Poems by Heart (inkle/Penguin)

Screen Shot 2013-03-24 at 5.15.03 PMPoems by Heart is an interactive text game created by inkle for Penguin. The idea is to make a game of learning poetry: you can play through an individual poem over and over, at different levels of difficulty, until you have all the words by heart. At the first level, a few words have been removed from the verse and you must fill them in from the selection of options at the bottom of the page. The blanks are marked up to show how many syllables are needed in the blank space. At each new level, more words are removed, until finally you’re assembling an entire stanza from bits, with a timer going. If you miss a word, or let the time run out, firm red handwriting marks in the correct version: your invisible English teacher intervenes.

The words you’re offered are not random, either. Often the right choice is accompanied by many close-but-wrong options, things with similar sense or sound. Learning poetry this way draws attention to repetition, syllable count, and rhyme, because those elements become active helps in filling in the missing words.

If you turn on sound, male or female voices will read the lines aloud as you complete them, helping teach the words aurally as well as visually. I find this useful, though it isn’t suitable for some of the times I use a tablet device. There’s even a mechanism to do a timed recording of your own, once you’ve mastered the words. I see the point of this, yet dread it; I recoil from the sound of my own recorded voice, and would like to be able to master spoken poetry without ever having to hear the results from the outside. This may be a personal quirk.

Playing repetitive poetry madlibs might sound not very fun, but it is, in fact, entertaining, in a slightly virtuous, Concentration-y way. There are scores, and achievements, and the whole presentation is polished and slick, in the way inkle has proven to be very good at. Still, the app pitches itself not just as a game, but as an educational tool for people who want to master poetry.

A couple of free poems are offered to start with, and you can buy more from the poem store, in “packs” arranged around themes: love, odes, Elizabethan, etc. The selection covers a number of crowd-pleasing standards: Shakespeare and Donne, Wordsworth and Whitman, the inevitable Poe. Very long poems, like the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, are broken over multiple sections — and, cunningly, sold piecemeal in different packs, to encourage expensive completionism. (I say expensive, but each poetry pack is $.99, so buying several is not necessarily going to break the bank.)

Because the app is not just about being fun but also about teaching something, the selection is going to be particularly important. People will vary in just which poems they want to bother committing to memory. I would have picked a little differently, had I been selecting purely the things I’d like to have memorized myself: some Pound, some Yeats. Perhaps some other modern favorites, though I realize for recent poets copyright may have been an issue. Bits of Chaucer and Beowulf. Other pieces by Donne and Dickinson that I happen to prefer to the pieces they picked. Perhaps some Chinese and Japanese poetry in translation. I’d even go for some untranslated Latin or Greek, but I accept that there may not be such a sufficiently large number of people clamoring for an in-app purchase of the opening of the Odyssey, or a selection of Horace’s odes, to make the effort worthwhile. Still, I think foreign language poetry readings would be great from a language-pedagogy perspective.

I wished at times that the gameplay engaged more than it does with the sense of the poems. Possibly what I’m imagining would be more like, somehow, an interactive game enactment of Le Ton Beau de Marot, playfully trying out multiple metaphors for the same concepts, offering translations and comparisons. Skinning sonnets to show the structural bones beneath. Contrasting a poem with the text or texts to which it is an answer. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” has meaning because of what it reacts against, after all. Perhaps this kind of play would not be so good at teaching the exact words of a poem, but there are different ways of knowing poetry.

This is not really a fair criticism of Poems by Heart. I found the app slick, pleasurable, and effective at its aims. It would be a lot to demand that it also function as literary critique by way of gameplay. I suppose what makes me wistful is that it sort of approaches more sophisticated pedagogical territory by forcing the player to think through the verses again and again, ask what fits, remember what goes where, and so internalize certain structural rules. But I think it does not really contribute new aspects to the experience or comprehension of those poems — not the way Gregory Weir’s Silent Conversation does, not the way a literary commentary or an illustration does, not the way The Waste Land app does, not the way a translation does.

I want a game that is a translation of a poem.

I want to write a game that is a translation of a poem.

This is my own problem.

Poems by Heart is pretty cool. If you want to do the things it teaches you to do, you should check it out.

Evolve (Caitlin Lill)

Evolve placed third in the StoryNexus World of the Season competition, after Samsara and Zero Summer. Unlike the other two pieces, it’s a work of educational non-fiction: you begin as a single-celled organism and make choices that allow your organism to evolve. The author has written about her inspiration: she works in a science museum, and saw the StoryNexus platform as a possible way to convey the educational content she’s interested in.

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Several Interesting Projects

The Silver Tree is a new, Kickstarted project by the Failbetter people: it’s to be short and self-contained, and explore what happened to the 13th century Mongol city of Karakorum in the universe of Fallen London. Since I remain hugely fond of the Fallen London/Echo Bazaar universe and lore, I’m excited about getting a peek in at another piece of it, this time in a slightly more focused gameplay form. The project site has some preview art and an interview with Yazmeen Khan, who is doing the writing.

I not-very-secretly hope this represents a successful approach for Failbetter, as I am not crazy about the way Fallen London generates revenue (make gameplay grindy, then charge players micro-amounts to make it go faster). I would much rather see stories funded through direct purchase and/or prefunding. It’s been a very successful campaign, which is encouraging. Also, they’re offering one of my all time favorite types of backer reward, a deck of custom cards. I am a total sucker for those for some reason.

Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings!” is a stop-motion musical adventure by Deirdra Kiai (The Play, Life Flashes By, assorted other projects). The whole concept is pleasingly off the beaten path.

Finally, if you’re interested in what Chris Crawford is doing these days, he also has a project on Kickstarter, a Balance of the Planet simulator that asks you to set tax prices for various types of pollution and then calculates a final score based on 58 years of result. It’s a curiously uninteractive experience, in that you set some sliders and then wait to see what happens (or, alternatively, read through the many pages of explanatory articles on different environmental factors).

Chris’ own description suggests that this is meant to be a forensic experience: run the simulator, then stare at the graphs to work out what went wrong, then try again. And you can, indeed, backtrack a bit through the graphs, breaking them down into components and checking out the things that contributed to those components and so on, in a way that is much more in-your-face about numbers than, say, Electrocity or some of the other educational or persuasive energy-policy games I’ve looked at in the past: it’s trying to make the argument quantitatively and crunchily.

And it’s quite hard to get things to balance, so I come away thinking, “hrm, we’re all dooooomed,” not “here’s how to save the planet.” (Except that I also don’t buy some of the game’s premises, such as the baked-in assumption that whatever taxes we set in year 1 we then cannot change at all for the next decades, other than to phase them in gradually.)

All that said, I like the concept of mathematically rigorous simulations to teach these problems; I also like the implication that the player will be able to experiment with different assumptions about the world model. I do wish that there were a more appealing front end and that the challenges were taught gradually, however.

Hap Aziz and Colonial Williamsburg

Hap Aziz, a doctoral researcher in the use of interactive fiction for education, is creating an educational game about Colonial Williamsburg. The Historical Williamsburg Living Narrative is currently gathering funding through Kickstarter.

Hap was good enough to talk to me about his approach to the educational aspects of the project: why he chose this particular period, the teaching aims of the game, how it relates to other IF he’s encountered, and his wishlist of IF tools for educational gaming.

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Kill Screen #2 is coming out!

The Back to School issue, extensively discussing the ground between education and games, is now available to order. It includes an article by me, on teaching and designing; the discussion covers the IF game Voices of Spoon River among its examples. I’m also looking forward to the articles on Oregon Trail and Assassin’s Creed II, among others.

For those not already familiar with it, Kill Screen is an on-paper in-print magazine with high production values that looks great on the shelf. It talks about games in depth beyond the numerical scores, and is edited with dedication, insight, and tremendous raw persistence by Chris Dahlen. Seriously. Guy is not kidding around.

Educational challenge-based interactive fiction. Of a sort.

Back in 1993 I was tutoring my sister in algebra. Her quizzes and tests were always made of word problems with a running storyline involving many recurring places and characters. I tied the fate of the main characters to how well she did on the previous quiz, so a good performance brought them good fortune.

Unfortunately, one test she completely bombed, and, well, this is a transcription of the quiz she got next. (On behalf of my younger self, I apologize to the people of Argentina, the spirit of Goethe, and hypnotists. [Hi, Conrad.])

ETA: Didn’t anticipate this getting Metafiltered, so I put it someplace with a low bandwidth allowance, and that’s now used up. You can also see it cached and in non-PDF form here.blah