Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 167 / AUGUST 1994 / PAGE 90

Games that are good for you. (computer games with educational value; includes related article on teacher Tom Dubick's use of computer games as instructional tools) (Buyers Guide)
by Scott A. May

For years, computer-game enthusiasts have enjoyed great success conquering alien hordes, outwitting evil wizards, and battling machspeed bandits. However, their most elusive adversary doesn't reside on a hard disk or CD-ROM: It's the widespread notion that computer games are a simplistic, mindless form of entertainment. These days, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Software publishers and hardware manufacturers have long understood the potential of personal computers as learning tools. Educational software has grand intentions and often sells well, but it suffers in comparison to today's exciting entertainment products. One of the hottest industry buzzwords is edutainment, a noble attempt to help educational software break out of its traditional niche market. This piggyback approach sometimes fails, though; ironically, the intended audience might endure dull academics, but won't sit still for inferior gameplay.

It's not surprising, therefore, that some of the most enduring and valuable software teaching tools were never intended to be educational. These are games first and foremost. They're designed to entertain, but in the process they enlighten players. The final results are neither education by rote nor lessons sugarcoated and force-fed; you experience realworld learning through fun and practical applications.

Simulations account for the majority of these titles, providing interactive experiences whose value extends far beyond the computer screen. There are, however, excellent products in other genres--such as arcade, sports, and strategy games--which incorporate knowledge that's beneficial outside the realm of computers. Although each program's relative importance is, of course, subject to individual interests, the titles covered in this article are excellent examples of this seemingly paradoxical class of software: games that are good for you.

(Sim)Life Lessons

While most games fall unwittingly into the realm of realworld education, Maxis (800-336-2947) actively pursues the art of incidental learning with its revolutionary "software toys." Indeed, nearly every title in the publisher's catalog merits special mention.

It all began with the 1989 release of SimCity ($39.95), designed by Maxis cofounder Will Wright. Your job, as mayor and chief city planner, is to create order out of chaos. Start with one of eight existing city scenarios or build a new one from scratch. Design optimum living areas for your simulated citizens, with all the trimmings: factories, schools, recreational areas, farms, hospitals, and churches. Beneath this soft outer layer of calm, however, rage multifarious responsibilities. You must worry about power and resources, traffic control, fire and police protection, unemployment, inflation, air pollution, and many other factors. Then there are the random elements, such as natural disasters (tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods) and even rampaging monsters (a not so subtle reminder that it's only a game).

Wright and codesigner Fred Haslam have recently come full circle with the release of SimCity 2000 ($69.95). Beyond the 3-D SVGA graphics and crisp stereo sound, the big news is an even more complex integration of highway systems, public transportation, higher education, museums, parks, zoos, prisons, and more. A new multilayered interface lets you control both degree of difficulty and simulation detail. More than ever, the game offers a hands-on understanding of city services, from bus lines and water systems to the complex and often controversial area of land-zoning ordinances. Learn to interpret and react to detailed feedback from concerned constituents and government subordinates--much of which, true to life, is rarely complimentary. Learn the advantages and drawbacks of different types of city power supplies, from inexpensive but dirty nuclear and coal generators to clean but expensive wind, solar, and hydroelectric plants.

So what can we learn from these games? For one thing, that being mayor of a metropolis isn't all it's cracked up to be (with or without monsters). More important, the games provide a firm grasp on a community's overall structure, as well as how changes in one area directly or indirectly affect another. As an interactive model of urban engineering, the SimCity games are simple enough to allow easy access, yet amazingly sophisticated in their insight into the myriad sociological ingredients that decide quality of life. Whether either game inspires future city planners is yet to be seen, but the tools are certainly here to spark imagination and interest.

Other popular titles from Maxis take game-based resource management to disparate extremes. SimEarth ($49.95) puts you in charge of an entire planet, where you can tweak and tune the biosphere and then study the results. In the game, you'll get a firsthand look at the delicate balance of nature--from atmospheric science to plate tectonics--with an astonishingly accurate planetary model. For the ultimate socalled god sim, Maxis offers SimLife ($49.95), allowing you to create your own ecosystem from the ground up, all within a surprisingly addicting game environment. Dabble in gene splicing and slicing, plant and animal mutations--or study the effects of both natural and man-made ecological disasters on the survival of your race of sim creatures.

A little closer to home--for some, in fact, right out the back door--Maxis offers SimFarm ($49.95), arguably the most practical of the Sim series. Learn the ins and outs of agriculture, from planting and harvesting to livestock and market fluctuations, without getting your fingers dirty. You'll never take our food supply for granted again after walking a mile in the boots of this complex, frustrating, and incredibly rewarding simulation. When you tire of scratching the surface, dig a little deeper and uncover SimAnt ($49.95), the Maxis electronic ant farm. If the rat race has you bugged, try life and death in this fascinating microcosm, battling killer spiders, ant lions, lawn mowers, pesticides, and giant feet. More than an ant's-eye view of entomology, the game draws striking similarities between social orders above and below ground. As with all Maxis games, half of the fun comes from the product manuals, which rate among the best written, most informative, and most entertaining in the business.

Be All That You Can Be

One of the greatest benefits provided by computer simulations is the ability to learn through experience, in activities that might otherwise be beyond our reach. Not everyone can take a shuttle to the moon or race a $2 million car at Indianapolis, but these games offer viable alternatives for the rest of us. If you'd like to learn to fly, for example, you can't do better than Microsoft Flight Simulator 5 (Microsoft, 800-495-4242, $54.95), the premier PC flight simulation. The program puts you in the cockpit of a Cessna 182 RG, a Learjet 35 A, a Schweizer 2-32 sailplane, and even a Sopwith Camel. This is serious fun, introducing you to basic and advanced aerodynamics in a sensory-rich environment. It's so realistic, in fact, that many flight schools accept hours logged on to the game as part of your initial training. From here you can graduate to any number of vintage or modern air combat simulations, learning more about history, sophisticated military hardware, and the dynamics of flight in a wide variety of friendly and hostile scenarios. Some of the best air combat sims that strive to teach as well as entertain include Red Baron (Dynamix, 800-757-7707, $49.95), Chuck Yeager's Air Combat (Electronic Arts, 800-245-4525, $59.95), Falcon 3.0 (Spectrum HoloByte, 800-695-4263, $79.95), and Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe (LucasArts, 415-721-3300, $49.95).

One game deserving special mention is Stunt Island (Disney Software, 800-688-1520, $59.95), a rare crossover title that combines a wild assortment of 45 accurately simulated aircraft--from prop planes and jet fighters to hang gliders and space shuttles--and Hollywood-style cinematography. You'll don many hats on this job: production designer, prop master, stunt pilot, director, and film editor. These individual components are flawlessly integrated into one of the most original works ever to grace the computer screen. Endlessly challenging and educational, this is the one you'd want to have if stranded on the proverbial desert isle.

Buzz Aldrin's Race into Space (Interplay, 800-969-4263, $69.95) combines science, history, and politics in a captivating one- or two-player game, simulating the real-life U.S.-Soviet race to the moon. Besides learning high-tech goal setting and mission planning, you'll find yourself embroiled in a realistic portrayal of tension-filled Cold War politics. Other outstanding business, political, and resource management games include Railroad Tycoon (MicroProse, 800-879-7529, $69.95), Rags to Riches (Interplay, $59.95), A-Train Construction Set (Maxis, $69.95), Air Bucks (Impressions, 203-676-9002, $59.95), and Shadow President (DC True, 708-866-1864, $49.95).

Computer games also help blow the cobwebs off history lessons, which come alive within the context of interactive entertainment. At the top of this list is Sid Meier's epic game of human survival, Civilization (MicroProse, $59.95), a fascinating portal to the past and, depending on how you play it, a glimpse of the future. Splendidly drawn from the pages of world history, it's the perfect primer for both history buffs and budding social anthropologists. War games, by nature, are also rich with social, political, and military history. The best encompass more than the battles they re-create, attempting to impart greater understanding of the real-world events before, during, and after the conflict. This field is extremely well represented, but suggested titles might include the V for Victory series (Three-Sixty Pacific, 800-653-1360, $69.95 each), Gettysburg: The Turning Point (SSI, 408-737-6800, $59.95), Great Naval Battles (SSI, $69.95), and Harpoon II (Three-Sixty Pacific, $69.95).

It Takes One to Know One

Sometimes, the best way to learn a new game is to play it first on the computer. This is especially true in the area of sports, where simulations can not only help improve your real-world performance but also provide an excellent resource for learning the history, rules, and technical background of your favorite sport. In the realm of golf, you can do no better than David Leadbetter's Greens (MicroProse, $59.95), without a doubt the finest instructional golf simulation on the market. Leadbetter, one of the most highly regarded golf instructors in the world, leads you through both basic and advanced play. Test your skills on the exquisite 3-D-modeled courses, featuring more than a dozen single- or multiplayer game variations, including modem play. Digital duffers will also want to check out Microsoft Golf, which includes live video instruction on its CD-ROM version ($64.95).

Armchair quarterbacks who can't tell a free agent from a goalpost will find Front Page Sports: Football Pro (Dynamix, $69.95) the ultimate simulation of their favorite sport. The game tackles professional pigskin from the gridiron to the locker room and all the way to the front office. In this action game, you'll learn what it takes to read defenses or contain a driving offense. As head coach, turn to the chalkboard to design and test new plays and formations. And as general manager and team owner, learn to trade for top players. Other sports games that offer an informative look behind the scenes include APBA Baseball for Windows (Miller Associates, 800-654-5472, $69.95), IndyCar Racing (Papyrus Publishing, 800-874-4607, $74.95), World Circuit (MicroProse, $59.95), NHL Hockey (Electronic Arts, $69.95), and Jack Nicklaus Golf and Course Design, Signature Edition (Accolade, 800-245-7744, $44.95).

Closing the Books

Next time you get the urge to boot up a game, remember that you often do learn something while you're having fun. The programs mentioned in this article illustrate the fact that a program doesn't have to be dry and staid to be educational. With apologies to Shakespeare, when it comes to learning, sometimes the play's the thing.

Learning to Have Fun

Hollywood's growing influence on the computer-game industry leads many to believe that interactive software poses a viable alternative to more passive television viewing. Likewise, teachers such as Tom Dubick of Charlotte, North Carolina, are among a growing number of educators who see many of today's sophisticated computer games as exciting alternatives to traditionally passive textbook materials.

Dubick teaches seventh-grade science, as well as seventh- and eighth-grade engineering, at Charlotte Latin School. His students use a wide variety of games as hands-on learning tools. One example is Disney Software's Coaster ($39.95), which the students use to study acceleration and velocity by building roller coasters. Dubick's students even served as beta testers for the final product, and they routinely apply their software discoveries with field trips to local amusement parks.

Flight simulators appear to be the most popular interactive teaching tools. Dubick's students use several: Microsoft Flight Simulator 5, for basic avionics and flight instruction; Falcon 3.0, where they learn the difference between potential and kinetic energy; and Flight Sim Toolkit (Domark, 800-695-4263, $89.95), where they not only learn 3-D modeling and aircraft design but also enjoy immediate, invaluable feedback on their work. Such response is often the spark needed to launch young minds into new worlds of academic interest. "We've got kids doing 'hard' math, science, and art," Dubick says, "and having fun at it." He hopes to use programs such as Flight Sim Toolkit to stage virtual fly-ins with other like-minded schools, where kids can model their own aircraft, compete in air races, and then discuss the principles of design with fellow students. Dubick also sees this approach to learning as a way of breaking down barriers. "Everyone can compete," he says, "because the computer doesn't care if you're male or female, black or white, young or old, physically challenged or whatever."

Other games used by Dubick's students include IndyCar Racing, The Even More Incredible Machine (Dynamix, $29.95), Castles (Interplay, $19.95), Rome: Pathway to Power (Maxis, $29.95), Virtual Reality Studio 2.0 (Domark, $79.95), and A-Train Construction Set. "When the kids get involved with A-Train and their business is losing money," he notes, "it forces them to do some fairly advanced calculations, but it's so much fun that they don't think about it as work." Indeed, Dubick finds his program so effective that kids gladly work on classroom assignments after school.

But will using entertainment software in the classroom cause kids to find traditional textbooks boring? "I think it changes the way kids will approach passive learning," Dubick says. On the other hand, the more interest these games spark in subjects like math and science, the more kids will realize they must hit the books to learn more. Will software replace textbooks, or worse, will computers replace teachers? Dubick doesn't think so. However, he contends that computers are definitely changing the role of the teacher--from dispenser of passive education to someone who actively directs students' pursuit of knowledge. "Some teachers feel threatened by it," he admits, but he sees computers as important tools, just like pencils and paper, that schools should be using in their repertoire of teaching tools.

"The dilemma," Dubick warns, "is that it's really easy for it to just become a toy, just a game. You can't allow the classroom to become playtime because there's so much to be learned." In effect, teachers are forced to become computer-literate--to learn the software and develop a curriculum. "When it's going well," he beams, "I have to chase kids out of my class when the bell rings." All teachers should be so lucky.