Tag Archive for 'strike'

Let’s start looking at games

Reminder: in case you’re behind on my blog, I’ve been researching programs to put on the old computers in the small library at the Deaf School in Kenya where I’m volunteering.  My intention is to come up with solutions that work here but can be applied elsewhere.  If nothing else, evaluating as many programs as possible will give me real examples of what works and what doesn’t.  Because the teachers are striking, I would otherwise be bored so I’ve been perusing the Internet a lot in order to make some progress on this front.  This is me in action:

P1020719 Today I will be starting a series of posts in which I focus on the differences between the various classic LucasArts adventure games, specifically as I assess their educational values for pre- and early readers.  I decided to start by looking at these games specifically because they let the player click on words to make rudimentary sentences, which I think is a great place to start.  They also have difficult logic puzzles.  They’re also sufficiently old, so they’re more likely to run on old computers, and at the time they came out, not all computers had sound, so I can safely assume that all text will appear on-screen, which is great for the sake of reading and even better when you consider the deaf audience.  I’ll be showing you a lot of pictures from the games, because the details can be hard to visualize.

As a disclaimer, I know that these games are not free.  Many of them have demo versions I could use in a pinch, which may be just as good if the children’s attention spans are short.  If I’m really sold on one as being “best” for learning then I’ll contact the copyright holder.

I’ll take you through the games chronologically because that’s the order that I’m playing them, and indicate the changes over time that helped or hurt the educational value.  After I’m finished with the later games I will share my conclusions, but please enjoy the process as it unfolds…

1987-1989: Maniac Mansion 1

I will probably be writing more about this game than the others in order to lay the groundwork for my assessment of the later ones, so bear with me.  Pictures below are used interchangeably from two different editions, one “Enhanced” with better graphics and one not, but they are educationally the same game except that the enhanced version allows up to ten saved games, whereas the original version allows one, which is not so good if multiple children want to play at different points in the game.  Someone other than myself has already documented the more minute changes in all the editions of these games.

maniac_008 In Maniac Mansion you control three different characters who you choose at the beginning.  One of them is “Michael,” a black college-age kid, which I like because, thanks to living in Kenya, I am hyper aware of how culturally skewed these things can normally be.

maniac_002Most of the time, you are in “action” mode, where you can click a verb on the bottom of the screen, then either a visual object or a word from your inventory.  In this case, I created the sentence “What is bushes,” which is an example of how this system can go wrong from a learning perspective.  Hopefully this example is an rare one… it seems easy enough to avoid plurals in gave development.

maniac_010 “Pull bushes,” which I used to reveal the grate behind them, is better, but this is not really proper grammar, either.  When playing the game, a special “computer command” grammar is unfortunately being reinforced, but as you can see from Michael’s observation about the grate being rusted (brown font, top of screen), there is enough reading elsewhere in the game that I don’t think harm will be done.

Another problem that these “verb-noun”-style games have is how to deal with nonsense input.  In this game, for instance, I can issue the command, “Close sign,” which of course makes no sense.  When I do this, the character states the generic dealing-with-nonsense reply, “That doesn’t seem to work.”

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Having a lot of verbs to choose from, as this game does (14 total– “New kid” isn’t a verb, it’s a way to switch between the three characters), means that there is a lot of opportunity to create nonsense commands like this.  On the other hand, having all those verbs on the screen all the time, begging to be considered, is good vocab reinforcement.

The aforementioned “What is bushes,” though, actually elicited no response from the character, which is inconsistent and might be confusing to the kids.

maniac_007Also regarding the “action mode,” in terms of sentence building, I will point out that some verbs, namely “give,” “unlock,” “fix,” and sometimes “use,” require prepositional phrases after them, for example, “Unlock front door with key.”  The key was in my inventory, which is displayed as text below the verbs.  Even better vocab reinforcement!

The other mode of the game is fairly passive, and that is basically the “cutscene” mode, in which something uncontrollable happens and you as a viewer simply watch and read the dialogue.  There is no level of active participation here.

Okay, then, let’s look at one more game today, which will bring us into the 90s.

1988-1990: Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders

Zak differs from Manic in only a few significant ways.

scummvm00001Firstly, you can only be Zak… no more choosing characters.  Secondly, the verbs are different.  There are still fourteen, but Unlock and Fix have been replaced with Put on and Take off.  Additionally, when in a store, Give and Pick up are replaced automatically with Sell and Buy, respectively.  The contextual verbs are a good feature because they introduces more words in total.

scummvm00002 Like Maniac Mansion, this game sports multiple editions.  The newer 1990 edition has more colors so it looks better, but it also allocates more room for the inventory items: instead of just four, up to six show at once.  This means more text on screen at any given time—a good thing from my perspective.

I worry about Zak’s initial appeal, if only because the game starts in a posh San Francisco apartment and stars a middle-aged white man, so the children may be less excited to get into it, even though from what I understand the adventure is pretty huge by the end.   Cutscenes seem to assume a faster reading speed as well, which means that slower readers may miss plot points.

The game still has all the same inherent problems as Maniac Mansion.  Overall, Zak would be a better tool for vocab, but only for the kids who can keep up with the faster dialogue.

Well, that’s it for today!  Seeing Zak McKracken in that last picture made me think of my trip to SF right before I left for Kenya.  Here’s a pic of my sis on the beach in front of the Golden Gate.  Sometimes I really miss my family!

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2 Responses to “Let’s start looking at games”


  • aww u love me

  • Your “This is me in action” photo is the best I’ve seen showing today’s PC/VSO volunteer in the field. It should be required viewing for all potential applicants. Hanging it in an art gallery would be cool too.

One Old Computer Per Child

Today I visited the Mombasa public library.  After leaving my backpack at the bag check outside, the privilege of entering the building cost me twenty shillings.  After I walked around and admired the small but dense collection of books with torn, yellow spines, I witnessed a bit of an oddity: a commotion in the back of the building grabbed my attention, and I saw a man walking in my direction, holding a book straight up in the air with one hand.  This man had a printed sign taped to his chest and back that read, “I AM A THIEF.  I TRIED TO STEAL A BOOK FROM THE LIBRARY.”  Behind this man was a a somber looking security guard, who slowly paraded him around the building, past me, and then out the door.  What happened outside I have no idea.

The scarcity of learning materials here is striking, as is the seriousness with which the sanctity of those materials is taken.  Today’s experience put into perspective my own school’s policy: the library is not for children.  Books only leave the library in the hands of teachers.

And that’s just the books policy: it’s no wonder the computers are so dusty!  If a book can’t be trusted to a child, how can a computer?  When the culture and the resources dictate this kind of policy, does an organization like OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) make any sense?

The adults don’t trust the children with books, let alone their own laptops.  In a country where a computer in the home is usually just a pipe dream, a shiny new laptop for every child runs the risk of being downright offensive to the adults, who likely would hear nothing of talk about manufacturing cost effectiveness and subsidies.

I have been reflecting on this a lot recently for two reasons:

  1. I am still trying to identify how best to utilize the old computers in the school library (in fact I’ve been downloading educational software nonstop for three days and counting).
  2. The OLPC project was in the news recently due to its downsize and forking of hardware and software divisions.

The reason that the second point struck me was this: the OLPC staff thought about more than just how to build a cheap computer.  Read their Learning Vision and you’ll understand.  They clearly spent a lot of time on the software side of things, thinking about what would benefit a child most… not just “which programs/games can I put on here?” but also how to organize it all.  They call it Sugar, which is what actually just branched off to its own company.  The (hopefully) good news is that I shouldn’t need this special laptop to benefit from this: I can download a LiveCD of the whole thing, meaning I can boot my computer right off the CD without changing anything on my hard drive.

Why take this approach?  Why not just install a bunch of free stuff onto Windows, which is already installed?  Well, two reasons:

  • By keeping the computer itself intrinsically linked to the software ON the computer, it encourages adults to fear the children’s use of the computer.  “They might change something and break it!” is a sentiment not limited to Kenya.  Making the software into a fairly disposable, easily replaceable commodity, the adults only need to make sure that the children don’t PHYSICALLY break the computer.  A server computer is not the correct solution in this environment, I think, because the IT infrastructure is simply not in place in the schools.
  • Despite what I just said, I’m moving down the “stay-in-whatever-version-of-Windows-is-on-the-machine” road in parallel, in an attempt to possibly bundle a software package for other schools, but I’ll tell you, it’s a mess.  When I find a program for Windows, I need to see if it works specifically with Windows 95.  What about Windows 95 pre-OSR2, which is not a free upgrade?  Will I need to install DirectX?  Java?  Flash?  Which versions?  What about the Y2K patch (no joke)?  If this sounds technical and obnoxious, it is, and I’m having a difficult time imagining anyone else being able to reproduce my “old Windows machine” success unless they are coming from an IT background.  A LiveCD, on the other hand, or a bootable USB stick, leaves little to worry about.  Does the computer have a CD-ROM?  No, then take it to the shop and get one, it’s cheap.  Then use CD that costs 5 cents.  Certainly cheaper than buying a newer Windows license.  This makes for an inexpensive and simple distribution of learning tools that makes the OLPC Deployment Guide look like a Dickens novel by comparison.

The OLPC / Sugar Labs group is not alone in distributing an educational LiveCD, although they have probably taken the concept father than anyone else.  Other LiveCDs include the old GComprix, superseded (I think, documentation is poor) now by FreeDuc.  A decent article on the topic with more examples is here.  I get the impression that I’ve barely scratched the surface, and I’m trying to download as many as I can before I jump to any conclusions, but I already anticipate one problem:

The computers at my school, and probably many others, are SLOW, and I don’t think that these LiveCDs always take that into account.

I think there would be a tremendous value in maintaining an up-to-date CD/USB school-ready Linux LiveCD available for schools in developing nations.  I’ve already downloaded the Damn Small Linux LiveCD to see if it would make a good starting point.

Well, I still have a lot to learn, and since I’m still paying by the megabyte, my wallet is starting to shrink thanks to these LiveCDs (700MB each)!  I’m talking with Zuku to get WiMax at my house, because I may be in range and it would probably be better than any of the mobile phone networks.  Oh, how I yearn to multitask on a one gigabit connection again:

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Having multiple computers here would be nice, too.  Oh, and if you couldn’t tell by the fact that I clearly have so much free time, the strike is not over.  Tomorrow I expect some fellow volunteer teachers to visit, so I’ll be going now to clean up the area around my computer.  The Dr. Pepper cans area already starting to stack up!  Makes it feel like home.

0 Responses to “One Old Computer Per Child”


Fightin’ words

The strike is on and we shall not relent until the Government gives us our demands 100 per cent. The Government must prepare for the mother of all strikes. Learning will be paralysed everywhere in the country.
-Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) Chairman George Wesonga

As always, the boldface emphasis is mine.
Source: http://www.eastandard.net/InsidePage.php?id=1144004398&cid=4

So tomorrow it looks like, instead of teaching, I’ll be using my brand new iron and ironing board to smooth out wrinkles!  Hm, it’s hard to get too excited about it.  Well, on a related note, I promised some pictures, and since today was laundry day, you get to see some wet clothes. (They’re still drying outside.)

First, the setting: my courtyard.  The entry gate on the right, choo/bathroom doorway in the center, and the door to my home is on the left.  The green bucket on the ground is my bathtub.  Yes, it’s a glamorous life here in Kenya.

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Three hours worth of laundry: enough to make nudism seem tempting.

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This spider was not very happy that I took over his courtyard.  Cool yellow spots though.

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The weekend was nice in that I took a break from education theory.  I can get pretty worked up when I’m in research mode, so I made it a point to walk around town to do some shopping for the new home.  Tomorrow I’ll be playing it by ear (a regretful idiom) but will hopefully still get a chance to talk with the headmaster about plans for my teaching role.

Lastly, in my attempts to save even more bandwidth (and money), I changed a lot of things in my own setup, so I updated the Phone Tricks page accordingly, this time with a lot more detail in the laptop software section.  (I even wrote a custom Javascript plugin for Firefox, which you can download.)

1 Response to “Fightin’ words”


  • I’m just catching up on your adventure, I had not read it since the first days. It sounds exciting and the pictures are great. We love your KSL name (especially Maria’s friend Rachel with curly hair!) Love you- Aunt Joyce