Monitor Review: The Mesoamerican Ballgame

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If you really want to motivate an athlete, forget the million-dollar salaries and endorsement deals. The Mesoamerican Ballgame, played some 3500 years ago, had a serious player incentive - winning team gets to live.

A Flash 5 presentation of the Mint Museum of Art, the Mesoamerican Ballgame explores the history and culture (and what little is known of the rules) of history's first team sport. After an animated intro (which coincidentally demonstrates how well Mesoamerican art is suited to Flash animations) Ballgame presents the visitor with four sections, beginning with Explore World- a survey of the historic and geographic context of the game, presented through an engaging combination map/timeline. Click on one of the nine cultures listed, (from the Olmec to the Spanish Conquest) and the chosen peoples' 'sphere of influence' is displayed on the map, while a floating menu offers details on the civilization's culture, artwork, links to the game, and structures and cities that have survived to the present day. (The locations of these sites are also displayed on the map). An interactive timeline at the bottom of the page -- running from 1500 B.C to the 16th century -- places the game's development in a global context, tracking such concurrent events as the completion of Stonehenge, and the Israelites settling in Egypt.

Next up is Explore Game, where things really get interesting. First, there's the Ball itself - made of rubber, weighing up to eight pounds, and sometimes using a human skull for its core. Next, visitors are familiarized with the Uniform (so far as we know, free of corporate logos) and the ball Court (with a QuickTime Virtual Reality panorama of a surviving court in Honduras, and a 500 year-old ancestor of 'Buckle Down Winsocki'. Last is the Game itself, with a Quicktime video reenactment of a game in progress, a look at how little some things have changed in relation to today's sports, and of course, the one important difference - what happened to the losers. (In fairness, this ritual sacrifice didn't take place after every game, but even so, an energetic session of keeping an eight-pound lacrosse ball in motion using only the hips probably had more than its share of non-lethal injuries.)

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The last two sections include an examination of the game through the medium of a period pottery piece, a Shockwave pop-quiz, and details about the travelling exhibit on which the site is based. A Classroom Connections link at the bottom of the window provides suggestions on integrating the onsite information into the lesson plans of grade 3 to 12 students.

Navigation from within the site is made possible by small versions of the home page's four category icons. (These blend in with the design so well as to be completely unobtrusive, bordering on invisibility until you decide you're ready to move on.) The full use of the advantages of Flash is especially apparent. Throughout the site, requested additional information opens in pop-up windows, which can then be dragged to any position on the page. (This is especially useful as some pages are long enough to require vertical scrolling, and the pop-ups might only be partially visible when they first open.) Faded or monochromatic artworks are made easier to examine through the use of overlays of colored line art, and in some cases, visitors can display or hide overlays for individual elements of a larger work, while moving the mouse over each element reveals additional information in floating boxes.

It won't come as a surprise that all this can take its toll on bandwidth. No doubt mindful of the limited capabilities of most school connections, this educational site keeps its pages within reasonable file sizes, and such optional enhancements as audio clips and panoramas are labelled with estimated 56k and Broadband download times, so surfers will have some idea of what they're getting themselves into.

The Mesoamerican Ballgame can be found at http://www.ballgame.org/.

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