The intersection of Sesame Street and silicon alley. (evaluation) Owen W. Linzmayer.
All across America kids sit spellbound in front of their television sets watching educational PBS broadcasts. No, they are not watching Masterpiece Theater, but rather, the Children's Television Workshop's popular series, "Sesame Street." Instead of forcing educational material upon the kids, CTW actually makes it fun to learn. Colorful puppets like Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird, and the lovable couple Ernie and Bert capture the children's imaginations, become their lifelong friends, and in the process, teach the kids about arithmetic and the alphabet.
A close relative of CTW is the Children's Computer Workshop (CCW), which has licensed a series of educational programs for the TRS-80 Color Computer to Radio Shack. Modeled on the popular TV series, the CCW programs incorporate some Sesame Street favorites into the games. Big Bird is one of my all-time favorite characters, so let's start by examining Big Bird's Special Delivery.
Like all CCW games, Big Birds's Special Delivery comes in a color-coded package that denotes the intended age group of the audience. Special Delivery is geared toward children between three and six years old. The instruction manual is yellow, and the cassette tape enclosed requires a 16K Color Computer with Extended Basic.
The object of Big Bird's Special Delivery is for the child to help Big Bird and Little Bird deliver packages to the correct stores. There are two different games included, and two levels of difficulty for each games.
The first, easier game is called The Same Game, in which Little Bird appears carrying a package on his head. The child must identify what it is Little Bird is carrying, and then locate the store which has the same object displayed in its window.
Using the left and right arrow keys, the child moves Little Bird beneath the correct store, and then presses the up arrow to fly the package to its intended recipient. If the chil d is correct, the store owner nods his head, and the package is delivered. If, however, the child's guess is wrong, the owner shakes his head No.
The child continues matching the packages with the objects in the windows until all four stores have received their packages, at which point all of the display lights blink on and off and four new window objects appear.
The Same Game is a good starting point to get the child comfortable with the idea of using the keyboard to manipulate objects on screen. Older children will be more challenged by Find the Right Kind, the more difficult game of the two. The premise is the same: the child must deliver packages, but instead of matching pictures, the child must determine what store sells objects similar to the one Little Bird is carrying
Find the Right Kind is something like the "which of these don't belong" game played on Sesame Street. For instance, big Birg gives Little Bird a banana to deliver. There are pictures of a flower, a dress, a piano, and an apple in the store window. The child must make the connection that both bananas and apples are fruit and then deliver the banana to the store with the apple in its display.
Big Bird's Special Delivery was the favorite package among our playtesters. Pam, a cute four-year-old, loved this one, even though she had to be helped sometimes while playing Find The Right Kind.
At first I was a bit skeptical about the Sesame Street characters being used to sell software, thinking it was only a marketing trick, but it seems that the character tie-in really makes the children want to play again and again. Grover's Number Rover
Also designed for the same age group is Grover's Number Rover. Grover is blue and looks as though he could be Oscar the Grouch's well-groomed cousin. He pilots a large space ship adorned with ten Windows. Strange creatures called Twiddles roam the planet surface beneath the UFO, and the children can move these Twiddles around, as well as suck them up into the space ship. There are several sections to Grover's Number Rover, all of which have internal instructions and two levels of play.
The easier levels are intented to familiarize the child with the controls used in play: the arrow keys and ENTER. Once the child has become accustomed to these, more difficult games can be played.
Twiddles Counting is the first game that has any real educational value. In it, the child counts the number of Twiddles on the screen and then pressed the number key that tells how many he sees. After pressing the key, the number appears on the screen, and the child can change his answer before pressing the ENTER key. If the child is correct, a big tube beams the Twiddles up into Grover's Number Rover. Not only does this game reinforce the child's counting skills, it helps the child associate the number he speaks while counting with the written number he sees on the keyboard and screen.
Twiddle Away and Twiddle Adding present the child with simple subtraction and addition problems, respectively. These two sections are most advantageous if an adult sits nearby and helps the child when problems crop up.
It isn't long before even three- and four-year-olds can add and subtract single digit numbers using Grover's Number Rover. This gives the child a head start when it comes to learning more advanced concepts in school. While the sound effects and graphics of this package aren't very exciting, they suffer to keep the children interested. Grover's Number Rover is well done, and successfully teaches the fundamentals of addition and subtraction at the child's own pace. Flip Side
Flip Side is a CCW game aimed at children ten and older. In addition to Extended Basic, Flip Side requires two joysticks play. The object of the game is for the child to fill the entire board with colored blocks. Whether or not a position is flipped to a certain color block depends upon the surround rules that appear in the upper righthand corner of the game screen. If, for example, an F is located below the number 4, then any position surrounded by four blocks will "F"lip to the other color. Other possibilities are "U"nflip and "N"o change. The players decide upon the surround rules that govern the play of the game.
One or two kids can play Flip Side, though there is no computer opponent if only one child is playing. This is somewhat disappointing, as it is much more fun to compare. The cursors are moved around the board using the joysticks, and a position is claimed by pressing the red button. Once the ENTER key is pressed, the computer scans the board and flips and unflips pieces based upon the surround rules chosen earlier. Sometimes a child may think that he is close to victory, when all of a sudden, the entire board flips over to the opponent's color!
Flip Side is intended for children ten and older. I think it is much better suited for even older kids, maybe even young adults. The concept is interesting yet it is very difficult to plan a worthwhile strategy. Even Gail, Pam's precocious 12-year-old friend, had difficulty playing Flip Side. In fact, I gave the game a whirl and found it challenging, if not frustrating! Instead of making a simple game in which the goal is to have children "look ahead," plan their actions and predict the computer's reactions, CCW has turned Flip Side into a very difficult game that becomes frustrating before it becomes fun.
A word about all of the TRS-80 Color Computer CCW educational games: you shouldn't expect to hand any of these packages to your child and send him off to the computer alone. Plan to spend anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour teaching the child how to play the game, which keys to press, and simply encouraging him to tray answers even though they are not sure it is correct. Your initial investment of time and attention will pay off, as the child will want to come back later and play the games alone--just for the fun of it. If you don't tell the kids that these CCW games are good for them, you won't ruin their fun.
The CCW games should have been released on ROM cartridges, not cassette tapes. As it stands now, somesone familiar with the workins of the Color Computer must help the child type the correct commands to load the tape, and then stand by to insure that nothing goes wrong. A ROM pack would be the easiest, fastest, and most efficient way to load these programs. Thanks to the Atari VCS, almost every child in America knows how to insert a cartridged! Let's hope that in the future Radio Shack considers this change in medium
Products: Big Bird's Special Delivery (computer program)
Grover's Number Rover (computer program)
Flip Side (computer program)