Cross Country USA (Software Review)

[Prefatory Note: Didatech Software announced in November, 1993, that they'll be releasing a Macintosh version of their award winning software, "Cross Country USA," sometime in late January, 1994. This truck driving simulation game teaches students all about physical as well as economic geography. The following is a review of the Apple II version of Cross Country USA. Presumably the Macintosh version will bear a close resemblance to the Apple II version.

I'm a huge fan of Cross Country USA and have used it successfully with many upper elementary and junior high school students. It's especially fun to play this game "socially," with several students collaborating on driving the truck around the country.

- Phil Shapiro]

Cross Country USA
Educational program for ages
10 and up.

Runs on any 64K Apple II computer.
Color monitor not required.

Various newspaper studies have reported that American students' knowledge of geography ranks just a notch above abysmal. According to the studies, about half of all junior high school students would have a hard time telling you on which coast to find the fine state of California. And that many high school students would have a hard time listing eight different European countries.

But you can hardly blame students for this continental-sized gap in their knowledge. Schools from Pocatello, Idaho, to Jacksonville, Florida, have historically given a cursory treatment of geography. Fifth grade students are typically given a healthy dose of American geography, with the lofty, but irrelevant goal of getting all the kids to chime out the capital cities of all the states.

For the next couple of grades, the subject of geography may crop up again once or twice in social studies class, usually as a short "unit," in between the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and the French Revolution.

For whatever reason, our school systems do not give the subject of geography the attention it deserves. The prevailing attitude is that much of geography can be learned by osmosis: if you just read the daily newspapers, you're bound to learn where and what is important in this country.

In some respects this attitude has some merit to it. Given that there are only so many hours in a school day, and so much time to devote to the "core" curriculum of reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic, why not make geography an extracurricular subject? True, geography is an important subject; but students need no special expertise to learn it on their own.

Which brings us, by way of small detour, to the present software review. Several programs on the market excel at bringing the subject of geography to life. The most widely known programs are the Carmen Sandiego series, by Broderbund, which entice students into playing a game of sleuth. Students fly from city to city, trying to track down a villain. All the while they learn facts and figures about important American landmarks and locales.

The Carmen Sandiego series truly deserves the praise it has received from educators and parents. No other programs get children so quickly involved in working, and enjoying, the subject of geography. But you can't learn the lay of the land by jetting around from one city to another. To learn what this country looks like, you have to get out on the road. To experience American geography firsthand, you have to get out there and drive a truck.

The whole idea behind the program Cross Country USA is to get you to see the nation from the point of view of a truck driver. The program gets you to pick up various "commodities" at different cities, and deliver them all to a final destination. In the process, you'll drive thru the cornfields of Kansas, past the great Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and thru the fishing villages of Maine.

You actually see the scenery of these areas as you drive down the highway. The simulation is brought further to life with a realistic looking dashboard across the bottom of the screen. You have to carefully monitor your gas gauge, windshield wipers, and lights, and take appropriate action when due.

The best part about Cross Country USA is the hundreds of little nuances that have been added to the game. Even after your fifteenth, or twentieth game, you'll still encounter new and unfamiliar situations that have to be creatively dealt with. It's easy to start playing the game at a basic level, but the game is never tiring or predictable for experienced players.

To describe what the program is all about, a short word should be mentioned about the materials that accompany the disk. Accompanying the disk is a large, desk-sized map of the United States, with all the major cities, and "simulated" highways linking them up. (These "simulated" roads happen to parallel, but not coincide, with interstate highways.)

You also get a "city-commodity" cross reference chart, listing 52 commodities and the cities in which they're sold. For example, cars are made in Detroit and Toledo, milk comes from Madison, Wisconsin, and steel can be found in Pittsburgh and Birmingham.

To round out the software package, you also receive a well-written booklet that tells you how to play the game. In the back of the booklet is a list of over 200 words to be used as "commands" when playing the game.

The first command you'll need to use is, "Turn on truck." After you type this command, your truck springs to life with a healthy diesel sound coming out of your Apple's speaker. You'll need to check your commodity-city chart to find out where to drive first. The desk-sized map comes in handy in planning your route.

The beginning of the Cross Country USA program is quite straightforward, but here's a pointer or two to help you on your way. After the title screen, the program asks you if you would like to continue a "saved game." After you answer this question, the program takes you to the options screen. Here you'll be able to make some important choices about your road trip.

The most important of these choices is how many commodities you want to pick up. When deciding how many commodities you want to pick up, keep in mind that it takes an average person about ten to fifteen minutes to pick up each commodity. You'll probably want to only pick up two or three commodities when you first start playing this game. There's some nice graphics rewards at the end, when you deliver your final goods; so if you choose too many commodities to pick up, you risk missing out on these neat rewards.

Another important choice at the options menu is how many players will be playing the game. While the program allows for two players to play competitively, my experience has been that the game is far more fun played cooperatively under the "one player" option. Cross Country USA is an ideal game for the family to play together, assuming children are appropriately aged (about fourth grade on up), and are sufficiently compatible with each other to work towards a common goal.

The division of labor in such a cooperative enterprise would have one child sitting at the keyboard, "driving the truck," and another child poring over the map, acting as "navigator." Parents can then assume the roles of "assistant driver" and "assistant navigator." Or, perhaps, "independent consultant."

The final choice at the options menu has to do with choosing a "commodities table." This sounds confusing, and it is. What the "commodities table" refers to is to one of the customizing features of the program. You can actually re-assign the commodities in the program to different cities. Why anyone would choose to do so is not entirely clear to me. I'm perfectly satisfied with the U.S. economy as it presently exists, so I always press return to skip this option.

Just as soon as you've chosen your options for the game, you're ready to start the game. At this point the program presents you with a "Dispatch Notice," telling you the first commodity you have to pick up, which city you're starting from, and which city is your final destination. The program prompts you to flip over the disk, and away you go.

As a veteran trucker of the Cross Country USA game, it behooves me to pass along a couple of pointers to speed your journey. If you're a fast reader, you can speed up the messages on the bottom of the screen by pressing the space bar. (You can also speed up the display of the city billboards by pressing the space bar.)

Should you ever run out of gas, or crash from lack of food/sleep, the appropriate action --- naturally enough --- is to "call for help." A second-grade friend of mine informed me of this when I inquired, "Well, what am I supposed to do NOW?"

Snow chains are highly recommended in a snowstorm. (But don't forget to take off the chains once you've travelled into warmer climes.) Just as your mother told you, don't forget to eat regularly and fill up the tank every couple of cities. Keep a watchful eye on the gas gauge, and you'll do alright.

Once you've picked up one commodity, the program gives you clues to your next commodity. If you can't figure out the clues, just type anything. The program gives you two chances to figure out which is your next commodity, and then proceeds even if you don't guess it.

Cross Country USA is the type of game you can play for a full hour without getting tired. In my experience, the program is sufficiently varied to be playable for ten, twenty, even thirty different times.

This program is best used with children who have already shown an interest in learning about American geography. Geography is one of those subjects that should never be foisted on those who are not ready for it.

A complete software review ought to compare the merits of the program being reviewed with other programs in the same field. There are at least a handful of other programs that cover the same general subjects as Cross Country USA. A program titled "Coast to Coast" couches American geography in the form of a hot-air balloon race. Another program, titled "See the USA," gets children driving around from state to state by naming each state they drive thru.

While these two other programs are not without merit, they are just not in the same league as Cross Country USA. In the global economy of today, economic geography is equally an important a subject as physical geography. While "Coast to Coast" and "See the USA" may hold the interest of younger geo-philes, Cross Country USA has sufficient complexity to hold the interest of students all the way up thru high-school age.

If the newspaper reports are true, and American students' geographical knowledge is not up to par, this teacher's prescription is a healthy dose of Cross Country USA. This delightful program has been carefully designed to captivate the interest of growing minds. For students whose interest in geography has not yet been whetted, this program may well kindle a tiny spark. And for those students whose interest in geography is already burning bright, this program might well provide the fuel to make the fire burn even brighter.

Phil Shapiro

[The author takes a strong interest in geographical educational software programs.He can be reached at:]

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