The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

(As I mentioned in my last post, I have this big backlog of posts I want to make. One of my notes says ‘zelda’. I’m not sure what this means any more. Could it be about the Phantom Hourglass trailer I saw at GDC? Or maybe it’s about the Zelda music they played at Video Games Live – or something else entirely different. Clearly the process of externalising my short term memory to a text-based stack on my laptop is not without flaws)

With the exception of playing Civilization on the PC, my Nintendo DS has taken the throne as the all-time games ‘device’ I’ve ever had. I’m a little surprised at this – back when the DS and PSP were announced, I would have thought that I’d spend more time on the PSP, with its shiny graphics. After testing both for quite some time, I simply stopped using the PSP. I couldn’t stand the fact that I had to wait for it to boot up, and then wait through loading screens. I also disliked the poor battery life and the boring interface.

The DS, on the other hand, booted up instantly and had no real loading times. The graphics weren’t amazing, but that wasn’t importantly – they were perfectly suitable for the sorts of games I was playing. Mario Kart and things like puzzle games aren’t any better if you can display a million polygons. Plus the touch interface and voice was very charming. It offered all sorts of possibilities, including one that is apparent now – the DS can be a machine that shows you how to live. Let me explain the background first.

At the moment I have two new games: Animal Crossing and Tetris. Between those and Civ 4, it’s enough to destroy all my free time. However, I haven’t played Tetris at all; they’ve changed the control system from what I’m used to, so that the up arrow doesn’t rotate any more, which has proved irritating. I’m sure I’ll eventually adapt but it put me off after I accidently dropped a few vital pieces instead of rotating them.

Animal Crossing, on the other hand, is like a single player MMOG. Or like a real-time game of The Sims. Or maybe it’s something completely new. Animal Crossing sounds intensely boring – you’re a person in a village, and you can walk around and chat to the other people. You can go fishing, or catch butterflies, or look for fossil, or plant flowers, buy things. You can’t kill anything, or explore outside the town. There’s no story. And when I first played it, it was intensely boring – there just wasn’t anything to do.

The next time I turned it on, it was the morning. The game mimics real world time, since it has an internal clock. It also mimics holidays and seasons, because it knows the date. It turned out that there was a flower competition on. “Hmm,” I thought. I went over to the Mayor and had a chat. After some interminable chat, he gave me a free bag of flowers. Not bad.

I went to plant it, and then bumped into the guy who sold me my house in the game. Turns out that I still had to pay off the mortgage, so I worked in his shop for a while, doing deliveries, planting trees and the like. When I’d paid off my mortgage, I didn’t have to work for him any more (but he did offer to add an extension onto the house – for a tidy sum, of course). By this time I’d earned enough money to buy a fishing rod and insect net.

All the fish and insects – and fossils – in the game are actually realistic. In other words, they also mimic real life; there are dozens of species of fish in Animal Crossing, and you can only catch them in their natural locations, such as in the ocean, or in a river. They’re also only available during certain times of the day, or when it’s raining, or in certain seasons. Ditto for insects. When you take insects or fish to the museum and show them to the curator there (who, unsurprisingly, is an owl), he’ll tell you all about them. A loach, I’m informed, is a bottom-feeder. I ended up inadvertently learning quite a bit about fish in this way.

Of course, digging up fossils is a little easier in the game than in real life – you just look for an odd spot on the ground and use your shovel. The owl can identify fossils for you as well, and he’ll put them on display (alternatively, you could just sell them, but that wouldn’t be right). I recall the owl telling me about the fossil of the Peking Man that I found; “Did you know that he’s one of the ‘missing links’ between humans and primates? He lived around 500,000 years ago and could use fire.” I did not know that.

Flowers will die if you don’t water them enough. If you plant trees too close to the ocean, they’ll eventually die. If you run on flowers too much, they’ll die. If you take a fruit from one of the trees and bury it, it’ll turn into a new fruit tree in a few days. The other villagers will occasionally ask you to deliver items, but you can steal them if you want. There are other opportunities to lie as well, although if you get found out, they’ll be very upset. There’s a stock market which you can invest in (in white or red turnips), there’s a shady guy who’ll sell you insurance and a person who sells artworks which are sometimes fakes.

All of this is light and fun and entertaining for adults. However, for kids, I imagine it’s quite instructive. It teaches you all sorts of concepts, but not in a one-way, didactic fashion – it lets you learn simply by doing. Animal Crossing will slip in all sorts of lessons just in the course of playing, and it will chide you if you do something wrong. I’m pretty sure that many kids would learn more from playing Animal Crossing than any so-called edutainment title. And that’s when it struck me – Animal Crossing is truly a forerunner of The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.

TYLIP is a book from Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age; it’s a book that is powered by a computer so advanced it’s almost magical, and it teaches children everything. It does this through a fully interactive story. It teaches you how to read, how to do maths, it teaches you morals, ethics, even self-defence. ‘Diamond Age’ is a very entertaining read, mainly because of the TYLIP.

Of course, Animal Crossing is nowhere near TYLIP in sophistication, but it has the same sort of principles. You could argue that A Tale in the Desert has similar leanings, although that’s more targeted towards adults. Anyway, I find the notion that we are slowly progressing towards new ways of teaching children by doing very interesting and worthy of further investigation.

(I came up with the idea that Animal Crossing was analogous to TYLIP while I was talking with Margaret. I announced that I had to blog it, and then promptly forget the whole thing five minutes later. On the coach back from Oxford, I was racking my brains – I knew that I’d thought of something I wanted to blog, and it was an analogy. I spent a few minutes on this, and then got distracted by a fly buzzing at the window. The fly reminded me of catching flies in Animal Crossing, and then bang – I remembered the analogy)

2 Replies to “The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”

  1. TYLIP itself seems highly reminiscent of the ‘book’ carried by the protagonist children carry in Vernor Vinge’s ‘Fire Upon the Deep’ (a great read).

  2. Yep, I think the idea of a book that scales itself to the user’s ability level is very interesting and one that video games are haltingly approaching.

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