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:
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.
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.
Most 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.
“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.”
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.
Also 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.
Firstly, 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.
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!