Computers And Society
David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor
That's not a game, that's a microworld…
Although computer manufacturers extol the utility of home computers, the overwhelmingly popular use of these machines has been games. Many owners of computer stores tell me that customers come into their stores to purchase a computer as, for example, an educational tool for the family, but then purchase five entertainment programs and only one educational program.
From my perspective there is nothing wrong with this. Games and playing are an important part of life. A game gives the player a safe environment to test the responses of a culture in a controlled way. Baby tigers play at fighting with each other, and thus acquire skills they will need later for hunting and self-protection. Someone once said that play is the child's work.
It is all too easy to get caught up in the idea that because games are entertaining they are "bad" for us. This misplaced Calvinism has had some positive consequences, however. In particular, it may have caused us to look closely at some of our games in an effort to provide a rationale for continuing to play them. For example, in the early days of personal computing a standard comment was "That's not a game, that's a simulation."
This comment, only partially in jest, was applied to many of the programs that embodied understandable (if somewhat deficient) representations of the real world. A teacher who wanted to use the game Lemonade could justify its use to concerned parents by showing that children were learning about the marketplace by running a simulated lemonade stand. By playing in this environment, they were developing an intuition on their own for the types of decisions (and consequences) that might face them if they were to engage in business in the real world.
This is not to suggest that all games are simulations, or that games which aren't simulations are not worthwhile. Just the same, it became accepted that simulations had a special quality that made them different and thus acceptable for use in environments where play was somehow to be discouraged.
While simulation was a popular topic in the late 1970s, the early 1980s gave us a new set of games about which I have said, "That's not a game, that's a language." As regular readers of this column will recall, I have treated such activities as Lode Runner and Pinball Construction Set as though they were icon-based, two-dimensional computer languages. The most recent entry to this field, Robot Odyssey I from The Learning Company, was the subject of last month's column. The important point regarding this class of games is that, by playing them, the user is also learning that the computer is a rich and flexible environment which can be tailored to each user's whims. If you want to play a simple pinball game, you can build one; if you want to play a pinball game that no one can win, you can build that too. The responsibility for the level and nature of the game activity has now shifted from the game designer to the player. The authors of these new games provide the player with a set of tools and an environment with which the player can explore, experiment, and create.
What happens when a game is both a simulation and a language at the same time? In that case we can say "That's not a game, that's a microworld."
The microworld concept is discussed by Seymour Papert in his classic book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. While a universally accepted definition of microworlds has yet to be formulated, I believe that it should contain at least these basic elements:
First, the microworld must be moldable by the user. This means that the user should be able to make his or her own constructions within the context of the microworld, and perhaps to change some of the underlying characteristics of the environment. This is a characteristic of Pin-ball Construction Set where, for example, the user can build his or her own pinball games and can even adjust the "gravity" field in which the game is played.
Second, the microworld must support a fantasy that has some relevance or connection to the real world. The skills that one obtains in the microworld are clearly more beneficial if they have some connection to the rest of the user's life.
A question that arises is just how much of a real-world connection is needed to qualify a program as a microworld. Lemonade is a fine representation of a real-world environment, but it is not a microworld simply because the program does not allow the user to modify the rules by which the lemonade stand is run. Logo's turtle geometry is a microworld since drawing and movement are real-world activities, and the user has the flexibility to explore and modify the environment at will. I feel that Rocky's Boots and Robot Odyssey are microworlds as well, since these programs develop an understanding of formal logic by allowing the user to construct and operate machines of the user's own design.
Papert Speaks Out
My view of microworlds is perhaps a bit broader than that,of Seymour Papert who, at the Logo 84 conference in Boston, had this to say about the topic:
If we look at environments such as Budge's program for building pinball machines, I feel that these programs have many of the elements of a well-designed microworld: They are child-centered; they're driven in a constructive way; no one is giving you exercises, you can sit there, working with the system without anybody saying "Do this, solve this problem." But they do lack something that the turtle world has: a set of recognizable mathematical programming ideas.
Our task has to be to continue to invent worlds that have both open-endedness and a connection to other ideas in our culture.
Rocky's Boots is an example of something significant: It does incorporate some very fundamental ideas. The idea that you can build, from several logic elements, any computational device, is surely one of the most powerful ideas of all time. It's one of the ideas that one might say gave rise to the whole microcomputer revolution. So you can't say of Rocky's Boots that it doesn't tap into powerful ideas. But you can say that hardly any of the people who use it—be they teachers or children—acquire through using it any appreciation of this particular powerful idea or any uses of this particular powerful idea outside of the use of this program.
The major task of our microworlds is to link what we learn to the outside world. With the turtle, there is a cultural resonance with the outside world. I don't think that the idea of a universal logical element has such a resonance. Not in the lives of children anyway. How could it acquire one? It could only do it through quite pro-found change on a cultural level in the learning world. There are certain ideas of the turtle world, like drawing, that are already part of our culture. So, through the turtle, we pick up a mathematical form of that idea that fits in with our world.
Except for his perception of Rocky's Boots, Papert's view of microworlds is not so different from mine. I would argue more for the creation of microworlds for adults and children alike. To the extent that they are useful (and entertaining) environments for children, appropriately designed microworlds can be captivating environments for adults as well.
Regarding the future of microworld development, Papert went on to say:
If we look ahead ten years to the future of Logo, we might find, to a large part, that it presented us with the first of many microworlds that have become, if not the substitute for what we call curriculum, the vitally important part of what constitutes the learning environment for children. I envision the existence of 10 to 30 microworlds of which the turtle world is but one example. Some of these might be controlled by a computer language like Logo, and some of them won't, but they will all be computer-based worlds in which powerful central ideas either exist already in our scientific and intellectual heritage, or will come about in the interim. This network of microworlds will have a different kind of life. If something like Rocky's Boots is one of them, it will have its cultural resonances, and will have a form that will let you meet these ideas in appropriate manners when you are six, and again as you grow older. The shape of the learning environment will be influenced by the kinds of movements that Logo is part of, and I see that as the immediate task of the next ten years.
The Computing Horizon
What I find so absolutely fascinating about all of this is that the personal computer software industry is far from falling into a rut. Just as we start to identify and classify certain types of software, entirely new categories appear on the horizon. Games become simulations, simulations become languages, and in the process the combinations become microworlds. As all of these advances are taking place, the computer itself appears to be drifting ever further into the background. We are increasingly interested in computing and decreasingly interested in the computer per se.
Even as I find myself getting tempted to design new microworlds of my own, I have the nagging suspicion that by next year I'll be saying, "That's not a game, that's a …."
David Thornburg is an author and speaker who has been heavily involved with the personal computer field since 1978. His main interest is in making computers responsive to people's needs. He is the inventor of the KoalaPad graphics tablet and is the author of nine books about programming. His recent series Computer Art and Animation (Addison-Wesley) includes four books on Logo for the Atari, Commodore, Radio Shack, and TI computers. Discovering Apple Logo (Addison-Wesley) shows how Logo can be used as a tool for exploring the art and pattern of nature. He has been called "an enthusiastic advocate for a humanistic computer revolution," and his editorial opinions have appeared in COMPUTE! since its inception.