Christopher Fee: Inform and Viking Studies

I’m using Inform as a tool to help my advanced undergraduate students in Medieval Studies to develop alternative teaching tools for lower-level college and upper-level high school students; the secret benefit of this process, of course, is that any student who composes such a game learns a WHOLE lot about the material he or she is trying to impart to the players of that game. You can find a nice, concise, and helpful press release of the whole shebang here.

At this point our project comprises hundreds of multimedia images (linked panoramic photos, static photos, digital video clips, explanatory text, etc.) of nearly forty sites in the North Atlantic; most of the material is from Shetland, Orkney, and the Isle of Man, but some is from Scotland and the North of England. Many of these sites have some relationship to the Viking Age or are in any case easily linked to the Norse tradition. One problem in bringing these sites to life for narrative-minded students, however-even with the benefit of breath-taking panoramic visits and punchy, memorable video clips-is the lack of a coherent narrative trajectory through which one can perceive a story linking disparate sites. We are tackling this challenge in two ways: First, the inclusion of the dozen or so saga sites in Iceland-sites which are clearly linked to compelling and memorable stories-will assert a narrative organizing principle through which we can arrange the whole collection. Second, our development of an IF portal through which students can engage the various sites superimposes a narrative structure on the entire project as a whole. Thus, while more research-driven students and colleagues can just as easily access the sites through menus of categories, those more compelled by an alluring narrative arc will be offered an alternative way through which they may interact with the materials. Thus, through its multiple portals and many related media, this project promises to engage learners and researchers of different needs and styles.

The point of the development of IF games in this context is to make as many connections as possible and to develop as coherent an overall IF Project as possible. The student should feel free to be creative and to have fun. While the IF project is, by its very nature, fiction, the student should incorporate as much factual detail about the site and relevant themes as possible, and several relevant saga references are also expected. The Instructor’s sample IF Project is meant to point the student in the right direction. One might use Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” as a primer for a kind of engaging fiction dressed up with facts. The target audience for this work is a student in an upper-level high school or lower-level college survey course, so the tone of the IF Project should be light-hearted and fun. The student need not fear an overly harsh editorial hand, but should be reminded that under-age high school students, ancient parents and faculty members, and potential employers will have easy and permanent access to this work. The point is to engage the interest and incite the imagination of the visitor to that site, thereby informing them of actual pertinent information about the site and its connection with other sites, themes, and sagas in as transparent and entertaining a way as possible.

In practical terms, I’ve implemented the creation of IF games by my student researchers by building an iterative IF composition process into my syllabus as part of a larger individual research process for each student: They begin by meeting individually with me, choosing an archaeological site, and discussing related themes and traditions. A student working on a Viking burial mound such as Balladoole or Knock y Doonee on the Isle of Man, for example, would be studying Norse myths, rituals, and practices associated with death, funerals, funky sexual rituals, human sacrifice, the afterlife, etc. I then help the student to develop an appropriate research agenda for these general themes, as well as to put together a working bibliography for the specific archaeological site upon which he or she will work (some of these sites are not at all well known, so even relatively advanced students generally need that extra guidance; while it might be all but impossible to find a US library with all the necessary stuff it its collections, I have a lot of the relevant research materials on my own shelves.) We then visit the site virtually by looking at the images, panoramas, and videos in our Medieval North Atlantic archive. The student then composes the first draft of a site report on his or her specific site; after receiving graded feedback from me on that research report, the student composes his or her first draft of the IF game for that site. Each student goes through this process at least twice, thus producing a minimum of two formal, graded drafts of a site report staggered with two graded drafts of the related IF game. The final research project is an overarching study of some of the more universal themes related to the specific Viking site, the reports, and the games. Thus each version of each game is meant to be an organic part of an iterative intellectual process, rather than simply a creative add-on to the course or an idiosyncratic product produced in a vacuum, as it were. Does that make sense?

My students in the pilot course were all senior English majors with a wide range of comfort levels with technology in general, and NO prior experience with Inform or any similar software. The upshot was that there was a much steeper learning curve for some than for others, but that we all started from scratch. I managed to get a lot of buy-in by sitting down for the first time the Sunday before our first class and hammering out (in about three hours) an example of the kind of game in which I was interested. It was actually an advantage (in this limited, pedagogical way) that I had no previous experience with Inform. That way I could say to them: “Hey, look what I did with no more expertise than you have.” I also learned some of the pitfalls first-hand, which was valuable both from pedagogical and community-building perspectives. I also challenged the class to surpass my example, which most did readily, a fact which I believed empowered them. Moreover, I’m hoping to develop the process in iterative stages: One of the seniors from last fall’s course was my assistant in a related lower-level course this spring, and she helped that class develop group projects along the same lines; I’m hoping that one of the most accomplished of THAT crew will be a course assistant for next fall’s course, and so on. As we daisy-chain our way through that process of evolution, I hope to develop some media links to pertinent images in the overall Otter’s Ransom project, as well as raising the bar each time relative to the general quality of the games themselves. I’m interested in your thoughts, strategies, and criticism: I know that the games are rough in these initial forms, but I think that there’s a WORLD of potential here, for very little investment. MOST IMOPRTANTLY: The students had fun and developed creative avenues for disseminating information about the Viking Age; in the process, they learned a LOT.

Just as importantly, I developed the syllabus of a sophomore-level course on Medieval Literature in such a way that a number of the sites in this project were assigned at appropriate times during the semester in order to supplement the course readings; when we read Beowulf, for example, the students were required to look at the various burial sites; when we read the Saga of the Volsungs they had to visit a number of sites with monuments which illustrate the integration of Norse mythology into early British Christianity. The students could read the reports or play the games or not as they pleased, but they knew that the exit quizzes linked to the sites would be culled for exam questions, and the easiest and most fun way to absorb the information was to play the IF games, so those turned out to be popular study guides for the students in that course. Hopefully that trend will prove indicative of the usefulness of IF games for imparting such information relatively painlessly; I mean, I find archaeological surveys of some limited interest, but it has come to my attention that many bright, curious adults find them to be less than stimulating, although they may find some of the related concepts rather engaging. My operating principle is that the IF games can help to bridge that “interest gap.”

If you’d like to explore the project, you should know that almost all of the sites in Viking Britain now have live IF games; the selection on the Isle of Man and on Shetland is especially good, so you might want to start on one of those two islands. Each site has relevant images/panos, video clips, text reports, as well as the IF games; the idea is that a visitor to the site can glean the relevant information through any or all of these resources, and an on-line quiz is provided for each site so that such a visitor can self-assess how well he or she has absorbed the most important facts and themes. The complete project description is available here; I suggest this portal for direct access to the project. Simply use the map to navigate, for example, to the sites on the Isle of Man; Andreas, Cronk ny Merriu, Knockadoone, Maughold, and Peel are probably especially worth a look, but you be the judge of that and please feel free to get back to me with your impressions. The games are in their first iteration, but you’ll get the idea, I think!

Alternatively, you can just go play the games, although I do NOT recommend this approach, which does not provide the context of the site reports, documentary clips, and quizzes, and thus is unmoored from the learning tools and pedagogical goals of the project.

They’ll be alot more up–especially concerning non-Viking sites–in the next six months.

It would probably be worth your while to check out the complete fall 2007 syllabus to see how the development of the IF games fits into the overall course structure; there will be an updated syllabus in August of 2008, when this year’s class will begin developing site reports and related IF games for a range of Celtic, Roman, and Anglo-Saxon sites.