by Dorothy Heller
A new contender in the educational software field whose motto is "software designs for developing young minds" is offering a different slant on children's computer products for home and school.
"We decided from the beginning that curriculum-oriented software and "shoot-em-ups" were out," says Kari Beims of MaxiMus.
"We wanted to do something new."
Maximus' approach is to combine the concept of "software movies" for children with games that teach "lessons in daily living." The products for the Atari and Commodore 64 computers, which include Safetyline, Storyline, Travelline, Scienceline and Societyline, deal in morals and guidelines for behavior instead of arcade action or computer-assisted instruction.
"Although children can informally learn reading, spelling and other skills with our products, we wanted to go beyond school learning," said Beims. "Our goal is to reinforce the lessons that parents try to teach in a fun way."
For this month's "Family Place", we interviewed Beims on the company's philosophy and product development. We also reviewed two of their products -- Safetyline and Storyline -- with the assistance of an expert in the field of early childhood education who has been working with children for more than 50 years!
Unlike Sesame Street Software, Scholastic, Inc. and Spinnaker Software, Maximus doesn't have major corporations or an easily recognizable brandname as backing. The MacLean, Va., company and its products are the creation of David W. Mastran, Maximus president, and a small but versatile staff who wear many hats.
Typical of the Maximus staff is Beims, who designs computer graphics, works with marketing, goes to trade shows, does package design and performs several other functions. When Mastran told her to create cartoons and design computer graphics for educational games, she obligingly put on another hat and learned by doing.
"I was petrified at first," Beims recalled. "My background is in studio art and art history and I really hadn't worked much with computers or computer graphics before. I was originally hired to do business graphics."
Undaunted, Beims went to the library, taught herself how to program in BASIC, took a class in computer graphics, and worked closely with the programming team to translate ideas into visual images on the screen.
Beims was inspired by her mother's example, who returned to college after years of raising a family, earned a scholarship, and became a legislative assistant to the Maryland Commission on Women and Appointments officer to the governor of Maryland. "Seeing my mother graduate was one of the greatest moments of my life," Beims said. "I learned from her that you can do anything and learn anything if you want to."
Beims began her computer graphics career by drawing a cartoon of "Max the Cat." Maximus' "software movies" developed from this character, who grew from a concept to a cartoon to a character on the computer screen. "We decided to have his lips move while he talked, then added more and more animation. By the time we were finished, we had a fully animated movie with a lip-synched narration on the cassette tape recorder. We then developed interactive games to reinforce the movie."
Program on Safety
"Parents are universally concerned with teaching their children lessons about safety, like what to do when lost, whether to speak to strangers, how to cross the street and deal with traffic," stated Beims. "Although the parents know how important these lessons are, often it goes in one ear and out the other when they try to teach their children. The purpose of Safetyline is to reinforce guidelines that will help kids to get safely through typical situations."
Safetyline is designed to be fused either with a cassette-only version, or both disk drive and cassette. Side A features a movie called "Sam Goes to School; Side B features "Sam Gets Lost at the Zoo." The two software movies, narrated by "Max the Cat", include specific guidelines for crossing the street safely and what to do when lost. Each software movie is accompanied by two games that reinforce the lessons that are dramatized by the movie.
In "Streetcross", the player must get Sam to school safely, using either a joystick or keyboard control. To win the game and earn a high score, the child has to remember the safety rules. If the player moves Sam across the street in the middle of the block, when the light is red or when a car is still moving through the intersection, he hears warning music and the program moves Sam back to a safe place. When Sam reaches the school doors safely, the program plays winning music and displays the child's score.
In "Hidden Tips", one of Max's Safety Tips appears at the bottom of the screen and the keyword in the safety tip appears at the top of the screen. The keyword is then hidden in the game field by surrounding it with random letters. The player can choose the easy or hard version.
In the easy version, the word is arranged only left-to-right or top-to-bottom. in the difficult version, the keyword may appear in any direction.
When the player finds the keyword and moves the cursor over the letters, using keyboard or joystick, the screen changes and another keyword appears hidden in the game field. The challenge is to find all of the keywords from the safety tip as quickly as possible before the clock counts down to zero.
"Sam Gets Lost at the Zoo" is accompanied by "Tipmatch" and "Zoomaze." In "Tipmatch", eight squares appear on the game field. Behind each square is one of the five safety tips from the movie. Children can play the game individually or together to match the tips. Kids can choose from an easy or difficult version.
In "Zoomaze", Sam is lost in the zoo. The goal of the game is to help Sam find his way safely back to his teacher.
Sam's cap appears in the middle of the gamefield. There are four boxes in the corners of the gamefield, hiding a popcorn stand, a policeman, Sam's teacher and a stranger.
When the child moves Sam toward one of the boxes, he or she encounters an invisible maze. The challenge is to guide Sam through the maze to the right boxes. If Sam reaches his teacher, the child hears winning music. If Sam ends up with the stranger, the game is lost. Bouncing Sam against the walls of the maze also decreases the child's score. In the easy version, the maze appears on the screen; in the more difficult version, the maze disappears.
The Storyline software movies use traditional folk tales, narrated by Clover the clown, to teach lessons about behavior and attitude. in "Rumpelstiltskin", the movie reinforces morals about boasting and promising "more than you can deliver."
"The Ugly Duckling" reinforces morals about respecting others who are "different" and about "following your heart."
Two games accompany "Rumpelstiltskin: "Guess My Name" and "Promises, Promises." In "Guess My Name", the player builds a stack of gold by guessing the name of the troll, letter by letter. The troll can have one of almost 200 boy's and girl's names. The child can determine the number of guesses he or she wants, from one to 12. The number of letters in the name appear as blank spaces at the top of the screen. As the child types in a correct letter, it appears in the name. Letters that don't belong in the name appear at the bottom of the screen to remind the child not to repeat wrong guesses.
"Promises, Promises" teaches not to "promise more than you can deliver." The goal of the game is to promise less than Rumpelstiltskin wants. The player uses the joystick or cursor control keys to choose a number between 10 and 90. Rumpelstiltskin then moves his arrow and stops at the number he wants. If the player has promised less than Rumpelstiltskin asks, he or she keeps the points. If the player wins, Rumpelstiltskin explodes and becomes a pile of straw.
"The Ugly Duckling" is accompanied by "Pick the Twins" and "Duck Puzzle." In "Twins", the player must match images of different ducks or flowers in as few tries as possible.
In "Duck Puzzle", the goal is to unscramble the puzzle on the screen using either keyboard controls or the joystick.
We reviewed Safetyline and Storyline with the assistance of our educational expert and several children. We concluded the packages are exceptionally good values for home and school, with several reservations that we hope Maximus will correct in future products.
We liked the software movies, the originality of Maximus' approach to educational software, and the concept of teaching "lessons in daily living." The products and the direction Maximus is moving show lots of potential for a new kind of educational home software.