TECHNOFILE

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The Independent Culture
Virtual Lego seems rather like the Qwerty keyboard, a hangover from an earlier and more limited technology. If computer graphics can render shade and texture, why use them to create an image of an island made from bricks designed for children's paws? One possible answer is that ordinary objects acquire an aura when presented on screen; paradoxically, children will be thrilled to see familiar construction toys they can no longer touch. Another is that Lego has been hit by the computer games boom, and has decided to join what it can't beat.

There's more to Lego Island (Mindscape CD-ROM, pounds 29.99, Windows 95 only) than meets the eye, though. Scampering around it are seven characters: the Infomaniac, the Brickster, a dancing pizza restaurateur, his singing wife, his delivery boy, and two police officers. This eminently balanced community comprises representatives of the seven forms of intelligence identified by Professor Howard Gardner - linguistic, intrapersonal, kinaesthetic, musical, mathematical, spatial and interpersonal.

Actually, Prof Gardner has recently upgraded his theory with an eighth, naturalist intelligence, an understanding of animals and plants. However useful this might have been to hunters and gatherers, it would find little application on the island, whose thick coating of pretend-concrete makes Heathrow Airport look like the Cotswolds. As for the ratio of police to civilians, that seems more appropriate to Alcatraz than a resort whose main industry seems to be the repair of jet-skis.

It also seems mean to make the avatar of intra-personal relations, the introverted Brickster, into the baddie. He and his fellow islanders are, how-ever, mere pawns in a larger struggle. Like the old Bond movies, the thrills and spills of the action game articulate a conflict between two ideologically opposed camps. Gardner's theory is the main alternative to the school of thought which argues that there is only one basic intelligence, and it can be measured by IQ scores. As a thriving network of websites shows, Gardnerian schools and educationalists value Multiple Intelligence Theory as a framework for teaching that emphasises humanist values and creativity.

Although it certainly wears its learning lightly, Lego Island cites a second professor, Seymour Papert. An artificial intelligence expert, Papert is a passionate advocate of the use of computers in schools. His ideas are also featured liberally on the Web, but it remains unclear just why he believes that computers have the power to transform education. Papert's educational vision is derived from that of Jean Piaget, and emphasises the value of making things that mean something to the child. Such objects can be made from sticky-backed plastic as well as pixels, though, and children can learn about different forms of thought by interacting with humans as well as animated characters. On the other hand, the use of computer code affirms that numbers are fundamental, just as Piaget always maintained.

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