Desktop Digital Gardening

What could be wrong with some virtual sprouts?

April 10, 1995

By Scott Rosenberg

I've got pumpkins growing on my desk. Also carrots, corn, even a cucumber.

Although my office could use a good cleaning -- I think of it as the informational equivalent of a compost heap -- my new garden hasn't added to the preexisting clutter. When I water, I never get my papers wet. And when I'm done with my horticulture, I don't need to wash under my nails.

I've installed Forever Growing Garden, a CD-ROM, on my computer, and that, you see, is where my vegetables are growing. Virtual vegetables. They don't require much, and they never turn brown, wilt or rot.

Forever Growing Garden, one of a whole wave of new CD-ROMs intended for young children, takes the labor, the uncertainty and the dirt out of gardening. It's a multimedia toy with beautiful earthy colors, nostalgic bluegrass fiddle music and assorted twitters and moos that play on the soundtrack as your seeds germinate and sprout. This Garden is cute and nicely designed - and a great example of how useless and misconceived experiments in new digital media can often be.

It's not surprising that one of the most popular subjects for designers in this field is nature itself. Landscape paintings only became a popular genre after vistas unsullied by evidence of civilization grew hard to find in the 18th and 19th centuries; the Romantic poets only began to worship nature as European technology began to conquer it. Similarly, as we spend more of our days navigating through landscapes of digital symbols, what could be more natural than our wish to surround ourselves with mementos of the natural world we've forsaken?

But these are issues for the long term. For the moment, people who want to teach their kids about nature can almost always gain access to a real, roots-in-the-dirt plant. If you don't have a yard or you live in a city, you can still plop a bulb in a pot or put a box on the windowsill. The experience of planting a seed and watching it grow remains just about universally accessible. And if you do have a yard, or even a patch of turf, real-life gardening has physical rewards: air and exercise, sun on your shoulder, mud between your toes, and the God-given opportunity to lift rocks and find slimy slugs and wriggling grubs.

Ah, but on a computer, you can do so much more! As Forever Growing Garden's screens flow past, you choose seeds for different plants (including some made-up ones, like a Helicopter Plant and a Fireworks Flower), consult an almanac, insert the seeds in precisely predetermined holes in the ground, water them by clicking on a watering-can icon, and wait for them to grow. You can grow three different types of gardens at once. If you get antsy, there are diversions like a catch-the-gopher game. If you get really bored, there's always the "Garden Growth Speed-o-Meter," which allows you to speed up real-time to a one-second-equals-one-calendar-day clip. Forget about the cycles of nature, to hell with the seasons - we want our sproutlings now!

It's easy to make fun of Forever Growing Garden, and the product's designers no doubt meant well. But why on earth would any sane parent choose to offer this "interactive experience" over the more effective (and far cheaper) alternative of buying Junior a pot and some seeds? Why give up the tactile pleasures and the smells of a real garden for the antiseptic glow of a video screen?

The answer is usually couched in terms of learning: Computer media are extremely efficient at storing and organizing tons of information - and then delivering it in interactive forms that allow kids (and adults) to learn while fooling around. You can plant many more species in your computer than you ever could in your backyard, or so the thinking goes.

Forever Growing Garden is, technically, a simulation - a working model of a system. But it's neither detailed enough to be absorbing nor accurate enough to be informative.You need to water your seedlings to make them grow, but if you overwater them, they don't get fungus and die. And the total absence of weeds pushes Garden into the realm of science-fictional believe-it-or-not.

It's possible, of course, to design simulations of nature that are more accurate and more educational. For example, there's SimFarm, a computer game available on floppy disk. Advertised as the "country cousin" of the popular urban simulator, SimCity, SimFarm lets you design and manage your own homestead. As in Forever Growing Garden, you plant your seeds, watch them grow, and then bring your harvest to market. But much more can happen here betwixt the sowing and the reaping: floods, droughts, pest attacks, even foreclosures. You can use pesticides - but your fields can turn toxic. Here, you need to understand the climate of your region and learn about crop rotation and soil management if you expect to keep the bankers from your door.

SimFarm is aimed at a much older crowd than Forever Growing Garden, of course, and graphically, it's a lot cruder. But the game offers you something you might not otherwise have access to - an experience of the dilemmas and choices a farmer faces, along with an appreciation of just how difficult it is to make a farm work. (There are sound effects, too.)

Similarly, the producers of other CD-ROMs about nature that are more reference works than simulations have intelligently focused on showing consumers sights and creatures they aren't likely to encounter in their backyards. The San Diego Zoo Presents the Animals! has been around a while now; essentially a collection of photos and texts offering profiles of more than 200 exotic or endangered critters and their habitats, it's not nearly as "interactive" as Forever Growing Garden. You can hop around in it in more different ways than you would with a photo book, but there's less for you to do with it, beyond reading, watching and learning. On the other hand, there's a huge amount in it to read, watch and learn from. (On my first random dip into Animals I learned how to tell the difference between a dromedary and a Bactrian camel. This fact may never come in handy, but acquiring it was intangibly edifying.)

In a similar vein, the Voyager company offers a CD-ROM edition of Last Chance to See, a book by Douglas Adams (The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and zoologist/photographer Mark Carwardine. Last Chance records the authors' global trek to witness and record the last representatives of several critically endangered species in their native habitats - the aye-aye lemur of Madagascar, the Komodo dragon of Indonesia, Yangtze river dolphins, New Zealand Kakapo parrots and many others.

Adams' sardonic reading of his own full text is really all the CD edition adds to the print version of the book, so it's hardly a design breakthrough. But regardless of medium, Last Chance to See is a thoroughly engaging product; Adams' self-mocking humor disarms us while he's deftly conveying some extraordinary zoological lore. And at every moment, Last Chance is informed by a tragic knowledge of its subjects' impending disappearance.

The human desire to represent the natural world symbolically is as old as the animals painted on Neolithic cave walls. But the artists of Altamira and Lascaux had no need to worry about losing touch with nature the way we do - and they certainly didn't need to ask whether their mastery over the natural world might make them arrogant or profligate. But our gravitation toward "green"-themed products in our technological entertainment demands to be questioned more closely. If the reason we're more and more interested in images of nature is that we're less and less able to experience it ourselves, do those images wind up bringing us closer to the natural world - or just make it easier for us to give it up?

Multimedia is in an experimental stage right now, and the folks who created Forever Growing Garden were only looking to provide kids with a bit of healthy computerized fun. But why rush to replace childrens' hands-on experience of nature with the mouse-driven simulations of multimedia computing? Can't we hold off a bit, since the environment hasn't yet been rendered totally inhospitable to life?

I'll stick with my actual gardening - thorns, blisters and all - and I hope my children will be able to, too. So what if nothing I've ever planted has even remotely suggested a word like "forever"? Surely that's part of the simple lesson of a garden, too.

Forever Growing Garden is available from MediaVision (800-845-5870). SimFarm is published by Maxis (510-254-9700). The publisher of The San Diego Zoo Presents the Animals! is Software Toolworks (415-883-3000). And Last Chance to See is available from Voyager (800-446-2001).

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