Virtually, Virtual

Tonka Search & Rescue
Hasbro Interactive, 1997

Last spring, the kid on the corner spent a lot of time playing in the mud. He kept busy in a little patch right at the edge of his lot, playing with his toy trucks and cars, fully engaged with imaginary roads, hills, gullies, and adventures.

He was an informal advertisement for the virtues of old-fashioned active play. He was doing "real" things with them--nothing got done until he first imagined it and then physically made it happen. This was pretty much like real work, even finishing his "work" dirty, just like actual truck drivers, bulldozer operators, and the rest.

Advances in software design--and our ongoing reliance on software in general--have led to a new form of computer game that dares to call itself "virtual"--as in "being in essence, though not in fact," according to my dictionary. "Virtual" is a great buzzword, and it's used to sell some products, but we can't always trust it to be a synonym for "useful," "convincing," or even "fun."

Not that the games themselves can't be fun by current (lowered) expectations. We just need to judge them by something other than a "virtual" experience. Coincidentally, three new products caught my eye because they all require at least a conceptual connection to something real--in actual toys and the world itself.

Virtual K'Nex (Fox Interactive, for ages 6-12) takes the popular construction toy--a plastic system of mini-girders and connectors--into generic adventure. Based on a simple (forgettable) narrative about saving "the K-Force" from "the evil Rex Edifice," it basically gives players two things to do: build a model vehicle, and then try some simple games, mostly maze-based and against deadlines, which aren't high-pressured. The games are short in both visual and temporal length: drive a dune buggy through desert wastes, put out some fires. In many cases these games are not far removed from the old Atari video games, often referred to as "side-scrollers."

Building the vehicles has some promise, since the player is given a 3-D grid much like those used in actual CAD (Computer Assisted Modeling) programs. However, "building" boils down to choosing the right K'Nex piece. It's a helpful form of trial and error--but once the vehicle is "built" it doesn't behave in three dimensions, even though it's like a 3-D modeled object. In other words, a kid can't rotate or inspect--in space--the thing he or she has just pieced together. (Other games, even CD-ROMs from car manufacturers, provide this feature.) The virtual potential is also missing once the games happen, since there's no first-person point of view that might enhance the imaginative nature.

Tonka Search & Rescue (Hasbro Interactive, for ages 4-8) stays pretty much in the same simple territory as Virtual K'Nex; it sets up the scenario more vividly with a view of a town where various mishaps need attention (earthquake at the zoo! flood on the riverfront!). It doesn't offer too much of a "building" experience, but there is a little more hands-on play in the sense that kids can "drive" or "fly" little helicopters, bulldozers, boats, etc., and it features some neatly drawn and voiced characters that give a greater sense of story and place.

Still, the game can be frustrating. There's a menu option to look at various Tonka vehicles. They simply pop out as 3-D models and rotate swiftly while a short narration explains them; but the models aren't of the vehicles used in the games--those are more conventional little drawings. Though the storytelling aspect of it is creditable, the game may be trusting too much on the mouse (it isn't always clear just how "high" on the screen the helicopter needs to be for it to lower the rescue basket to the correct spot below). The mouse is needed to turn and move any vehicle forward (my bulldozer had a lot of trouble getting into the zoo).

Aimed at older kids (grades 8 and up) Fahrenheits' Fabulous Fortune (McGraw-Hill) applies problem-solving game strategies to the learning of physical science. Players are seekers of an inheritance held in a mansion. They can just explore, but ideally they should be experimenting, earning parts of the combination to the safe that holds the wealth. This may seem an unlikely way to teach about levers or chemical saturation points, but it's richly detailed with a deep database that would work well in conjunction with regular classroom study. The only risk in using this to enhance the wonders of science is that when the lesson isn't sinking in, the story won't seem as interesting any more. The virtual experience of a story can only take the listener so far. Eventually a kid needs to be the story; going back to play in the mud should always be a clear option on any kid's "menu."

Phil Anderson is a regular reviewer of movies, software, and technology for Minnesota Parent.

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