- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2001

In a world of violent video games, where dexterity of the thumb and index finger is infinitely more important than 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.

The Pixter Creativity System (Fisher-Price, $39.99) combines a minicomputer organizer with a hand-held video-game system and makes it as friendly as an Etch-a-Sketch.

Designed for children 4 years old and older, this rugged 5-by-7-inch unit comes complete with attached drawing stylus and monochromatic touch screen.

The Pixter needs 4 AA batteries to become an artist's work area, ready to design with either a pencil-thin or marker-fat point and equipped with a handy tool bar that expands electronic creativity through nine options. For example, a stamper art icon uses 52 designs ranging from insects and animals to planets that can be incorporated on the screen, or goofy facial features that can be used with a series of blank faces just waiting for a little one's humorous touch.

Many burgeoning artists are confounded by the blank page, but that will not happen with the Picasso tool. Its scene starters provide a jumping-off place set around a house, school or even outer-space backdrop. Children can add freehand enhancements or use stamp images to create original works of art.

While all this is very cool, Pixter really kicks in when cartridges are added. These expansion packs, which contain multiple activities, plug into the top of the unit and retail for about $11.99, transforming Pixter into an affordable learning tool.

I really enjoyed the “Art Safari” software, particularly the “Animal Mix-Up” activity, in which, for example, the head of a lion is matched to the body of a hippopotamus, making a liopotamus, or would that be a hippon?

Additional Pixter software titles range from “On-the-Go Games,” offering traditional travel challenges such as bingo and tick-tack-toe; to the “Learning Lab,” which focuses on letters and numbers; to a deluxe cartridge that enables children to narrate their own stories.

Artwork can be saved in a folder, but Pixter cannot be connected to a computer or printer, making it impossible to share masterpieces or play competitive games against another Pixter owner.

The 3-inch-square black-and-white screen may be an issue for young players used to color game play. However, the novelty of having a hand-held system may transcend any disappointment in Pixter's lack of hues.

Joe and his dog Browser, MZ, Twitch, Gatherer, Zoogina and Dotcom help make learning hip as well as fun when a child is playing Zoog Genius (Disney Interactive, $19.99).

Dotcom and Joe host a fast-paced, quiz-show-style game for 9- to 12-year-olds that concentrates on math, science and technology topics. It's based on the programming block seen on the Disney Channel.

The challenge begins when a player chooses the length and difficulty level for the round. All questions and answers are curriculum-based and are supplied by specialists at the nonprofit organization McREL (Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning).

Children can play alone, striving to rack up the points, or can compete against one another. As more and more questions are answered correctly, players are rewarded with quick animations featuring the various characters as well as poll results from ZoogDisney.com reflecting their peers' feelings in areas such as favorite movies or coolest movie stars.

The handy ZeeBase option provides a way to customize question packs, creating databases of questions based on just about anything important to the player.

By connecting to the Zoog Genius Web site, players can find more downloadable question packs. The packs also can be shared with friends who have the Zoog ZeeBase installed on their hard drives by either sending the packs as e-mail attachments or copying them to a disk.

ROMper Room is a column devoted to finding the best of multimedia edutainment. Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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