CHILDREN'S: multimedia; The best way to feed your mouse

TECHNOFILE 4
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The Independent Culture
HITHERTO, I've adopted a "child-centred" approach to reviewing CD-Roms for young people, which entailed putting children in front of a pile of disks and seeing what they liked. This, I now realise, was methodologically flawed. "Try playing the game yourself," advises the manual for The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, a disk aimed at children of 8 and over. "Trying to solve the puzzles will help you appreciate the kind of thinking your child is doing." This is something fathers have always intuitively applied to such traditional pedagogic devices as train sets. It therefore follows that you should choose Christmas CD-Roms that are to your own taste, or that of the parents of the nominal recipients.

"Don't be surprised if the puzzles are hard for you as well," continues the manual. "There is actually a great opportunity here: your child can learn a tremendous amount by teaching you!" Well, you'll have to decide for yourself just how this scenario is going to play out in your household. But if you don't especially care to have your offspring making merry with your deteriorating cognitive faculties, you can always go back to the disk after the child has gone to bed.

The main danger with the Zoombinis, though, is probably that the nature of the game is epic, and so may glue children to the screen longer than a parent might like. Its starting premise is a trifle questionable, too. The Zoombinis began as a resourceful and enterprising society, "making small, useful products which were prized the world over". Then the Bloats arrived, promising economic development, but delivering exploitation. So are we asked to assist the Zoombinis in their struggle for liberation, or at least an equitable economic settlement? We are not. Our mission is to help them flee their homeland in order to start a new life overseas. At least the International Community keeps its nose out of this.

They face a series of challenges on the way, mostly based on the fact that while all of them are blue and potato-shaped, they vary in details of nose, eyes, footwear and hairstyle. The player's task is to work out how the rules of the challenges apply to these variables, starting out at the Allergic Cliffs. Like Mount Rushmore, these have faces, which wrinkle into a sneeze when certain Zoombinis try to cross the rope bridges they support. Once the player has deduced the rule that, say, "the lower cliff is allergic to green noses", the Zoombinis can pass over safely.

The beauty of this first-rate disk lies not just in its richly rendered landscapes, but in the fact that it teaches relentlessly without ever becoming visibly teacherish. It also encourages a great deal of the kind of thought fundamental to mathematics without placing a single number on the screen. If today's primary school children do manage to acquire the skills necessary for competitiveness in the 21st century, it'll be because programs like these help them learn how to generate hypotheses and deduce rules, not because they learned to use a mouse before a knife and fork.

Of course, they do need practice in the three Rs and associated skills, such as what the Zoombinis box calls "algerbraic thinking" (it's an isolated mistake). There are plenty of CD-Roms geared to such ends, using theatrical devices such as a game show setting, and firework displays or suchlike animations that are activated when a problem is solved. A genteel alternative is to be found in the two Peter Rabbit disks, faithful multimedia translations of the original artwork, which seem to have survived Penguin's exit from the CD-Rom trade.

Another series that stands out from the pack is the Thinkin' Things Collection. "Society's traditional view of intelligence as a single, measurable factor that will predict future success is changing to a view of human potential as a composite of multiple intelligences," its introduction declares. Several hundred thousand buyers of The Bell Curve suggest otherwise, as do the leagues of psychologists continuing to prefer the single-factor model to Howard Gardner's multiple- intelligence alternative. The claim is an ideological sally, followed up by the declaration that "Thinkin' Things celebrates intellectual diversity". Yes, these are PC CDs.

The three disks, aimed at different age brackets, won't win any graphic design awards, but they contain design packages that do more than merely emulate pens and paper. Turning two-dimensional images into three-dimensional ones teaches children about symmetry and geometry. It also lets them have a go at techniques basic to adult computer design, which I daresay the Thinkin' Things folks would describe as "empowering".

A more anarchic spirit is expressed in Fuzzy and Floppy: The Adventure of the Golden Bee. It is that of Italian cartoonist Daniele Panebarco, whose style combines figures like Betty Boop, veering perspectives like German Expressionist film sets, and colours like tropical fish. The puzzles the program sets are similarly capricious. At the start of the action, Fuzzy and Floppy are locked in a chest by the evil Professor Hacker, who steals the golden bee. To let them out, you have to find a key. There's one in the attic, but it doesn't fit. Once you've found your way out onto the street, you see a skip, but it's dark inside. The trick is to go through an open door nearby and take a box of matches off the table. You need to use logic, but to deploy it laterally.

Even then, you don't necessarily get the expected result. Gradually, it becomes apparent that Fuzzy and Floppy is an extended play on the difference between how computers are supposed to work and how they actually behave. Although it is not marketed as educational, which in Britain means claiming to affirm various verses from the Holy Scripture of the National and Scottish Curricula, the disk should certainly sharpen a child's wits.

Unfortunately, it also has a nasty streak. At one stage of the adventure, Fuzzy and Floppy board an airliner, which is then attacked by another plane. Fail to stop the airliner from crashing, and the program presents an image of the cockpit with the pilot slumped in his seat, bleeding from the mouth. Now, I enjoy Itchy and Scratchy - the running joke about cartoon violence within The Simpsons - as much as Bart Simpson does, but The Simpsons is an adult show which children are able to enjoy at a rudimentary level. But the air-crash image is disturbing because it jars in the context: up to that point Fuzzy and Floppy had seemed to be cute little cartoon globules inhabiting a graphic universe with all the sharp edges safely padded.

Whatever you think of Walt Disney's influence on children's culture, at least you can be sure that Disney products aren't going to spring any unpleasant surprises. Three recent blockbusters, The Lion King , Pocahontas and Toy Story, have been turned into animated storybooks with a facility that reads highlighted words aloud. Toy Story, with its stunning computer animation, is light years ahead of its fellows. It's hard to imagine that we will see anything more impressive on a home computer screen for a generation, although of course computer generations are about nine months long. Even then, the virtuosity of the setpiece routines and the tale's visual wit should keep it ahead of less inspired competitors.

At the top of a different league are the publishers Dorling Kindersley, a rare instance in multimedia of quality and profit going together. DK realise that multimedia can extend to non-electronic media, and that the grossly outsized boxes used to package CD-Roms can be filled with more than air. The World Explorer First Activity Pack contains booklets, postcards, a map, stickers and a jigsaw puzzle. It is at the other end of the Tarantino scale from Fuzzy and Floppy, describing Afghanistan, for instance, as "famous for the beautiful rugs and carpets ... made there".

Then there's Castle Explorer, which invites the player to infiltrate a 14th-century castle to spy on a baron who looks like Robin Cook in tights. Although the anatomical diagrams of the castle are well executed, and there's a cardboard castle model thrown in, the switches of mode between these and the narrative video are a touch clunky.

The state of DK's art is represented by The Way Things Work, now available in an upgraded version, complete with a pocket fact book and a link to a Web site. This is the disk to give a child who likes facts, figures, diagrams, underlying principles and explanations in spades, on everything from airliner wings through tower cranes and lasers to zips. Unlike some museums these days, it's not scared of old, unfashionable objects, or detail. It also passes the multimedia acid test, in presenting its information far more effectively than any other medium would. And it's the nearest a CD-Rom has yet come to a train set.

! The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis (8+) (Broderbund pounds 30).

! Peter Rabbit's Number Garden (4-8), The Adventures of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny (3-7), (both Frederick Warne pounds 29.99).

! Thinkin' Things Collection 1 (4-8), 2 (6-12), 3 (8-16) (Iona pounds 19.95).

! Fuzzy and Floppy: The Adventure of the Golden Bee, 7+ (Macmillan Interactive pounds 24.99).

! Disney's Animated Storybooks: Toy Story (4-9), Lion King (3-9), Pocahontas (3-9), Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (3-8), all pounds 39.99.

! World Explorer, 4-9; Castle Explorer, 8+, (both DK pounds 29.99). The Way Things Work 2.0, 8+(DK pounds 39.99).

OTHER TITLES TO LOOK OUT FOR

2 `The Great Green Mouse Disaster (5-11): a delightful musical game with a rhythm that will appeal to children, and a sly wit that will go over their heads (Macmillan Interactive pounds 19.99).

2 The Jump Ahead Series (Random House) promises a comprehensive range of disks imparting "essential skills" to different age brackets. Titles so far are `Toddlers' (18 mnths-3 yrs) pounds 19.99, `Preschool' (3/4 yrs) pounds 29.99, `Starting School' (4/5 yrs) pounds 29.99, `Discovery Tree' (4-8 yrs) pounds 29.99.

2 `Maths Workshop' (6-12): your cartoon hostess Poly Gonzales (geddit?) speaks French and German as well as English (Broderbund pounds 30).

2 `Get Ready For School, Snoopy' (4-8): reading games with fantasy-prone dog (Virgin pounds 29.99).

2 `Henry's Party: The Farmyard': gently educational play with lugubrious pig aimed at "children aged 3-8 who have little or no reading ability" (Macmillan Interactive pounds 19.99).

2 `Dinosaur Hunter' (8+ and older children): Tiptoe round the sepulchral and heroically-proportioned museum; excavate your own dinosaur, a bone at a time, and bring it back to life (Dorling Kindersley pounds 29.99).

All these titles are available for both Windows and Macintosh systems, separately or on hybrid disks.

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