Robot game sparks children's museum

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's something new in our museum -- a computer game. It took the combined efforts of the Children's Museum, the Indiana Council for Economic Education, and a committee of local businessmen.

Called "The Decision Shop" it offers four simulation games played by an individual, or a group, on a computer. The primary purpose of the games is to teach 10-to-15-years-olds simple and basic economic concepts which determine how choices are made in a capitalistic free-enterprise system.

The exhibit seeks to convey the understanding of economic concepts but not necessarily to identify these concepts with particular economic terms. Each game puts forth several simplified versions of economic theory such as supply and demand, trade-offs, profit, best price, reinvestment, site selection, and so forth.

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Ever since the exhibit was installed, it has attracted a constant flow of visitors. Another computer will be added soon to shorten the waiting lines.Flashing lights and colorful graphics employed by the exhibit help it appeal to museum visitors and induce them to gather around.

The concepts to be learned from the exhibit are couched in fanciful games named "Sell Robots," "Carnival," "Kingdom," and "Star Trader." A player, or group, selects the game to be played. The player identifies himself by name and age, communicating with the computer via a typewriter-like keyboard. [Quite the way this feature story was prepared in the Monitor office.]

"Sell Robots" is the easiest of the four games. In it, museum visitors temporarily become owners of a store with only one product -- robots made from scrap metal parts. The computer gives the visitor the wholesale cost for each robot, and the visitor is asked to set a retail price. After the price has been set, the computer tells the player how many robots are sold at that price and how much money was earned or lost. In this simulation, players have five attempts to arrive at the best selling price for the robots from the standpoint of profits earned.

There are no "wrong" answers or choices in any of the simulations. However, players are informed about the consequences of their decisions. For example, if a player chooses to sell robots for less money than it costs to produce them, the computer will advise him that he's losing money on every robot he sells.

At the conclusion of the game, the computer evaluates the player's performance and draws a graph of his sales record to show the demand curve he has obtained. Finally, two questions are asked of the player to relate economic concepts within the game to real-life situations. These are used to help evaluate the effectiveness of the exhibit in teaching economics.

Equally as effective for evaluation, according to exhibit curator Michael P. O'Lear, are the printouts showing the improvement players make each time they repeat the game and put their newly acquired economic knowledge to use.

All games encourage the visitors to think "economically." Mr. O'Lear explains , "We're not trying to teach specific words, like 'inflation,' but we want them to think in terms of economics."

We listened in on two museum visitors. Two brothers who've played the game "Kingdom" over and over discussed their options.

"Should we buy or sell land? It costs 25 bushels."

"Well, it costs more this year than last. Don't buy any. Maybe next year it will be cheaper."

"Yeah.We don't have enough people to use all that land anyhow."

Data compiled at the Children's Museum shows that 50-60 percent of participants fit the target age group of 10-to 15-year-olds. Adults appear reluctant and somewhat self-conscious about playing the games, but since the situation lends itself to group play, parents often participate with their children.

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