Educational games, especially of the “edutainment” variety, have a mixed reputation and legacy. Aroon Karuna wrote an excellent piece on the failures of a certain brand of edutainment games. Too many games of both the DOS/early Windows era tried to use “fun” as a carrot separate from the educational content that merely reinforced the idea that education was “boring” and had to be suffered through. Too many modern edutainment titles still do this. Its a shame because there really were a number of effective educational games who can provide important lessons to developers today. Not just to developers of other educational games either. Just as educational content developers can (and should!) take lessons from “non-educational” games, developers interested in games for entertainment and other goals can learn quite a bit from the edutainment games that worked. Earthtongue is a game that paid attention to what made a certain kind of edutainment title work.
For my money, the most effective educational titles of their era were the Maxis sim games. At the time, Maxis was one of the most daring publishers, willing to experiment and play with design and concepts in a way other developers weren’t, ESPECIALLY developers working on educational content. Earthtongue can trace its conceptual lineage to these titles, especially Sim Earth and Sim Life.
Maxis described Sim Life as less of a “game” and more of a “playground.” Like Sim Earth, it was inspired by contemporary ecological theories and work, in particular James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothosis. The idea behind the Gaia hypothosis is that organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings to form self-regulating, complex systems and transform Earth into a kind of super-organism. The Earth exists as we know it because life exists and interacts with other life and inorganic matter. While criticized for being reductionist (Stephen Jay Gould called it “a metaphor, not a mechanism”), it can be a useful framework for looking at complex issues of ecology and geology. For example, how biological and ecological processes affect the weather, or how the physical, inorganic landscape is changed by the behavior of various animals and plants. The central principle of the Gaia hypothesis is connections. Everything is connected, and you cannot understand a single piece of the planet without viewing it in the larger context of what it interacts with.
(Some critics hate the Gaia theory simply because it evokes the name of a mythical goddess and is therefore “unscientific”, but those critics need to chill. You might as well be pissed that we named the planets after Roman gods. Just as organic and inorganic interactions form the landscape of the planet as we know it, “scientific” and “unscientific” interactions form the landscape of our thoughts.)
Both Sim games give you a world to play with, allowing you to create different ecosystems and watch them evolve, thrive or die. The player is not playing with single creatures, but with entire biomes and ecosystems. Earthtongue is also about connections and systems. Your tiny asteroid terrarium can be home to many species of insect and fungus, and they each have different needs and fulfill different functions when relating to each other. Through experimentation, the player can discover which species work well together, and which have unsustainable relationships. The unlockable journal entries provide hints and clues, but for the most part you will be flying blind.
Earthtongue doesn’t attempt the grand, almost impossible scope of SimLife or SimEarth. The lifeforms here are already defined, and your ability to tweak the world is limited. But this focus works to Earthtongue’s benefit, allowing it to present a playground for different kinds of science than similar games. Your role as an isolated being, watching and occasionally poking at Earthtongue’s world, is different from the usual all-powerful god-figure many simulations place you in. Even when you DO exact influence upon this world, you are left with a very limited pool of resources to spend. Even at the fastest setting, the number of points you can spend to change the world will be very limited. If SimLife places you in the role of playing a geneticist with an infinite laboratory, Earthtongue asks you to play as a naturalist in the field. In Earthtongue, observing is more important than controlling.
The main flaw in the Gaia hypothesis is that it doesn’t work well as a grand unifying model. Many interactions between different organisms and inorganic systems are NOT sustainable or mutually beneficial. Species DO go extinct because they dramatically changed the world around them and then couldn’t adapt. The Earth itself is not a perfect, self-sustaining system. Nothing lasts forever. To be fair, the same problem emerges with all grand, sweeping biological models and metaphors, which is why not every gene is selfish and not every survival is fittest. Earthtongue demonstrates this flaw in the Gaia theory. As noted earlier, you will see a LOT of local extinctions. Extinctions are just as natural a part of your terrarium’s ecology as thriving lifeforms. An incredibly successful species may suddenly disappear from your space garden, and may also return to thrive again. Earthtongue doesn’t end until you stop, and neither a thriving world nor a dead world are inherently permanent, even when discounting your direct involvement.
In some ways, this can make Earthtongue a difficult game. If your goal is to create a very specific ecosystem you like and maintain it indefinitely, you will have a hard time compared to just experimenting and observing. Your unseen spaceman is a naturalist more than a gardener, and domesticating your little planet is not easy. Lately I don’t have the patience for micro-management games or goals, so instead I allowed my world to evolve and change and adapt on its own, occasionally dropping in to take care of a massive problem or shake things up. This way of playing is not more or less valid that aiming for a specific kind of garden (though it does mean I’m currently stuck with a horde of locusts I haven’t been able to get rid of yet), and Earthtongue is open ended enough to allow many kinds of play.
The lack-luster science games of the past taught us that games without play make very poor educational tools. It bears repeating that Earthtongue is NOT an edutainment game, but rather an entertainment game that has learned from successful educational content. Nothing you learn or discover in Earthtongue is directly applicable to real world ecology. The mantids, fungi and spiders you play with are not real world creatures nor are they meant to simulate them. However, the basic process of experimentation, note taking and testing out ideas DOES simulate the real-world scientific process. The potential knowledge you take from a game like this, just as with the Maxis series, is the knowledge of how to think and discover facts for yourself. In this way, Earthtongue is a much better science game than a rote, fact-memorizing game.