writers.
In an attempt to work around this problem, I have enacted a classroom project based around the free and universally available program Inform7, an interactive text based video game production space designed to use English language “coding” to create digital spaces with which the audience can interact. The first attempt at this project involved individual students building games using a peer produced message board for guidance, produced limited results, and ended with most students circulating around an “expert” with previous experience. However, the second attempt was designed as a group project and guided by a greater amount of classroom instruction. Students in groups of four posted their games along with the code, and were asked to play the games designed by the three other groups before looking at the code that Inform7 translated into gameplay.
This structure created an identifiable divide between author and audience, and allowed for a direct discussion of narrative production, symbol, icon, and metaphor. The program uses binary logic (i.e. one thing cannot be two things) within an English language code to produce games. Giving “objects” (which are defined by description, portability, and/or their ability to contain other objects) names helped students understand the arbitrary nature of language and concepts like simulacra. For instance, a container is given size by the decoding audience: there is no difference between a “wallet” and a “bucket” unless the programmer provides a difference. Using language to define meaning, and illustrating the degree to which this takes place in everyday life is a central benefit to this project.
Putting the student in the position of the creator allows the student to more clearly understand how creation takes place as well. In my second attempt with this project, students worked around coding limitations in ways that were not apparent to their intended audience when playing. One group built a door called “the laptop”, locked it with “the flashdrive” and then named each attached room a different URL address. This created a user experience of interacting with a spatially static computer, while the translating program understood what was happening as geographical movement and location. Once students outside of the group both looked at the code designed to create this world and had played the game itself, they began to comprehend the degree to which
narrative can potentially step outside of perceived media limitations. Additionally, students who either built or played this specific game were then able to more clearly engage in close reading and authorship when they were confronted with the digital illusion of reality, as well as understand the benefits and meaning production of metaphor.
These were only a few of the ways integrating this process into classroom activity allowed for a deeper and more apparent discussion of the abilities one has access to as a writer as well as the methods of readership which take place invisibly around various socially constructed symbols. Allowing for programs like Inform7, and for the creation of more specialized programming in the classroom like it, is the first important step to bridging the digital divide in a way that will provide students with clear pedagogical connections to necessary comprehension and critical thinking skills.
For those curious, the links to Inform7 (the program used to build these games) and Frotz (the program used to play them) are below. Think of Inform7 as the software (i.e. videogame disc) and Frotz as the hardware (Console system) if the process seems confusing: