The World Inside The Computer
The Story Game
Fred D'Ignazio, Associate Editor
This game will appeal to children of all ages. And it can teach both programming and subjects like English or history while it entertains.p>Have you ever played MAD LIBS?®
MAD LIBS is an assortment of wacky party books designed to appeal to the six-year-old in all of us. Each book has a theme–monsters, movies, super heroes, current events, geography, mysteries, or whatever. A MAD LIBS book is a collection of stories, songs, and rhymes with key words left out. You select the words needed to complete the stories. But you must do it blind.
You play MAD LIBS by first picking a reader. The reader selects a MAD LIB from the book. Then he (or she) asks people for words to help fill the blanks in the MAD LIB. "Give me a plural noun," the reader might say. Or, "I want the name of a person in this room." The reader fills in the blanks, taking care to hide the story from everyone else in the room.
When all the blanks are filled, the reader stops asking questions and reads the completed story. Depending on people's moods and personalities, the completed MAD LIB might sound philosophical, ridiculous, funny, or shockingly raunchy. For example, an exchange between Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse might go as follows:
MINNIE: Mickey! Will you stop doing those _________ exercises.
MICKEY: Aw, shucks, Minnie. I have to keep my _________ in shape.
MINNIE: Well, watch out for the_________.
Just look at the way your____ hangs down over your_________.
To fill in the above blanks, the reader would ask people to volunteer an adjective, a plural noun, an adjective, and two singular nouns. Depending on people's answers, the above passage could end up anywhere from banal to cute, or from innocent to X-rated.
Computer MAD LIBS For Kids
Japanese author Mitsumasa Anno has a book out called Topsy-Turvies (Weatherhill, 1970). Anno likes to play games with your vision and sense of perspective. The book is filled with colorful pictures of topsy-turvy buildings and people capable of walking up walls and strolling on ceilings. The book stretches the visual imagination in the same way as the bizarre paintings and drawings by M.C. Escher.
MAD LIBS games can do the same thing for kids' verbal and literary imaginations. And the "reader" who chooses the stories and asks for words can be a computer.
As a parent or teacher you can choose a MAD LIBS-type "skeleton" story from just about anywhere: a picture book, the Bible, a fairy tale, a comic book, a TV program, a song, a poem, or your own imagination. Or you can draw from yours or your child's personal experiences–sort of a fill-in-the-blank autobiography.
After you choose the source for a story, pick out a particularly vivid section of only about 25-300 words. You need to keep it short and fast-paced to maintain the child's interest.
Now go through the story and pick the key words you are going to leave out. Vary your choices. Try to take out different parts of speech: proper nouns (names), adjectives, adverbs, verbs, exclamations, plural nouns, and so on.
Next, type the story into your computer. The program will consist mostly of PRINT statements, like:
500 PRINT "FOUR SCORE AND SEVEN YEARS AGO OUR ";NOUN1$ 510 PRINT "BROUGHT FORTH ON THIS CONTINENT" 520 PRINT "A NEW";NOUN2$;"."
The variables NOUN1$ and NOUN2$ contain the child's answers to questions that the computer "reader" asked earlier. It asked the questions using PRINT and INPUT statements like:
200 PRINT "A PLURAL NOUN" ;INPUT NOUNI$ 210 PRINT "A SINGULAR NOUN";INPUT NOUN2$
No matter what subject you choose, the computer stories are sure to fascinate children. They are likely to play the same story over and over, trying new words each time. And each time children try a new word, they immediately see its effect. The effect might be dramatic, zany, or silly. But it teaches children the different parts of speech and their roles in a sentence or in a story.
This also stretches children's imaginations and increases their confidence in using new words. After all, it's just a game, They can experiment with new words without being afraid of looking dumb. There won't be any all-knowing adults or smart aleck peers around to laugh at him if the words make the story crazy or absurd. Instead, it will be fun. And they can change the words on the program's next go around.
We have a family tradition. Each night, my three-year-old and six-year-old take a bath and get into their pajamas. Then they tumble into bed, climb under the covers, and I turn out the lights. Then I tell them a "dark story." (It might be happy or sad, frightening or funny. It's a dark story because it can be told only in the dark.)
I make up a new dark story each night. A dark story is usually a heroic fantasy with lots of evil monsters, princes, princesses, spaceships, and adventures. The stories change, but two things remain the same. First, my daughter Cade is always the story's heroine, my son Eric is always the hero. Second, no matter where the stories end up–in a dismal dungeon or on a faraway planet–they always start someplace that is familiar to my children. That someplace might be their bedroom, their school, or their backyard.
Computer Fairy Tales
I tell a new dark story each night. I don't tell a new storyjust because I love to be creative. I do it because my memory is so bad. By the time bedtime arrives each night, even the previous night's dark story is usually nothing more than a faint smudge in my memory.
You and your family can create a new dark story each night, too, regardless of the state of your memories and imaginations. The storyteller can be your computer.
You can write programs that combine dark stories with our fill-in-the-blank program. What you get are fractured fairy tales. The kids can invent the new words to add to the fairy tales each night. If they are old enough, they can type them in themselves. And you can turn off the lights in the room where you keep the computer to make the fairy tales into true-blue dark stories.
At the end of this month's column I have a sample computer "story game" program for you to try. It takes up 4024 bytes and is written in Atari BASIC. It is a very simple, straightforward program that consists mostly of PRINT statements. It should be easy to modify to run on other popular computers. The only fanciness in the program is that it makes the stories appear in the enlarged Atari (graphics mode 2) character set.
Once you see how to create your own computer fairy tale, you can add to the program or change it completely. Right now, for example, the program asks only for nouns (proper names, places, things). You can add adjectives, verbs, nonsense words, etc. Also, the story is in a fairy tale format appropriate for short bedtime dark stories. But it needn't be. You can rewrite the story to be about anything. Whatever appeals to you and your kids.
And if you are a teacher, not a parent, you can use the story idea in your classroom. You can make up a story-writing assignment that combines programming, language arts, and history or social studies. The subject of the story is up to you.
The Story Game Unraveled
Lines 50-120: Program documentation (REM statements) and a data section. The child's answers are stored in variables ten characters long to accommodate normal-sized words. The words could be longer, but you have to keep the size of your screen in mind, or you get word wraparound (the tail end of the word gets printed on the next line).
Lines 500–940: On line 535, the program clears the screen. On lines 540–560, the program prints the game title. There is a delay loop on 560 and in many other places throughout the story to slow the story down to the reading level of the child. You need to adjust these loops up or down to fit your kid's reading level.
On lines 800–940, the program asks the child for words to complete the story. My kids almost always put themselves in as the story's heroes. Their other answers are usually a surprise. Sometimes they are a shock! (Watching the child fill in story parts can be a real learning experience for the alert parent or teacher.)
Lines 950–1390: Lines 950 to 1008 print out the story title (taken from the child's answers). The title is partly centered and displayed in a special color (blue).
On lines 1009 to 1350 the computer tells the story. The lines are double-spaced and designed to accommodate the child's answers so they fit on the screen. The story stretches across several screens. Each screen is fairly full without being crowded with words. You can think of each screen as a "page" in a storybook.
Lines 1365 to 1390 print "THE END" (a key story ingredient) in a special color (blue, again).
Lines 1395–1480: Lines 1395 to 1430 enable the child to see the same story again (over and over and over!). Or the child can go back to the beginning of the program and invent a whole new story.
When the child is tired of making up stories, he reaches lines 1435 to 1480. The program says good-bye to the child, then clears the screen one last time and closes up shop. The POKE command on line 1445 makes the Atari screen cursor turn invisible for the computer's "good-bye" message. The POKE command on line 1475 makes the cursor reappear.
Next month I'll show you how to teach the computer friend introduced in this column last month how to play games. The sample game will be the "Story Game" program you see below. You will be able to add up to 50 games to the friend's repertoire.
MAD LIBS® is a registered trademark of Price/Stern/Sloan Publishers, Inc. Price/Stern/Sloan is located at 410 North La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90048.
Fred D'Ignazio is a computer enthusiast and author of several books on computers for young people. He is presently working on two major projects: he is writing a series of books on how to create graphics-and-sound adventure games.
He is also working on a computer mystery-and-adventure series for young people.
As the father of two young children, Fred has become concerned with introducing the computer to children as a wonderful tool rather than as a forbidding electronic device. His column appears monthly in COMPUTE!