Teaching 12 year old kids

Submitted by boris on Wed, 2008-09-17 12:50

I've started teaching a small group of 4th and 5th graders (age 10 and 11) about text based games. We are meeting in an after school program. I wrote my first introduction about this project here and cross-posted it to to a couple of community listserves.

Yesterday was our first class, and I admit, I was nervous. How would a 11 year old kid respond to a text-based game in 2008? My anxiety increased as one of the kids asked me if we were going to design video games. I told him no, we might design text-based games if we have time. I started with an introduction "you are about to play one of the very first computer games" (ok, a bit of a stretch, but it's kind of close). Enticed, they started typing

On the screen, a blue screen with the words "You are standing West of a white house...."

I wrote the cardinal directions on a whiteboard, as well as some commands they might need (look, i, open, close, etc..). Then they began. There was some initial playing with the parser:

kid -> "you are stupid"
Zork -> "I don't know the word "you"
kid -> "what am I supposed to do?"

I teased them a bit. "Make sure you examine everything, and if you find a weapon, I strongly suggest you get it...never know when you're going to run into a troll who wants to eat you...."

The kids looked at me in disbelief. Troll? Weapons? Combat? WHERE?! They became glued to their screens and excitedly started pointing and yelling.

I was almost brought to tears (literally) when a young voiced piped up "Um, Mr. MacKenty, What's a Grue?". I immediately halted the class and we reviewed the wikipedia entry about grues. I carefully explained that grues are sort of like rattlesnakes, in that they like to be left alone - but if they are annoyed, they might eat you. I told them if they want to avoid being eaten, it's best to have some light available. Immediately they started asking each other about the brass lantern in the old white house.

It was about 35 minutes into the class I realized how utterly and completely captivated the kids were. I mean, they were literally glued to the screens; in a state of flow - they were consulting invisclues, they had printed maps, and they were trying to write a guide to solve the game quickly. It was a wonderful experience.

They didn't solve zork, we ran out of time. But they did download the interpreter and the z machine files to usb drives so they could play it at home.

We'll continue with Zork I next week, and I hope to introduce MUD's the week after.

This is why I love teaching.