Labyrinth-Forum | index | back | next |

-- the Labyrinth Summer 1995 --

Games Software Evaluations

Alan Levine, MCLI

This Spring, thirty-two Maricopa faculty visited MCLI to evaluate computer game and simulation software. We asked them to experience the environment as a user and then to explore it from an instructor's perspective. In this article, we present some of the results of the evaluations. A final report will be available from MCLI in August 1995 in both print and electronically from our World Wide Web page on Software for Learning.

Most reviewers were positive about the power of computer simulation. Heidi-Christa Adams (MCC, Counseling) described how SimCity "encouraged exploration and risk taking. The immediate feedback was great." According to biology instructor John Arle (RSCC) SimLife "provides an opportunity to see the scientific method in ecological experimentation which is otherwise impossible" to conduct in a physical laboratory. However, most expressed concern about the time it would take to familiarize themselves and their students with the software and the complexity of some of the interfaces. Some reviewers pointed out misleading, out-dated, or outright incorrect information. " Given the investment of time and effort, a software program must be outstanding to be recommended," states Steve Bass (GCC, Geography).


Cosmology of Kyoto

In this game, a player explores a Japanese city during the Heian Period (8th to 10th century AD). "You are an ordinary human being faced with opportunities, driven by desires, and bound to die. Your actions determine the path through this world and many incarnations to come." Cosmology of Kyoto has rich, dark graphics, but suffers from a quirky, non-intuitive interface and sparse documentation.

Tamaye Csyionie (SCC), who teaches Japanese, thought this game would be useful in the area of literature as well as helping students gain a deeper understanding of the class systems in the Heian period. The interface was "odd and slow" according to Steve Meredith (Music, SCC) but would be useful in studio recording classes for learning about sound design for CD-ROM. He also recommended it for courses in Japanese culture, language, and history. Mary Long (SMCC) saw little on the CD for use in philosophy and religious studies, but she thought the reference mode could be good for world history or cultural anthropology. She said the simulation was slow and cumbersome, but with some more direction it grows interesting; "Maybe I'm just bitter about so many incarnations so early in the day."

Gadget (Mac)

Gadget invites a player to explore environments, collect mechanical gadgets, and solve a mystery involving a fugitive scientist and threat of a cometary impact. This game attempts to provide a virtual world like Myst, but experienced game players noted that in many places the options were severely limited. The 3D rendered graphics are intricately detailed and the program uses black and white QuickTime movies (this allows them to be larger size) transition between scenes.

Kyle Rawlings (SCC) did not see applications in his area of Physics, but said that the program was excellent for developing problem-solving skills and "the human dilemma of who to believe." Throughout the game, you are told that the fugitive scientist, Horselover, is insane and once you finally meet, you have to draw your own conclusions. Lisa Miller (Library, Integrated Studies, PVCC) thought that the game might be useful in developing skills in critical evaluation of information from multiple sources. She did note a lack of women in the game and that it take quite a long time to become comfortable using the software.

Art instructor Darlene Swaim (MCC) saw Gadget as an example of rich balanced color and texture detail for ART 113 classes. Other design and drawing classes could "re-do" parts Swaim felt to be lacking such as blanked out windows, limited character features, and non-descript lighting. Swaim noted that the characters were visually limiting in their "miniature young male stance" and lack of ethnic diversity. "Everyone looks vaguely like a mad Russian scientist in a bad suit."

SimCity Classic (Mac, DOS, Windows)

Maxis achieved great success with this first of their "Sim" software titles. You build a city from scratch or start with a pre-built "scenario" such as San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake or a futuristic 2047 flood in Rio de Janeiro. As mayor, you are responsible for decisions regarding zoning, budget, transportation, and city services. At any time, you can graph conditions such as crime rate, land value, and population. SimCity demonstrates complex relationships in a manner that goes beyond "click-and-see" and has enjoyed popularity in schools at all grade levels.

Donovan Lamar (SMCC) saw SimCity as a challenging simulation that uses critical learning and evaluation skills. Librarian David Rodriguez (GCC) was concerned about the large amount of time it would require to learn and use SimCity. His idea was to have English 102 students compare the development of a term paper to that of constructing and maintaining a well-run SimCity. Geography instructor Kurt Hill (PVCC) suggested using SimCity to explain theoretical urban models or to show how geography changes over time. He also thought that in political science, the software would clearly demonstrate the complexity of government operations and infrastructure. As an exercise, he would have students simulate one city experiencing urban sprawl and compare housing and crime rates to a second city that was highly centralized.

While SimCity has obvious applications in architecture, geography, and mathematics, Heidi-Christa Adams (Counseling, MCC), saw uses for value classification. She would have students record why they chose certain actions over others and identify what the consequences were for that choice. Another approach would be to have students work in groups to identify and prioritize their values (such as open space, mode of transportation, etc.) and build a city that demonstrates their chosen values.

SimEarth (Mac,DOS, Windows)

Based on James Lovelock's Gaia theory, SimEarth simulates a planet as a complex living organism. The game can be played as a game, where you have to develop and manage an entire planet within a fixed budget of energy. In the other mode, SimEarth is an experimental laboratory, where you can create any set of environmental conditions.

Most reviewers found the interface too complex. Roberta Delaney (Reading, GCC) had hoped that it might be useful supplement to reading on environmental issues but she felt that students would have to be fairly computer literate to use SimEarth. Donna Tannehill (Mathematics, SCC), could see using the program to generate data for population growth and then analyzing with a graphing calculator. Students might also vary conditions, one at a time, to learn cause and effect relationships.

Alan Gaugert (Geography, EMCC), saw application in the study of plate tectonics. However, he would not recommend the game; "Not with the amount of experience I have with it. I am an experienced user and this game doesn't seem easy to use, yet!" According to Barbara Jaquay (Geography, GCC), the simulation was very effective "especially when I could view different activities at different scales- an important component for geographic studies." Students could develop hypotheses and then use the program as a virtual laboratory to vary conditions, collect data and generate scatter grams. While he liked the concept of SimEarth, Steve Bass (Geography, MCC) was not impressed with the delivery. He said that the learning environment was too much "point and click." He suggested that the game could be of use in biology to explain the evolution of species or in geology to demonstrate plate tectonics or the effect of volcanoes on land formation.

SimLife (Mac, DOS, Windows)

This"the genetic playground" allows you to simulate environments and ecosystems down to the genetic level of different species. SimLife can be used at different levels- to explore some pre-built "scenarios"; to use as a laboratory to build one's own eco-systems; or to experiment at a complex level with genetics and the laws of physics. A player gets visual feedback on the ecological "soundness" of their experimental eco-system.

John Arle (Biology, RSCC) is considering using SimLife as he structures BIO 105 (Environmental Biology). "I hope that students will be able to create controlled experiments that show the inter- and intra-specific competition as well as population interfacing with the environment." Sherri McCarthy-Tucker (Psychology, English-Humanities, CGCC) would not recommend use of this program in Biology and Physics because she identified misinformation regarding the relationships between genes and traits. Moreover, she found the screen design "too complex and time intensive to justify the benefit." Furthermore, the "smite" feature devalues life, promotes violence, and creates a "disposal" mentality toward life. With much effort, she thought that SimLife might be useful in the Honors Forum to address the theme of technology and humanity.

SimHealth (DOS)

After being involved in a hit and run accident in the opening of this game, you are thrust into the role of re-designing the U.S. health system. "SimHealth is a policy simulation. After you declare your values (balancing Liberty against Quality and Community against Efficiency) you then create new policies and change existing ones. Segments of each community suffer or flourish as a result of your decisions and you are judged on the basis of whether the policy decisions made are in line with the personal values you declared. " The simulation is deep in complexity and offers the ability to change the behavior of the system through its "assumptions." Several reviewers expressed concern about the program being based on policies which are now out-of-date.

Economics instructor Larry Woodward (PVCC) was impressed with the "quick visual feedback to large long-term public policy related topics". Meta Seltzer (GWCC, Nursing) saw how SimHealth would help students understand the implications of national health care reform. Myrna Eshelman (MCC, Nursing) thought that this program would be excellent for a leadership experience in the fourth semester of MCC's nursing program. Cathy Tankerslee and Dorothy Sisneros (Nursing, PC) decided to use SimHealth in a five week summer course, Orientation to Health Professions (HLP100AA). Their objectives are for their students working in groups to put health care terminology into practice, to recognize the cause and effect of decisions, to see how values affect outcomes, and to see how difficult it is to design a flawless health care program.

Hidden Agenda (Mac)

Hidden Agenda places you in the role of leader of the fictitious Central American country, "Chimerica." In this game, players "experience first-hand pressure facing a third-world country. They make decisions, make events happen, and make headlines. As they become invested in the game, students will suspend their North American viewpoint and learn to empathize with the plight of a developing nation." This game has been around for several years, and while not as rich in visuals as Myst or Gadget, it does provide the simulated experience of running a country

Stan Murray (PC), who teaches Legal Writing, felt that the Cold War theme was outdated and "should stress management skills over political whims." Murray speculated that the software could be useful in problem solving through group effort. Geography instructor Alan Gaugert (EMCC) thought that this program could help students understand problems and solutions such as how the government should redistribute land.

While Hidden Agenda lacked a monetary emphasis and business focus, C. Leon Button (Accounting and International Studies, SCC), said that it could be a great team project in the portion of lower IBS classes that deal with the formation of governments. Larry Woodward (Economics/Management, PVCC) suggests Hidden Agenda could be used in upper level economics classes. He thought the simulation was very effective and that "it involved critical thinking," showing students how there were no easy and quick solutions to real-life problems. Jesse Chanley (Political Science, MCC) said he was "impressed with the complexity and realism of the simulation. I became very engrossed with the characters and with my predicament of surviving while remaining true to my values."

Myst (Mac, Windows)

From the opening view from the dock at Myst Island, you can sense that Myst differs from shoot-and-kill arcade games. In exploring, you discover clues left by a former inhabitant, Artemus, that points to treachery committed by one of his sons. You must logically connect information as well as negotiate various puzzles that lead to other worlds. But more than just finding the secrets to jump to the other "ages" of Myst Island, a player must weigh the psychology and personalities of the three main characters. Who do you trust?

Most reviewers were impressed with the aesthetic quality of the Myst environment and the engaging aspect of exploring the island. However, for instructional use, most saw a detriment in the time it would require to get students started. For some, the navigation is quickly mastered, while others were frustrated with the lack of clear directions. Caryl Terrell-Bamiro (English, CGCC) thought that Myst would have potential for her Mythology courses, but she was discouraged because she could not proceed very far from her starting point. On the other hand, David Raffaelle (Physics, GCC) said that giving students the clues would ruin the purpose of the game.

Learning to navigate Myst Island was no problem for Kyle Rawlings (Physics, SCC) as he had played before (taking three full days to unravel the final clues). He saw Myst as an exercise in problem-solving-- "It is useful in getting people to look for multiple sources of information and relating those sources to one another." He was most impressed with how a player had to weigh the personalities of the two brothers on Myst Island, and what psychological inferences one makes from their voices or the types of objects in their bedrooms. Darlene Swaim (Art, MCC) would have her Art Design students evaluate the design, composition, and color factors in Myst in terms of current practices in illustration. She pointed out that Myst has a male slant to the story, as well as an entirely right-handed orientation for movement and design. Still, she was interested in the use of color to denote significant clues as well as the importance of players keeping sketches of their journey.

Laura Ruiz-Scott (Counseling, Spanish, SCC) was excited about her experience with Myst. She could see giving her students specific instructions in Spanish to go to a particular room on the island and then have as an assignment to write a description, again in Spanish, of what they saw in that room. For counseling, she suggested the game as a tool for stress management. David Gorman (Mathematics, PC) saw Myst as an application of critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. He would have students examine the geometric shapes on Myst Island. Assuming a dimension of some object (a book, a door), students could also apply scaling to estimate the area of rooms or of the entire island.

The Labyrinth-Forum: Summer 1995
Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction (MCLI)
Maricopa County Community College District

The Internet Connection at MCLI is Alan Levine --}
Comments to