Strategy and adventure games introduce children to problem-solving. Theodora Wood explores some educational worlds.
MANY EDUCATIONAL programs produced so far rely on the question-and-answer format, using the computer as a vehicle to test a child's competence in a certain area and, by imaginative use of colour, graphics and sound, sugar the pill of mental arithmetic and spelling and act as revision notebooks. Doing that they echo the traditional methods of teaching using textbooks and workbooks.
There is, however, an alternative method of using the computer, creating situations whereby the user has to determine the best method of solving the problem and, in so doing, is involved in a decision-making process rather than reiterating answers learned by rote. In such situations a child's approach is dominated not so much by finding the correct answer as by testing various strategies which might work to a greater or lesser degree. In those situations incorrect answers are as thought-provoking as their correct counterparts and provide a basis from which to work towards a better solution.
Pathfinder - Spectrum 16/48K, Widgit, £5.95 - is an introduction to problem-solving techniques for younger children. All the programs reinforce left/right orientation, an important pre-reading skill, as all four involve moving an animal/monster from the left to the right of the screen. Children as young as three years old will appreciate Rabbit, where the rabbit has to be moved through a simple maze by means of the cursor keys, without CAPS SHIFT, which makes it simpler.
As the rabbit moves, additional visual stimulus is provided by the fact that it eats the carrots in its path and thus delineates the moves already taken, and each movement is accompanied by a clicking sound different for each direction. The mazes are generated at random, so there is no opportunity to learn the way through by memory and that is the case for other programs.
Kangaroo poses a slightly more difficult problem as the kangaroo has to be programmed to move through the maze by means of the cursor keys, followed by the number of steps in any direction. Any number of moves can be programmed before pressing G to execute the program. If there has been an erro, the program which is listed on the side of the screen returns to the place before the mistake, so no editing is required. Kangaroo introduces the concept of a program an RUNning it in a visually-stimulating context and enables a child to conceive very simple programs with no need for text entry.
A hungry monster must find its way through the park, picking up food in a certain order in Picnic. There are two levels of difficulty and the monster cannot retrace its steps, so some forward planning is required. Successful completion of the task is accompanied by the screen filling with monsters and food, together with appropriate sounds.
Frogs is similar to Picnic but there the problem is to pick up other frogs and avoid the water lilies without retracing the steps taken.
Pathfinder is an excellent introduction to spatial concepts and logical processes for children aged between three and eight. It has two qualities which make it more useful than its pen-and- paper equivalent; the mazes are generated at random and there is no possibility of wandering across the walls with a pencil, as young children are prone to do.
Widget continues to develop a learner-orientated strategy with The Humpty Dumpty Mystery - Spectrum 48K £6.25 -- produced in collaboration with Gordon Askew. The object is to discover who pushed Humpty Dumpty off the wall. Humpty Dumpty falls from the wall together with the nursery rhyme and then the 12 suspects appear on the screen. They are all soldiers, each with various coloured hats, jackets and badges.
The child has the choice of a question or guess. If Q for question is ENTERed the words "Did he have" appear at the bottom of the screen and the child has to finish the question with, for example, a red jacket. If the answer is no, all the soldiers with red jackets are eliminated from the screen. By that process the guilty party can be found.
The game can be played on two levels of difficulty, either easy or difficult. The easy mode allows for single-key entry so that colours can be ENTERed using the Spectrum colour keys and nouns by their initial letter; the difficult mode requires whole words to be typed- in. Thus the game can be played by children who may find difficulty with spelling and use of the keyboard. A score appears at the end of the game and the best score in the playing session is displayed.
Game two can be LOADed from an option in the first game. This time the child has a glimpse of the culprit behind the wall and then has to fill in the colours of his hat, badge, eyes, mouth and jacket. Single-key or whole-word entry and two levels of difficulty operate as in game one. The format encourages observation and memory skills in an entertaining way.
Who Killed Cock Robin? uses the nursery rhyme as a basis for an opportunity for children to play detectives, working out clues and going through the logical process of deduction required to solve the mystery. A choice can be made of three, four, five or six suspects, locations or times, and 10 attempts are given for each game. At each attempt the child is asked to guess the culprit from among the suspects.
Named and numbered pictures of each animal or bird appear on the screen, each well-realised in silhouette form. The locations appear next, each its own little gem of a picture, and then the time by means of clock faces. Each run through the options and the number of correct guesses is recorded, for example RAT FARMYARD 12PM, one correct.
A clue can be taken, after each attempt, for who, where and when. A score is shown after each game and the best score is displayed. Groups of children find it particularly entertaining and much heated discussion can take place about the clues and the strategy for the next attempt.
Pirate Spectrum 48K, Chalksoft, £8.25 - introduces the strategy-solving possibilities of an adventure game to children who are too young to cope with the rigours of an adult adventure game. The adventure is in two parts and entry to part two is dependent on gaining sufficient jewels and magic objects - all the ingredients of a full-blown adventure.
Instructions are shown before the adventure begins; the child is the captain of a pirate ship and has to steer round the ocean; to win jewels it is necessary to win battles with other pirate ships or find them in one of the islands.
The captain is responsible for making decisions at each move, so that each move involves a strategic choice. The main difference between Pirate and adventures such as The Hobbit is that, instead of being asked 'What next?' the player has only to decide a direction north, south, east or west operated on the cursor keys, or is presented with a question such as 'Pirate ship dead ahead, do you want to give chase? y/n'.
Hazards include rocks, squalls, mutiny by the crew, being captured by the other pirates and being made to walk the plank; in the latter case that means the end of the particular game and the player has to return to the beginning of the game, which is different every time.
Positions in part one of the game can be SAVEd on to tape, which allows the player to retain jewels, flags and points. Each move is presented with a graphic portrayal of the situation; some of the rocks look particularly nasty and battles are shown by multi-coloured changes in the top half of the screen accompanied by a flurry of beeps. Other sound additions include renderings of A Life on the Ocean Wave.
All instructions for SAVEng the position on tape and continuing to part two are given on-screen in a clear way and children who have regular access to a Spectrum should find no difficulty in operating those parts of the program.
Pirate is essentially a maze program with the added difficulty of acting virtually blindfold and involves a child not only in strategic decision-making but also in visualisation techniques and direction finding - at the least learning the points of the compass and their relation to one another.
While Pirate operates in the fantasy world of pirates and magic objects, Inkosi - Spectrum 48K, Chalksoft, £5.95 - is a simulation game operating in the world of ancient Africa. The object is for the tribe to survive and prosper under the king's leadership for 10 years and the user is the king. Decisions have to be made at the beginning of each year based on the number of people in the tribe, the amount of maize and the number of living cows.
Maize can be either planted, sown or traded for cows, and cows can be killed for food. One sack of maize will feed one person for a year while a cow will feed two. Once those decisions are taken, the year runs its course with random happenings occurring, such as lion attacks and the witch doctor demanding to kill cows in a fertility rite.
The game is finished if the tribe grows to more than 3,000 or if more than one-third die of starvation in one year. The outstanding lesson to be learned is that however good the planning at the beginning of the year, all can disappear if there is a drought or the fertility rites are too successful. Prosperity is dependent on luck as much as if not more than good management.
Relying as it does on text with few graphics and with little interaction apart from the planning phase, Inkosa offers a poor learning situation in comparison with simulation programs such as the Heinemann Ballooning. The use of a stereotyped situation such as ancient Africa, witch doctors, fertility rites, is not to be particularly recommended either.
The programs reviewed demonstrate various ways in which the Spectrum can be used to encourage children to develop the problem-solving strategies exemplified by Logo, requiring a learner-orientated technique not found in rule and drill packages. They also lend themselves to group usage, stimulating social interaction in a learning situation. and by discussing the next move children can learn from each other as much as from the program involved.
With the advent of the QL with its bigger memory, we can expect to see vastly more complex and imaginative uses made of the ability of the computer to present such situations and develop an interactive learning formula.