Sim-Ply Fascinating -- Simulation `Games' Offer Real Educational Opportunities

"Games are nature's form of education." - Will Wright

Figuring out how to reform the nation's health care system is not a game. Nor can it be called fun.

So what is that box labeled "SimHealth" doing among software games bearing similar titles? Indeed, can any of the software cousins in this category - "SimCity," "SimFarm," etc. - even be called games?

They're all products in a software category - simulations - that grew from the creative talents of Will Wright.

"With most games," says Wright, cofounder of Maxis, which publishes the "Sim" series, "the game itself is the constraint on what you can do. For example, in `Doom' (the most popular current shoot-'em-up game title), you can't go up to the monsters and ask them why they're trying to kill you, and if there's a wall, you can't climb over it. Behaviors are very regular and predictable."

Real life doesn't work that way. Some systems are almost completely random, and others are stochastic, predictable only within a range of probabilities. Simulations incorporate probability models to give players more possibilities and more outcomes than are available in conventional games. Mastery of the simulation game, then, takes more play time, while being at least as addictive.

"What I want people to have is something less like a slide - where you can do one fun thing over and over - and more like a sandbox," Wright says. "It's undirected, less goal-oriented, we don't restrict what you can do, or even necessarily define what constitutes success."

As such, "games" like these have a dirty little secret: They're "educational," teaching people how to think systematically about problems and solutions and how to cope with a world where all the variables aren't as clear and simple as the results of putting a bullet into a peasant's head in "Contra Action."

Take a look at "SimHealth," a DOS-based health-care reform simulation sponsored by the Markle Foundation and crafted from a Maxis spinoff called "Thinking Tools."

With "SimHealth," you select one of a fistful of proposed health care reform packages (including the Clinton plan, the McDermott-Wellstone proposal, and others). Then you define the values you want to promote: individual accountability, equity of access to care, quality of care and profitability of the health care and insurance industries.

This software toy doesn't make an assumption about what the "right" values are. As a player, you may choose to maximize business opportunities at the cost of breadth of care or try to achieve both, but "SimHealth" evaluates your "performance" in this thought sandbox only against what you set out to do and how well you accomplished those goals.

You play the game by making decisions about many things, including funding research, covering conditions and procedures and deciding how much individuals and businesses should pay.

The Markle Foundation sponsored the making of "SimHealth" to promote its charter of using technology to promote democracy and citizens' participation in the issues of the day. Markle's Edith Bjornson says this game may be unique in that regard.

"The value system the simulation uses is exposed; it's right on top," she says. "It's both intellectually honest and what education should be."

Bjornson thinks it's important to disclose the assumptions behind the model to avoid any bias. The way it's structured now, every interested citizen with access to a DOS computer can play out different scenarios and see the complex consequences of their choices, fostering a better understanding of the way the systems work and ways to reform them.

Clearly, the level of public discourse about the health care reform debate hasn't been helped much by this remarkable product, which was introduced in February.

Bjornson estimates that about 50,000 copies of the game have sold so far. While the Washington, D.C. roll-out of the game attracted a lot of Congressional interest, "the effect of the game on the quality of the debate was not on the scale we would have liked." But, Bjornson says, the educational value of the game was everything hoped for.

Useful in schools

The educational strengths of simulation games aren't restricted to home play. A large chunk of Maxis' sales is to schools using the simulations for classroom use.

One popular school title is "SimLife," a game that provides a choice of ecosystems, and gives you a library of life forms to "plant" there. The plants and animals you choose (or invent through genetic engineering) and the evolving climate conditions all interplay to change the system. Species mutate, blossom or become extinct based on complex models of interaction. Biology teachers use the game to bring to life the textbook concepts of life sciences in entertaining ways.

John Fenoli, chair of the science department at Bellevue's Forest Ridge School, calls "SimLife" "a very decent educational tool."

He says playing the simulation, among other things, improves the students' skills. "Before we used `SimLife,' only about 50 percent of the students understood how to write a hypothesis," he says. "Now it's up around 90 percent. National tests indicate that's something most high school students can't do."

Looking for action?

For action-oriented players, Maxis has "Unnatural Selection," an action-strategy game where bio-engineered creatures run amok and the player must stop their march. A DOS CD-ROM version, scheduled to be out in September, has Claymation monster animation and other video clips. For younger players, there's "SimAnt," an ant farm without the mess, where kids are charged with survival of their ant colony.

For adults who crave to learn more about business, there's "A-Train," a complex business simulation.

But the ultimate scientific accomplishment of all Maxis' software toys has been "SimEarth." Wright brought together computer models of different global systems (climate, continental drift) added some conditions (atmospheric and the effect of organisms on the other aspects of the ecosystem) and plumbed them all together so they interact.

In the beginning . . .

As global as "SimEarth" may be, its creator starts with a simple tool: an ordinary Macintosh, aided by his fertile imagination.

Will Wright doesn't have a college degree, although he had five years of college, and at least four majors. "I went from Louisiana State University to Louisiana Tech to the New School in New York," he says. "I majored in mechanical engineering, then architecture, then aviation 'cause I like to fly, and then ended up in weird stuff."

And all those ways of looking at the world made it into Wright's body of work. From engineering, he brought simulation, the setting of a group of conditions and then running events against the conditions to see what happens. From architecture, he brought the design process, building something from scratch out of components that conform to broad, general rules. And from aviation, he drew control panels for the game-player that work as well as the most practical cockpit controls.

Today, Maxis has more than a handful of simulations, with five new products planned for release before Christmas. "SimTown" is a smaller, more personable version of "SimCity" for younger players, and "Widget Workshop" is a construction kit for the 8-years-old-and-older set to build their own widgets from components. Another is "SimTower," in which the player is the landlord to a skyscraper, maintaining a mix of tenants.


Take your pick

Games from Maxis in the "Sim" family of titles and the operating systems under which they will run:

-- "SimAnt"; DOS, Windows, Mac, SuperNintendo; $39.95 -- "SimCity 2000"; DOS, Mac; $54.95 -- "SimCity Classic"; DOS, Windows, Mac; $29.95 -- "SimEarth"; DOS, Windows, Mac; $39.95 -- "SimFarm"; DOS, $39.95 -- "SimHealth"; DOS; $29.95 -- "SimLife"; DOS, Windows, Mac; $39.95 -- "A-Train"; DOS, Mac; $39.95 -- "Unnatural Selection"; DOS; $29.95

For information, you can write Maxis at 2 Theatre Square, Suite 230, Orinda, CA 94563. Or phone (510) 254-9700.