The Minnesota Zoo launches an online computer game aimed at getting kids "excited about wolves" -- with some adaptations to tone down the violence and sex.
Rising from a computer terminal at the Minnesota Zoo after a few minutes as a wolf racing the hillsides of Yellowstone National Park, 11-year-old Chris Everhart seemed pleased.
"You can kill something," he said. "That's mostly what I like to do."
Moments later, the zoo released over the Internet what is being described as the first computer game to be paid for by the National Science Foundation.
And its creators admit they're taking a bit of a risk.
"This is a wild idea," said Grant Spickelmier, the zoo's assistant director of education. "Not many zoo directors would let us do something like this. It's a big experiment."
In attempting to immerse children in the world of the wild, programmers faced a host of questions as to just how "real" to be and remain within the bounds of government-financed taste.
What about mating? What about blood and gore? Would kids accustomed to mowing down a thousand bad guys be satisfied with sober, scientific truth?
"In action games, you kill everyone," said David Schaller, a principal with Eduweb, a private St. Paul firm that came up with the idea for the game and did the bulk of the work. "But wolves don't do that. They chase elk to death. It can take them hours. It's about energy management. We had to modify reality a bit to make it fun to play."
Lee Ehmke, the zoo's director, said he was "not highly involved" in the development of "WolfQuest." But he added that the half million-dollar grant is the biggest the Science Foundation has ever awarded the zoo.
And the effort, he said, has a lot in common with the direction in which he is taking the real-life zoo, first phase of which could turn out to be a more than $100 million remake slated to open in less than six months.
Both the game and the massive, complex grizzly-bear-centered exhibit strive to "put you 'in there,'" he said -- to immerse the visitor in another world, rather than merely pass by a series of exhibits.
Roughly 40,000 people around the world have downloaded a test version of the game, officials say. The for-real download was released on Thursday. It's free, at www.wolfquest.org.
The game is aimed at kids just a bit older than those typically taken to zoos, and can be seen in part as a means of bringing the zoo's message to a new target audience. After all, these days -- even in suburban counties such as Dakota, where the zoo is -- the number of younger kids is expected to be stagnant for decades to come.
Even though the target audience is older, developers say they've tried to keep the game reasonably tame. The blood and gore as elk are attacked and eaten, for instance, are rated E-10, for ages 10 and up. "My 5-year-old plays with it," Spickelmier said, "but only to run around the hillsides."
As for mating, you do find a mate, he said, but "they just rub noses and it goes to black. We gloss over that part of the story. The pups magically appear."
David Peterson • 612-673-4440