Alan Kay's ideas about SimCity for OLPC

I just received this exciting email from Alan Kay. I totally agree with the direction he wants to take SimCity for the OLPC!


From: Alan Kay
To: Don Hopkins
Date: 11/9/2007 6:14 PM
Subject: SimCity for OLPC

Hi Don --

I'm writing to applaud you for your plans to reimplement SimCity for children on the OLPC.

My main complaint about this game has always been the rigidity, and sometimes stupidity, of its assumptions (counter crime with more police stations) and the opaqueness of its mechanism (children can't find out what its actual assumptions are, see what they look like, or change them to try other systems dynamics).

So I have used SimCity as an example of an anti-ed environment despite all the awards it has won. It's kind of an air-guitar environment.

In the past, I tried to get Maxis to take the actual (great) educational possibilities more seriously, but to no avail.

Going to Python can help a few areas of this, but a better abstraction for the heart of Sim-City would be a way to show its rules/heuristics in a readable and writable form. Both of these could be stylized to put them in the child's own thinking and doing world. For example, just the simple route of making a drag and drop scripting interface for Etoys allows children to make very readable and writeable scripts and helps the children concentrate on what they are trying to do. A carefully designed object system (that is filtered fro children) can expose the environment so they can really think about it.

I'm not at all suggesting that Etoys be used here, but I am suggesting that some deep design be done to come up with a "behavior modification interface" that allows real creativity on the part of the children. So it is much more than stringing black boxes together or having to deal with fragile procedurals.

I sense that you have some interests in making SimCity really a microworld for children's learning and exploration from reading your webpage.

Children in 4th - 6th grade can do a lot here if they are given a good UI and tools. So, we could think of part of this project as a "pre-Python" UI.

Scalability and non-scalability of ideas are interesting. Rocky's Boots is still one of the best ever games that provide profound learning experiences. The extension of this to Robot Odyssey didn't work because the logic and wires programming didn't scale well enough -- the bang per effort dropped off precipitously. I was Chief Scientist at Atari at that time (Warren Robbinet worked for me) and I worked with TLC to try to get them to realize that something like Logo, or even better, a rule-based robot programming system, was needed. The failure of Robot Odyssey really pained me because I thought that the concept of this game was one of the best ever (still is). But it just needed a much better notion of how the children were going to program the robots. I think the same goes for SimCity.