Teacher Uses Role Playing Games to Teach Students Better Writing

With technology penetrating ever deeper into America’s schools, some now believe that its advent makes the necessity of good writing skills less important. Jason Sellers, who teaches writing to English students in French American International School, is not one of them.

Instead, he believes technology is a tool to help kids improve their descriptive writing skills and he put that belief to the test when he implemented a three-day project during his time as a substitute to help his students write better by writing… code?

For three days Sellers found out, adopting interactive fiction as his vehicle. As opposed to programming code such as Java or C++, interactive fiction sites use a pseudo code that’s only recognizable inside a particular game, which organizes the language into commands and variables that tells the game what to do. It’s the principles of code writing, but with more latitude; by stringing together words, kids can create an interactive world, which comes to life onscreen. One of Sellers’ students calls it “3-D writing.”

Students worked on an online platform called Playfic where a community of internet users create, share and play games written using a specifically designed programming system called Inform 7. Instead of cumbersome and complicated coding convention, Inform 7 uses natural language and the process of creating is easy even for non-experienced users to master. Creating a character is no more difficult than pointing, clicking and writing a simple text message on a dialogue box.

Those families with text-based adventures popular in the 1980s – such as Zork – will find the idea behind Playfic, as well as interactive fiction, in general quite familiar.

Most games feature some simplistic narrative, such as rescuing a commando force from enemy fire. But writing narrative code as an English assignment—as opposed to writing code to create a narrative game—not only allows greater creativity in the game design process, but also enhances writing skills and text comprehension in a different genre—an aspect of the new Common Core State Standards.

“What Jason is doing is giving them more tools to create games as producers and not just as consumers,” says Paul Oh, senior program associate for the National Writing Project (NWP). “They’re being given the opportunity to understand the narrative of the game and how to construct their own narrative.”

After the enthusiastic reception of his first attempt, Sellers is looking forward to trying the experiment again. This time he hopes to introduce a number of changes including more focus on descriptive writing and encouraging his students to create a real playable game – focusing on the plot – rather than using the project to practice writing pretty dialogue.