Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.


Tag: games

Words Infocom taught me

One of Textfyre‘s marketing claims is going to be that interactive fiction teaches literacy: vocabulary, reading comprehension, that sort of thing. (It also teaches typing — I have long claimed that Infocom taught me how to touch-type, because I was too absorbed in the game to look down at the keyboard.)

The vocabulary claim is certainly true for me. I always suspected that Infocom had a hidden agenda to broaden our vocabularies, because there were always a few words in their games that sent me to the dictionary. When I wrote my first game, I tried to inject a little tribute to this tradition, with a peninsular location I called “Chersonese.” I was reminded of this recently as I thumbed through a thesaurus given to me as a gift.

In that spirit, I present an incomplete list of the words I learned from Infocom games:

gnomon (Trinity)
menhir (Zork II)
oubliette (Spellbreaker)
reliquary (Beyond Zork)
reticule (Plundered Hearts)
skink (Trinity)
topiary (Zork II)

These are just the ones that turned up in a cursory search of my brain. Anybody else got others?

Gratis Oryza Sativa

Trrish pointed me to a nifty little site called FreeRice, and the experience was satisfying on several levels. FreeRice offers an unending stream of multiple-choice vocabulary questions: given a word, choose which of four options is its synonym. For every word you get right, 20 grains of rice are donated via the United Nations World Food Program. The money for this comes from fairly unobtrusive banner ads that appear below the test area. I enjoy a vocabulary challenge, so the opportunity to play a fun game while effortlessly doing a little bit of good was a double pleasure. In addition, the site ranks your vocabulary level, so there’s a scoring element, which helps encourage replay. The scores range from 0 to 55, but according to the site, “it is rare for people to get much above level 48.”

Your initial vocab level gets set after you answer your first four questions, and then advances by one for every three words you get right. The first time I played the game, my initial level was set at 40. Almost immediately, I was being given unfamiliar words, trying to piece together their etymological roots, narrowing down options by process of elimination, and generally having a fine time. However, the next time I played, I started out hasty and careless, so I got the first word wrong. Well, my initial level got set at 10 that time, and I then slowly crawled up to my former level.

This got me thinking: what’s the real score on FreeRice? Because I am all game-playey and test-takey, I immediately focused on the vocab level as the place to focus my achievement efforts. However, the session I played when I bombed my first question most certainly contributed more rice, and during that session I came to see that the real score isn’t vocab level, but rather grains of rice donated. I was reminded a bit of games like A Change In The Weather and Little Blue Men; these games offer an initial “win” state early on, but if you accept that win, you’ve missed the point of the game. It was yet another level of satisfaction: not only was I building my word power and donating food, I got to think a little bit about clever game mechanics as well.

After getting my first question wrong, I donated 2340 grains of rice and built my vocab level to 48 before getting another question wrong. Can you beat that?

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