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Suspending Disbelief

Marshal Anderson reveals the secrets of on-line adventures and shows how to create them.

Micro User '90

As more and more schools subscribe to some sort of electronic mailing system, and even more consider the idea, they are constantly on the lookout for some use beyond contacting pen-pals in Australia and ordering cases of wine. Being part of an on-line adventure can open up new horizons for you and your students.

The idea of the on-line adventure has been around for some time and has associations with the original adventure, in as much as problems are presented as text on a screen. But instead of the author generating problems to be solved and then preserving them in a fixed program, each step is written after seeing the player’s response.

Thus while the author might have a fairly fixed idea that the players should talk to a character they come across, if they insist on attacking it the whole course of the game can be altered on the hoof. Naturally this presents a potentially exciting field for players and a very creative one for authors.

In the early stages it was an interesting experiment set up by those enthusiastic enough to find the time to carry it out and, given the creative aspect, is it not surprising to find that Mike Matson - of 4Formation - was involved in the genesis of this form in a project set up with the Anthony Bek Primary School in Derbyshire.

This was not an adventure in the traditional problem-solving sense - Mr Matson took on the part of Yllawyllis, an alien orbiting the Earth asking for information about our planet. This led to some fairly heavy issues being discussed - the inequality of wealth in the world, wars and so on along with deceptively simple requests for information such as What is a dog? The important discovery was that this exercise, in essence the same old write-a-letter-to-an-alien task set for children at many levels, took on a whole new level of importance in pupil’s eyes because of the nature of the linkage and the two-way conversation.

Not only did this give rise to considerable enthusiasm among the children, it soon became clear that those on the receiving end of this kind of activity are able to suspend disbelief totally and thus give the project a level of meaning often difficult to achieve in school.

More recently Derbyshire have put a great deal of effort and not a small amount of cash into continuing the development of on-line adventures. It soon became clear that having an adult as the authoring end was nice but, apart from being impractical for most schools, it was also wasting half the opportunity presented.

With this in mind, projects were set up in which the pupils of a secondary school create the adventure for use by those in the primary school. Our own experience with Jason and Emelda trapped in time, described in last month’s article, began with contact from Evesham High School during the summer.

The proposal was that the two characters from the 17th century would be trapped in some never quite defined place by a never quite identified Time Lord from whom they could only escape by regaining specific memories of their own time. This situation was totally accepted by the 12-year-olds involved and the research generated was of a level few other kinds of project could have achieved.

This was using the form at a very simple level, a kind of question/answer format with a few coded messages thrown in. However, the whole thing can be taken a great deal further. The first part of setting up this activity lies in making contact with your partner school. There may be a temptation to try and link with one some distance away, but although this is an attractive use of Email, it throws up many practical problems for the staff involved in keeping in touch. Obviously you won’t want to use Email for teacher to teacher messages. Even if you use a password to protect the text, the constant arrival of protected messages from the same source as the adventure is bound to arouse suspicion in the children.

Having linked up with a school both parties need to agree on the adventure’s content. This will call for a certain amount of creative juggling of the lesson/project content in both schools. For example, you might wish to use the adventure to set up science investigations at the primary end, and these will need to fit in, to some extent at least, with the areas the secondary pupils are considering. This is going to be a more and more important consideration as the national curriculum takes hold, but whatever subject area or areas are chosen, both groups will be fulfilling several attainment targets in terms of language and IT.

A very easy way around this problem in a secondary school is to make this a club based activity in the first instance. After the first adventure you should have a measure of the possibilities and be able to integrate things more comfortably.

Having organised the groups at both ends, the adventure-writers have to come up with a basic plot. Here they can use many sources - children’s fiction, existing adventures, especially those early ones by Scott Adams, books of maths investigations or whatever subject area is being tackled, there will be a huge list.

One area of great importance is the environment in which the adventure is set; this must be consistent and believable. If you are dealing with a definite historical period your references will be obvious, but if you are moving into the future or some kind of fantasy there can be problems. One option is to use a fantasy period already created, Greek mythology is one, but don’t discount the wealth of material provided by role-playing games. These have come a long way since the introduction of Dungeons and Dragons and you will be staggered by the range of environments detailed in the source books this hobby provides.

Having chosen the environment and sorted out the problems the adventurers will face in some sort of loose plot, it is best to begin a few contingency plans right away. You know where the adventure should end and roughly how the team will get there, but what are the most likely deviations? It is a matter of personal taste, I admit, but there can be a feeling of claustrophobia if the plot is too trammelled, if the reply is too often: "Never mind about that, it’s not important." If they want to explore the air ducts, let them, it’s not your fault they’re occupied by child-eating trolls.

You will also need to decide who the members of your party are, how they got into this mess, and how they are going to communicate with the target school. The first tends to be a stock group. Create archetypes using The Famous Five or whoever, it does seem gangs offer most scope for plot development and can be used to explore human behaviour in a fairly meaningful way - though beware of stereotyping.

The second point may be that initially the group are in no danger at all, just calling in for a chat - then disaster befalls them. Again, the first call can be a cry for help. As to just how the contact is made, you can probably ignore this: "Jimmy’s got a portable micro," or "We’re transmitting on a hyperspace frequency" or, as in the example of Jason and Emelda, "We don’t know." Once the thing is under way it’s a question the children stop asking.

For the adventure writers the range of writing skills used is wide. Not only have they to produce work that is accurate and clear, they will also need to write in the voices of several characters. Narrative skills are then overlaid on that to develop a story in such a way that the very real audience never stop believing.

Once started, things can go anywhere, you may abandon your plot altogether, you may find that there is too much to get through and that you cut bits out and shorten the task, you should at all times be sensitive to the needs of the children at the receiving end. Most important is not to let them get bored or frustrated but never answer all their questions.

Keep a sense of mystery up to and beyond the end, let them want to know what happened after it all ended, leave the bad guys uncaptured if defeated - leave them wanting just that little bit more.