The Text Adventure Chronicles

I speak now of a past world. Perhaps most people who enjoy computers for their own sake and most gamers will be unable to relate to what follows, because the graphics are not immersive enough, and there will be no sound. No, what follows will be a metatexual experience, that is words written about words in an age where words were used extensively in games, and the hardware was part of the fun.

Objections, I hear you. Joysticks and game pads we have always had with us (at least after 1979), so hasn’t the hardware always part of the fun? Yes and no. What I mean is that the hardware itself heightened the interaction, as opposed to today. Now, our hardware is better, faster, and quieter. It contributes nothing to the experience except for the ramp-up and ramp-down of a fan. It is now so much in the background as to be nonexistent during game play.

Back in this former time, in this forgotten age, people played text adventures in the basement. All you had was yourself, a computer with a floppy disk drive, and a text-adventure game. You typed in things like “Go north,” and the results appeared in text. When you were trying to solve a hard puzzle, the delay of the disk drive as its head read over sectors on the disk, sometimes brought something new to the screen. Sometimes all you got was a disappointing, “Nothing happens.” This all happened because the computers only had so much memory, and they needed to access the disk to pull up new data, or at least check the data with what was in memory. Hence, nail-biting seconds after typing in commands to see what would happen. Coupled with this was the vivid visions that only text can bring; you had to work to see the rooms, the creatures, the effects of your actions, and you were rewarded for it.

Everything about those games was interactive — from the typing, to the reading and the imagining, to the response of the computer itself. The environment was rich in a way that has become obsolete. I think about that richness as regards games today, and learning (particularly e-learning). Isn’t the objective to make such an experience, because a rich experience provides many different pathways for memories to form and thus, for information to be stored? If so, why does no-one make the hardware interactive? Although this effect was not one purposed by the game designers, it became an integral part of the experience. And the effect of interacting — typing to and reading the result — was also memorable. Then, words were the wings of dreams.

I think that possibly, people do not learn as much or as well because the information is presented all at once and interacting with it is minimal. Information is hard to absorb that way; you don’t get hydrated by drinking from the firehose. When you get things piece by piece, spend time immersed in a topic, and have to wrestle with it, you are engaged, and the resulting experience is memorable. If you sacrifice any of those three legs of the table, the experience, or the game, or the learning suffers.

Now, with everything served up as eye candy, the interaction being largely thoughtless (avoid the walls) with the exception of RPGs, and instant, leaving no time for reflection, how rich is the experience? It seems like it must surely be less rich, and definitely less thoughtful. But the world has never had much space or time for reflection and analysis. It has always been busy being in the moment and crammed to the gills with the next heart-pounding, andrenaline high, the next best thing to being an animal incapable of thought or self-analysis. Successful learning must be slower than this, because being assaulted with audio-visual stimuli cannot produce high-level analysis; it can only trigger base reactions like fear, avoidance — the meat and bones of survival. Learning then must produce memories, and to produce memories, must create a rich environment. Albeit unintentionally, text adventure games of the past created such learning environments, and it was no accident that games such as Adventure and Zork were used to teach children the fundamentals of English grammar. Gamification could learn a thing or two by looking back to see how successful environments in the past used hardware, software, and user input, and time to fashion immersive environments that lead to recall that lasts decades. “A hollow voices says PLUGH.” And many, many people will instantly relate.

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