Serving Nutrition on Red Planet
Byline: Joseph Szadkowski, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
In a world of ultraviolent video games, where dexterity of the thumb and index finger is infinitely more important than the flexing of the cerebrum, there must be a place for children and their parents to interact and actually learn something from that overpriced multimedia computer/gaming system. Take a deep breath and enter the ROMper Room, where learning is a four-letter word - cool.
Tweens and older children learn healthy eating habits and nutrition skills while trying to set up a colony on Mars in the real-time strategy adventure Hungry Red Planet.
District-based Health Media Lab has teamed up with the National Institutes of Health to offer an excellent simulation that will remind video gamers of a watered-down version of Microsoft's Age of Empires gaming franchise as they dabble in math, science and basic economics.
The story begins as the overcrowded planet Earth has reached a critical point of food shortages. Luckily, a comet smacks into Mars and turns its hostile climate hospitable. The player acts as the governor of the planet and controls all the minutiae involved with settling, building, exploring the terrain and shipping food back to Earth.
This monumental task involves keeping colonists working, housed, protected and well fed to continue producing and establishing new agricultural sites to ultimately help their home planet.
After an optional tutorial that does a fantastic job of explaining clearly how to execute the action, the game begins by revealing a landscape in which to work and resources available.
The most important requirement, food, gets dealt with through a multilevel menu that has the governor planning a healthy breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack for his settlers using a combination of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food pyramid and a row of bar graphs defined as the Healthy Eating Index.
These bars quantitatively measure 10 areas, such as total sodium, fiber and calories, and change as some of the more than 300 food types (all cross-referenced with Food and Drug Administration label information) are dragged into the meal-planning areas. Keeping those bars within the required parameters, displayed as green or yellow, leads to happy workers who will thrive on Mars.
Once a diet has been completed, the player must create places to produce food and hopefully become self-sufficient while carefully watching how many workers he has available, as well as credits and cash on hand.
Setting up structures involves moving a cursor across a landscape broken down into square plots, selecting a plot, selecting a structure and watching resource numbers get deducted. Structures can range from a poultry farm situated on a piece of land with a pond to a bean farm on a grassy patch to a laboratory to introduce new foods.
Additionally, the player can establish more colonies by using a vehicle to move about and commandeer new Martian land grids.
After every element has been tweaked to statistical satisfaction, the governor can quickly view reports on his changes, get advice and then click an icon to move one year forward, which constitutes a turn, in the simulation. Choosing an easy level gives the player 15 years or turns while the difficult level equals 25.
As an added twist, colonists will occasionally get attacked by their mutated brethren, who through poor nutritional conditions during the early years of Mars colonization have turned into monsters bent on stealing precious resources. …