Somebody had better wake up those sleepy Minnesotans at MECC, the venerable Minneapolis software company praised across the land for their educational software. They run the risk of having their digital clock cleaned — this despite their efforts to move their educational programs forward into the 21st Century. Unfortunately, children’s software overall is moving faster. And poky MECC is losing the race.
One of their newer offerings, Explore Yellowstone, is a case in point. Yellowstone invites children to explore the nation’s first national park, both to see the sights, and to learn more about the natural wonders that populate its 3,500 square miles.
But the kids are more than tourists — they’re junior rangers, on their way to earning merit badges to advance to head ranger. They must identify animal species, spot specimens that don’t belong in groupings, research and answer questions asked by curious tourists, and aid onscreen naturalists in field studies by identifying the flora and fauna the encounter during their ‘park patrols.’ Along the way, kids also practice scientific method, and discover the rudiments of biology, geology and forestry. They — gasp — LEARN STUFF!
Children are now used to using CD-ROMs as research tools. And there is plenty to learn in the recesses of Explore Yellowstone. But nothing turns youngsters off faster than the smell of a lesson plan moldering in the recesses of an interactive adventure. All too often, Explore Yellowstone gives off the unmistakable whiff of chalk dust and musty textbooks. Put part of the blame on MECC for its low-res graphics, which have the look of postcards from the ’50s that have been left too long on the dashboard of the Range Rover. I don’t demand bells and whistles to keep children’s attention; in fact, too much reliance on flash can both shorten kids’ attention span (by wearing them down) and increase the overall boredom factor (by upping the ante in expectation of thrills.)
But if you’re going to put some of the world’s most spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife on the screen, at least let it shine out in all its glory. Explore Yellowstone doesn’t do justice to the view. That, of course, is not Explore Yellowstone’s true purpose. MECC uses Yellowstone’s grandeur to teach its lessons. I just wish MECC trusted the grandeur of Yellowstone to entice children into exploration, rather than turning the tour into a half-baked game. In doing so, they’ve set themselves in competition with multimedia games that are slicker, more technically advanced, and, let’s face it, more stimulating than what MECC has put together here.
Explore Yellowstone could have been a useful, accessible reference, a la The Animals, which uses the San Diego Zoo’s remarkable collection of species and artificial habitats to display the rich diversity of the animal kingdom. Instead, Yellowstone manages to be less than a reference (although if you dig past the gaming interface, you can find an extensive collection of information about the park and its inhabitants).
And it fails to compete against gaming brethren that lure kids with bright lights, booming soundtracks and (too often) mindless action that stimulates the nerve endings while leaving the brain undernourished.
There’s an encyclopedia-worth of information buried in Explore Yellowstone. That could have been enough for curious youngsters who crave knowledge about the natural world — especially a world as fecund and awe-inspiring as Yellowstone National Park. Why hide such wonders behind video game?
WINDOWS: 486 or higher; Windows 3.1 or higher; 256-color SVGA display; 4 MB RAM required, 8 MB recommended (8 MG required for Windows for Workgroups and Windows 95); Windows-compatible mouse; hard-disk space; 2X CD-ROM drive; Windows-compatible sound card.
MACINTOSH: 68040 required (Performa 575 or greater); System 7.1 or later; 5 MB RAM required, 8 MB recommended; 13O or larger color display required (640 x 480, 256 colors); hard-disk space; 2X CD-ROM drive.