June 1, 1995

Issue 206, page 62

Section: Games

Building a Better Moose Trap -- With just the tools of imagination, children will construct this online world

By John Byczkowski

Amy Bruckman remembers fondly the summers she spent at a camp called Buck's Rock in Connecticut. While other campers learned how to blow glass, write stories and act in plays, Bruckman chose the woodworking shop. What Bruckman came away with--besides a recipe box for her mother--was a love of freedom in learning. She and the other campers were allowed to find what they liked best and work at it.

Today Bruckman, a 29-year-old doctoral student at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., is working to bring the feeling of freedom and discovery to the online world. This summer, she'll unveil MOOSE (Multi-User Object-Oriented Shared Environment) Crossing, a virtual world on the Internet designed to accommodate up to 1,000 children under the age of 13.

MOOSE Crossing is a type of MUD (multi-user dimension), an online site where people create and explore new worlds. The universe of MUDs is limited only by the imaginations of their inhabitants. In the beginning, MOOSE Crossing will have just the briefest outline of a forest and a city. Using a simple computer programming language, the children who frequent the MUD will create the rest.

Bruckman's MOOSE will have three areas. ''There's an area in town for kids to build, there's an area to build natural environments and there's an area up in the clouds to build new fantasy-themed environments or things based on popular culture,'' she says.

In testing MOOSE Crossing earlier this year, Bruckman found children were thrilled by the opportunity to let their creativity run wild. ''The kids just go nuts with this stuff,'' she says. ''At the end of the day I've had to tell them, 'No, you can't stay five more minutes. It's really time to go.' ''

Yesterday's MOOs

MOOSE Crossing is Bruckman's second MUD. She founded her first in 1993. MediaMOO (MOO stands for Multi-user Object Oriented environment), which started with one large virtual room, became an online meeting salon for media researchers.

Bruckman hopes MOOSE Crossing will build on the success of adult MUDs such as MediaMOO. But she really wants to improve on popular MUDs designed for children and young adults, such as MicroMUSE (Multi-User Shared Environment) at MIT and Camp MariMUSE in Phoenix. MIT's groundbreaking MicroMUSE, with its 24th Century Cyberion City space port, became such a popular hangout for teenagers that it stopped accepting new members earlier this year to avoid overload. Phoenix College's MariMUSE, a private MUD for elementary school-age children, received a citation last July from Vice President Al Gore for its pioneering role in the formation of the National Information Infrastructure.

Bruckman visited with some of the Longview Elementary School students who use MariMUSE--children she describes as ''at-risk kids'' in a low-income Phoenix neighborhood. Given the chance to create their own worlds, these children use the MUD's commands to conjure up better circumstances. ''There was one little girl who built an entire 20-room mansion, with flowers in every room,'' Bruckman says. ''It turns out in real life, she's living in a shelter.''

Bruckman would like to introduce these disadvantaged children to her own virtual world. ''I am deliberately recruiting from certain populations. I'm working on getting schools and community centers from less affluent areas online. I also have some kids in Costa Rica who are learning English and are interested [in MOOSE Crossing], as well as a community of deaf students,'' she says.

Interactive games such as MUDs help children, particularly those growing up in unpleasant environments, develop key social skills, experts say. ''Virtual worlds model both our internal and external worlds,'' says independent children's game designer and researcher Eileen McMahon. ''Kids often cannot verbalize their inner feelings, so being able to create something--something with order and structure in a virtual world--can be very therapeutic.''

The challenge in creating virtual worlds for children, McMahon says, lies in developing games that appeal to both boys and girls. ''Research shows that girls are interested in subjects they see in everyday life, while boys like abstract environments such as other planets or fantastic worlds.'' MOOSE Crossing's mix of the practical cities and towns with fantastical lands beyond the clouds could provide the perfect environment for both boys and girls.

Language Barrier

The key to getting kids into MOOSE Crossing, Bruckman says, lies in making the creative process easier. Programming for MIT's MediaMOO, for instance, is done in MOO, a rather complex language developed by Pavel Curtis of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. ''I have trouble with it as an adult and a fairly skilled programmer,'' Bruckman says.

Barry Kort, the administrator of MicroMUSE, agrees that the MUD's language can be too daunting for many children. ''It's too sophisticated for a beginner,'' he says. ''MOO was written by and for professional software engineers. What Amy is doing is writing a new language and interface that sits on top of MOO, but hides the technical aspects below the surface.''

Bruckman makes the programming language as simple as possible. For example, if a user wants to say hello, he or she simply types the command ''say hi!'' By contrast, in MicroMUSE, if a user wants to say ''hi!'' to everyone in the room, he types ''say hi!'' at the command line. But if another character wants to respond with ''hi!'' on MediaMOO, she must type: this.location:announce(this.name, ''says \''hi!\'''');this:tell(''You say \''hi!\''''); Bruckman believes that's too difficult for most children.

Follow Your MOOSE

The question remains whether children can be motivated to learn through technology. ''If you give kids tools that empower them to build anything, there's really no limit to it,'' Bruckman says confidently. ''I'd like to see kids come away from this project saying, 'Hey, I like words, I can hang out with my friends with words and I made a purple elephant that tells elephant jokes and follows me around and guards my room.' I'm really excited to see what kind of crazy things the kids are going to make and what that will tell us about how they're seeing their world.''

Copyright 1995 by CMP Publications. All rights reserved.