Simulation games open new worlds to kids

September 22, 1996|By Susan Reimer

WE DROVE past a neighbor's ambitious vegetable garden and noticed that his rows of corn had been leveled by a summer storm.

"Too bad," said my middle-school son. "If they had planted some trees on that open side of the garden, the trees would have protected the corn from the wind."

"Whoa, Joe. Mr. Agribusiness," I said, with mock admiration. "Where did you learn that?"

"SimFarm," he said.

And I understood.

Joe and his middle-school buddies live these days in a world of computer simulation. They can build a city, a high-rise or an eco-system. They can design and market cars, open pizza franchises all over the map and crush their pizza-making competition.

They can colonize the new world or start a new world from scratch. They can rearrange the genetic code of any creature and make camels swim or pigs fly. They can design spacecraft and land on other planets. They can keep a feudal system fueled for medieval warfare.

No sun shines on the faces of these boys, no fresh air fills their lungs as they hunker down over a computer keyboard, alone or in groups, for hours upon hours and simulate a life far from their own.

The boys call them "god games," for the obvious power they have when they play them.

"It makes you feel grown up, like you can do things," says Paul, who is currently heavy into the medieval world of Warcraft II.

"It makes you feel like you have a lot of power, like you are a CEO," says Sam, who is crushing his rivals in Pizza Tycoon.

"It helps if you think," said Dan, who likes designing and marketing cars with Detroit.

"It satisfies my thirst for knowledge," said Joe, saying what he knew I wanted to hear. Joe is currently building an amusement park with Theme Park and investing all his profits in the stock market.

Baltimore's own Sid Meier, considered the father of this genre, began writing these games in the 1980s after he realized the air traffic control and flight simulators he was designing were a base on which his creativity could build.

His Civilization broke new ground for computer games. Players start with one vulnerable settler and finish by taking a spaceship to the stars. Civilization II was released in May and is considered a masterpiece, combining economic management with strategic planning and tactical combat -- all on detailed 3-D landscapes.

Meier also designed Colonization, which simulates the founding of America (or of any randomly generated country). It starts with a band of settlers who must cooperate with native people and climaxes with a war of independence.

SimCity, released in 1989, is probably the most popular of these games, having sold 5 million copies in its various forms. Written ,, for adults, it quickly invaded the kid market and it has spawned all sorts of derivatives: SimTower SimFarm, SimLife, SimIsle, SimEarth, SimAnt, and SimTown, a SimCity for the younger set.

Game designer Will Wright says he came up with the idea for SimCity while watching his daughter play with her doll house.

"Most of these kids aren't going to be city planners," says Wright, head designer for Maxis. "But they start to see their environment in a different way. That roads are not natural features, that someone decides where they must be. That decisions were made about everything around them.

"It seems to me that the real hook for kids is the fact that they are creating something," Wright says, "and then testing their ideas against the simulation. Usually, they fail because they misunderstood the system they were designing.

"That's why it is easier designing these games for kids. Adults always read the book and want to do it the right way. Kids aren't afraid to fail the way adults are. They fail all the time. They are used to it. And they like failing in a spectacular way, like when their city blows up.

"It is failure-based learning. Only if you fail enough are you learning anything."

I failed to hold the attention of Joe and his friends for long, even with hamburgers, french fries and ice cream. The pleasure of a grown-up asking their opinion was not enough to keep them from Sam's house, where they feared the incompetent employees they had hired for the latest pizza franchise would leave the ovens on and burn the place down.

Things like that happen in the world of simulation. Things like consequences.

If you do not ally with the bishop in Lords of the Realm because you happen to hate Sunday school in this life, you will find that without the power of the church behind you, you do not rule long. Or if you do not find grasslands for your sheep, your soldiers will go naked in the winter.

If you do not repair your amusement park rides because you do not want to spend the money, there will be an accident, patrons will be injured and you will be sued. Or if you charge $5 for every balloon because you are greedy, no one will buy.

"The key to something like this is involvement, intellectual involvement," says Kathleen Fulton, associate director for the Center for Learning and Educational Technology at the University of Maryland at College Park. "Simulation is a powerful teaching tool. You are not just pushing a button and shooting something out of the sky. You can quickly show the impact of what you do."

Paul will never be required to fight Orcs in this life, and I have my doubts that Dan will sell cars or Sam, pizza. And farming is too much like work for Joe. I am not sure how much of world history or American history they have learned, either.

But that is not the point of these games -- for the middle-school kids who play or the parents who hope they are a vitamin, not a sugar pill.

What these games offer is exposure to a ton of information, the opportunity to manipulate it and to see, immediately or over time, the consequences of what you do.

And a chance for middle-school kids to feel like gods.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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