|Ivars Peterson's MathTrek|
July 29, 1996
I think I'm hooked! Luckily, it's not the kind of computer game that can keep me glued to the screen, keyboard, and mouse for hours at a time. I need to take it in half-hour or so increments every few days.
The game is called Chaos, and it's packaged as a CD-ROM from HarperCollins Interactive. The program was created by the staff of the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University.
Billed as a fantasy adventure game, Chaos involves solving a mystery -- or rather, a large number of little puzzles that supposedly add up to something bigger -- starting from scratch. You even have to figure out what the mystery is and how you as the player fit in. The packaging and tiny booklet accompanying the disk offer practically no hints on how to proceed. The program does feature intricate graphics, an array of sound effects, various video clips, and a cast of bizarre characters, from a sinister thug to the inscrutable Uncle Prospero.
On a quality monitor and a fast CD-ROM drive, the game runs very smoothly as you wander out of a claustrophobic, rundown, clue-packed trailer into a verdant, strangely unpopulated landscape of fractal trees, grassy plains, and rolling hills.
What makes this game more than just an entertaining pastime is that its creators have also incorporated many of the ideas and images of what is popularly termed chaos theory. Chaotic systems are characterized by a sensitive dependence on initial conditions, and the mathematics embodying this concept serves as a model of how the observed irregularities of the real world can arise out of deterministic laws.
I haven't seen very many equations yet, but I've viewed Mandelbrot sets, Lorenz attractors, and other icons of chaos theory in the game. The program includes a number of illustrated mini-lectures which try to convey some of the basic concepts of the mathematical study of nonlinear dynamics.
The essays and clips I've encountered so far have appeared somewhat heavy-handed and pompous. The material is also presented with a little too much mysticism for my taste. But I did note that one of the references, once you click on the right button to get the list, is a book I wrote, The Mathematical Tourist.
Chaos isn't designed for children, but my sons Eric, 9, and Kenneth, 6, have played along with me. They have good ideas and remember things better than I do, so they've helped out a lot. They're fascinated by the idea of gathering clues to solve a mystery and also trying to work out what the mystery is in the first place.
I'm not sure how much they're really learning about chaos theory, though I've been able to explain a few things at a level that they can understand and appreciate. I sometimes have the impression that it helps to know something about chaos before playing to appreciate the game's content.
We've also learned that it's useful to play several games at once. Different things seem to happen, sometimes for no apparent reason, when you follow slightly different sequences of steps. Playing Chaos has become a group effort, and we share clues and other hints gleaned on different excursions into this weird fantasy world. It's easy to get impatient with the game when we seem to be making no progress and have apparently exhausted all possibilities, but each new little discovery keeps us going.
Eric and Kenneth are also pretty sharp. The opening scene inside a trailer features a grandfather clock, initially shown with wildly rotating hands. A closer look inside the clock reveals an erratic pendulum, and we discover a bunch of tools and magnets in a compartment below the pendulum.
Kenneth immediately recognized that removing the magnets would steady the clock's pendulum. Later, we stumbled upon a short video essay that explains how magnets can affect the motion of a metal pendulum bob.
Adding to the overall sense of mystery is a program glitch that turns the game's opening screens completely black. All I can do is maneuver the cursor around until the arrow turns into a little hand, and then I can click the mouse to get the game started. I eventually discovered a way around this glitch, but by the time I passed the information to Eric and Kenneth, they had already found an even better solution.
Putting in several hours over a few weeks, we've made some progress. But I can't tell you yet how it all works out. Eric and Kenneth, on their own, have just picked up a few more clues, and they managed to enter the weather research station -- something to do with a butterfly -- and launch the rocket. I think we have to cross a lake to get to the next major scene, but the sailboat apparently goes only in circles.
Ah, sweet mystery of chaos!
Copyright © 1996 by Ivars Peterson.