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Interactive Story Writing in the Classroom: Using Computer Games

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Computer games offer a new medium for creative writing – immersive stories where the "reader" is an active participant in the story. These stories are rich in visual and audio texture. Decisions made by the reader influence how the story unfolds (possibly even changing the outcome). In contrast to traditional pen-and-paper story writing, where the author is expected to specify everything textually, in interactive stories the "writer" uses computer tools to create visual representations of a virtual world. Vibrant colors and visual objects replace textual adjectives and vivid descriptions. Some commercial games, such as BioWare’s role-playing game Neverwinter Nights [1], provide a toolset that allows a story composer to "write" an interactive story. BioWare’s Aurora toolset has the capability to create story backdrops and scenery, and to populate the scenes with characters and supporting props. Their scripting language, NWScript, is used by the writer to specify plot components, character/prop behaviors, and their interactions. Scripting languages attempt to lessen the programming burden by presenting the user with a simplified specification language – but it is still too close to computer programming. Programming/writing interactive games with current tools is slow, cumbersome, and fraught with error. This paper discusses ScriptEase, a high-level tool for writing interactive stories that frees the author from doing explicit computer programming. To validate its ease of use for non-programmers, we describe the first time it has been used in the classroom (a Grade 10 English class). In this pilot, the students learned to use the Neverwinter Nights and ScriptEase toolsets to write interactive stories. ScriptEase By computer game standards, NWScript is a state-of-the-art scripting language, allowing the user the ability to create rich worlds and complex characters. However, the scripting language is difficult for non-programmers to learn. It closely resembles the C programming language, requiring the user to understand concepts such as functions, types, and data, as well as a large library of useful routines. This is a serious impediment to making the story creation capabilities accessible to a non-technical audience. ScriptEase is a scripting tool developed at the University of Alberta [2] that generates NWScript for Neverwinter Nights. The program provides menu-driven, textual interface that is used to specify the story. From the user specifications, the tool automatically generates the appropriate NWScript code to perform the desired actions. Writing stories in ScriptEase is accomplished using patterns. The user specifies a pattern and then customizes it to suit their needs. For example, a frequently occurring pattern in fantasy games is to open a chest and have something happen. The user selects this pattern and then sees a series of dialogue boxes that allow him/her to specify attributes for the chest. The storywriter can select a visual effect that occurs when the chest is opened and any other actions that are appropriate to the plot (a magical spell that is cast on the player’s character, a statue that animates, teleporting the player’s character to another location, etc.). A story is written by composing and customizing patterns to specify the plot, character and prop interactions, character behavior, and conversations. Classroom Pilot Working collaboratively with a high school English teacher and a high school student, a series of tutorials were created (for the tools Neverwinter Nights, Aurora, and ScriptEase) [3]. The high school teacher developed, and the high school student tested, an interactive story writing assignment targeted for High School English students. The interactive writing assignment was used as part of the curriculum in a Grade 10 English class, and administered over a two-week period in November 2004. It consisted of two components: 1. The students were taken on a field trip to the University of Alberta for the tutorials (because of the availability of computing equipment). At the end of the trip, students were ready to write their stories. 2. Three one-hour English classes were completed in the high school computer lab, allowing the students to work on their stories. Extra computer hours were made available for those who needed it. Twenty-one students completed the assignment. At the time of this writing, the assignments are currently being graded by the teacher. The conference presentation will discuss the insights gained from this classroom experience. This initial pilot has been tremendously valuable for giving feedback on the use of interactive storytelling in general, the computer tools in particular, and ways to improve the tutorials, the student computing environment, and the scope of the assignment. The initial experience was very positive for all parties. In particular, the teacher conducted a student survey after the assignment was completed and reported a very high level of satisfaction from the respondents. Future Work An experimental study using ScriptEase is planned in March/April using another English class as the target population. At the time of this writing, we are in the final stages of getting ethics approval to gather data on the students and their performance. Data will be used to identify any correlations between student abilities (e.g. problem solving skills) and background (e.g. computer experience), and how well they do on the assignment. Further, we hypothesize that some students who have difficulty expressing their creativity in words using traditional technologies may have no such limitations using interactive story writing technology. On the other hand, there may be other students who excel at traditional writing, but that do not have sufficiently developed logical thinking skills to design and create an interactive non-linear story. The development of interactive story writing technology is still in its early stages. Our work is intended to make this technology available to non-programmers, demonstrate its pedagogical value in the classroom, and work towards popularizing this medium as a new form of creative literature. References 1. BioWare Corp., 2. "ScriptEase: Generative Design Patterns for Computer Role-Playing Games", M. McNaughton, M. Cutumisu, D. Szafron, J. Schaeffer, J. Redford and D. Parker, Automated Software Engineering, 2004, pp. 88-99. 3. Tutorials and assignment available at
Contact: Jonathan Schaeffer, Computing Science, University of Alberta,
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