Hi-Res Learning Games. (evaluation) Betsy Staples.
Sierra On-Line, one of the leading publishers of Apple games, has recently entered the educational software market with a series of Hi-Res Learning Games.
The graphics in all three programs are outstanding, and we detected the skill of master game designers as we watched the children on our test panel become riveted to the computer screen. The On-Line packages also offer a feature that we have found lacking in educational packages of many other manufacturers: educational objectives. By reading the objectives or "learning features" on the box, a parent or teacher can determine whether the game teaches skills his child or class needs to learn.
Each package comes with a two-page Parent Guide that offers a brief description of the game(s) on the disk and a list of control keys, of which there are only four.
Let's begin our examination of Hi-Res Learning Games with an outstanding package for pre-schoolers. Learning With Leeper
Learning With Leeper offers four games for children aged three to six. We tried to determine which of the four was the favorite of our testers, but they refused to commit themselves, and we were unable to pick a winner based on the frequency of their choices.
Among the most appealing features of Learning With Leeper is that after the disk has been booted, the child can play as long as he wants without assistance. All menu choices and game maneuvers are accomplished with the joystick, and a small creature named Leeper provides the demonstrations that substitute for written instructions. There is nothing to read and no need to use the keyboard.
The program opens with the menu, which displays a pictorial representation of one game in each of the four corners of the screen. The child has only to move a picture of Leeper to one of the corners to choose his game. Dog Count
In Dog Count, we see groups of bones--are, two, three, four, and five--lined up at the right of the screen. Each group has the appropriate Arabic numeral displayed alongside. For each round of the game, a different number of Snoopy-type dogs appears at the left of the screen. The child's task is to select the group of bones that will feed the number of dogs on the screen.
After he makes his selection, the bones move to the center of the screen and the dogs walk out one-at-a-time and flop down contentedly to enjoy their bones. The child then enjoys a quick display of swirling smiley faces, and a smiley face is added to his collection on the game board.
If the child has selected too few bones, the bonesless dog(s) yaps plaintively after the distribution is complete. If there are too many bones, the left over bone(s) squeaks.
Unfortunately, the yapping dog is just a little too cute, and we found that, as is so often the case, the response for an incorrect answer was almost as rewarding as the response for the correct answer. Children occasionally chose the incorrect answer deliberately. We also felt that children at the higher end of the recommended age range could easily handle higher numbers, and we would have liked to see this extension of the game.
Overall, Dog Count earns a high rating for both playability and educational value. Balloon Pop
The second game on the disk is Balloon Pop, a shape matching game. The object is to pick the one of four shapes or letters at the bottom of the screen that matches the shape or letter displayed on the right side of the screen. To do this, the child uses the joystick to maneuver a balloon from which a hook is suspended.
If he chooses the correct shape, he is rewarded with a cute tune and a display of popping balloon. If he chooses incorrectly, his balloon releases the shape which drops back into its place at the bottom of the screen. After he has successfully matched all four shapes, he gets to play a simple game in which he pops balloons. When he succeeds in popping ten balloons, the next round of the matching game appears on the screen.
We found some of the shapes quite difficult to distinguish from one another, but the children did quite well with them. Balloon Pop, too, earns a high rating. Leap Frog
In Leap Frog, the child must guide a cute little from through a maze. The first maze is very simple, and the child must negotiate it "with skill" before he can progress to another. "With skill" is not defined in the Parent Guide.
If he completes the maze with skill, the child gets to watch a game of leap frog between Leeper and the frog. After they have made one trip across the screen, a caterpillar appears and chases them back.
The second and subsequent mazes are more complex, even though they offer more than one possible correct path. The game is further complicated by the presence of the malevolent caterpillar which is set loose in the maze with the frog.
Ironically, our children found the second level mazes much easier to negotiate than the first qualifying maze. One child was, however, quite disturbed by the caterpillar, and became panicky when it appeared about to overtake his frog in the maze.
The children enjoyed Leap Frog a great deal, but were frustrated by having to complete the qualifying maze each time. Perhaps one qualifying maze per session with the disk would make the game more appealing. Screen Painting
The final game on the disk, Screen Painting, is not really a game at all but, as the name implies, an artistic exercise.
in each corner of the screen is a pot of paint--red, green, blue, or purple. The child uses the joystick to move the paint-brush around the screen, creating a drawing. To change colors, he has only to pass the brush through a different color paint.
Screen Painting was more popular with the younger children on our panel than the older ones. None of the children seemed inclined to imitate the representational art demonstrated by Leeper; they apparently preferred more contemporary abstract expressions. Summary
We found that although our youngest tester (barely three years old) understood the concepts involved in the games and could frequently do the counting and identify matches, she could not control the joystick well enough to play the game alone. We also discovered a new form of hardware abuse, joystick jamming. The Kraft joystick we were using held up well, but parents would do well to give special thought to durability when choosing a joystick that will be used by pre-schoolers.
The cleverness and thoughtfulness of On-Line's programmers is astonishing: Leeper demonstrates each game only once per session. This seems like a small point until you consider the attention span of a pre-schooler and attempt to estimate how many times he will switch games in a single sitting.
All in all, we think Learning With Leeper is an excellent package. The games are attractive to children, hold their interest, and teach some useful skills. The father of one five-year-old boy who tested the program told us that Learning With Leeper was an extremely positive experience for his son who had never used a computer before and hadn't talked of much else for over a week. Dragon's Keep
Dragon's Keep is an adventure-type game for children aged "seven and up." The Parent Guide tells us that it "is designed to help your child develop skills in reading comprehension and map reading."
The adventure takes place in and around a small home in suburbia. The object of the game is to free 16 animals that are being held captive by an unfriendly dragon.
Each scene is depicted in splendid hires graphics. To act, the player must read the two or three sentences printed at the bottom of the screen and choose one by pressing RETURN. He moves the cursor by pressing the spacebar.
Along with the disk and Parent Guide, you get a poster-size map of the house and environs, 16 animal stickers, and a compass sticker which you are advised to place "on the monitor near the screen." As the child discovers animals, he can place the appropriate sticker on the labeled circles on the map.
The dragon is at large and periodically appears superimposed on the hi-res scene. In theory, he is supposed to hinder the release of the animals, but in practice, he has very little effect other than to slow down game play as his hi-res image spreads out on the screen pixel-by-pixel. The dragon becomes tiresome very quickly.
The reading level of the action choices is second grade, and the game is delightfully freeze of arbitrary surprises--sudden death, endless mazes, lost treasures, etc. A modicum of common sense and an orderly approach to the exploration will lead to success.
The map is intricate enough and the hiding places of the animals clever enough to be challenging even for players in the "and up" category. We did, however, get tired of waiting for the hi-res pictures to materialize.
Our only other complaint is the method of keyboard control. We found that players had trouble remembering whether to press RETURN or the spacebar to move the cursor; all too often, the wrong choice was made, and the player found himself doing something other than what he wanted to do. It seems that a player who can read at the second grade level ought to be able to recognize the number keys and that a better scheme would have been to have him choose by pressing the number corresponding to his choice (the choices are already numbered).
We like Dragon's Keep. It uses a popular game format to develop skills rather than just drill them, and although it seems to be designed for home use, it could certainly be useful in the classroom as a cooperative venture. Troll's Tale
Troll's Tale is very similar to Dragon's Keep. It is for slightly older children--ages eight and up--and offers practice in map making, identifying details, making inferences, predicting outcomes, and drawing conclusions. Reading is at the third grade level.
The game takes place in the subterranean kingdom of the Dwarf King Mark. A wicked troll has stolen 16 treasures from King Mark and hidden them in caves, cottages, tree trunks, and other unlikely places. The object of the game is to recover the treasures for the king.
This package includes a disk, Parent Guide, a poster-size map, 16 treasure stickers, and a compass sticker. Many of the circles on the Troll's Tale map are unlabeled, so the mapping procedure is a bit more difficult than in Dragon's Keep.
Our criticisms of Troll's Tale are the same as our criticisms of Dragon's Keep: the appearance of the troll on a scene is tiresome and pointless, and the keyboard control could be improved.
Our endorsement is also similar: Troll's Tale is a good game. It seems to be effective in accomplishing the educational objectives it sets for itself, and it does so in an entertaining non-drill-oriented way.
Products: Learning With Leeper (computer program)
Dragon's Keep (computer program)
Troll's Tale (computer program)