Mark Kirby jostles the joystick from his console seat, manuevering into position to attack some grazing triceratops dinosaurs on the video screen in front of him.
He’s playing the part of a tyrannosaurus rex, the carnivorous dinosaur of the Cretaceous Period some 150 million to 65 million years ago, and what’s on the screen simulates the forests and fields that paleontologists believe supported both tyrannosauruses and triceratops.
Four icons at the screen’s bottom left show Kirby, 49, his levels of health, water, energy and food. Food’s a bit low, which is why he’s hunting.
The screen suddenly flashes red and Kirby pushes his joystick hard left to see what’s happening. The screen wheels left, then shows the reason: The attacker has just been wallopped by a triceratops’ tail.
Kirby, as player, has learned a basic lesson from the Cretaceous:
One does not mess with a herd of triceratops without expecting a challenge from the herd’s aggressive bull.
Another lesson awaits the thousands of visitors expected for the Mayborn Museum’s new touring exhibit, “Be The Dinosaur: Life in the Cretaceous”: Some things, such as animal behavior, are best learned through gaming and not static objects.
Kirby’s not your average adult videogamer, by the way. He’s CEO for Eureka Exhibits LLC, the company behind “Be The Dinosaur,” and he was helping install the exhibit in the Mayborn’s Anding Touring Exhibition Room several days before its Saturday opening.
Kirby is the son of a NASA scientist who worked on the Apollo moon landings, the space shuttle, the Voyager space probe and other high-profile projects. Eureka Exhibits combines his passions for gaming and science — the former used to explain the latter — and he confessed it’s hard to stop once he starts talking about them.
Way to learn
Although some view gaming as simply entertainment, he sees it as a way to learn.
“We like to look at gaming as a mechanism of communication, just as TV is,” he said.
“Be The Dinosaur” uses networked game simulators — 16 in the Mayborn Museum’s set-up — that create dinosaurs in an environment that paleontologists believe existed more than 65 million years ago in the South Dakota Hell Creek Formation, a geologic formation rich in T-rex fossils.
Eureka’s software draws on scientists’ theories how T-rexes, triceratops and hadrosaurs lived and behaved, T-rexes as solitary predators not above scavenging dead carcasses, the plant-eating triceratops and speedier hadrosaurs traveling in packs for safety .
It’s the company’s first major exhibit and Kirby said software changes could create different shows modeling African wildlife on the savannah or life in a coral reef.
It represents the latest generation of science museum exhibits, one in which visitors learn through playing, in this case animal behavior of a prehistoric age.
The Mayborn celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Director Ellie Caston and Rebecca Tucker Nall, assistant director of communication, were looking for a distinctive summer show for the occasion and think they’ve found it in “Be The Dinosaur,” the Mayborn’s first dinosaur-themed exhibit.
Unlike “Dinosaurs!,” an animatronic exhibit that visited Waco about a decade ago at then Heart O’ Texas General Exhibits Building, “Be The Dinosaur” isn’t so much about imaging how dinosaurs looked as how they behaved.
A half-sized animatronic T-rex will stand in the Mayborn’s foyer during the exhibit and a triceratops inside the exhibit space, but that’s largely the extent of the mechanical dinosaurs.
The exhibit amplifies the lessons about dinosaur life learned through the game with touchscreen Rock Kiosks that act as interactive encyclopedia of dinosaur info and Amber Pillars that teach through signage, Nall said.
Rounding out the show are actual Cretaceous Period fossils from the Mayborn Museum’s collections and that of the Houston Museum of National History plus lifesized replicas of T-rex and triceratops skulls.
The target audience is children 4 years and older, but Nall noticed grandparents taking an active part in a previous stop of “Be The Dinosaur” with some parents of toddlers playing the simulation while their kids sat in their laps.
A typical game will run about six minutes. “If they do something foolish, like a T-rex running into a herd of triceratops, their experience will be very short,” Kirby said with a laugh.
No game experience will repeat. A random generator determines where a player starts in the terrain, what animal he or she controls and what gender. As players will find, it’s a challenge to stay alive in the Cretaceous Period, no matter the species. “It’s not always easy being the predator,” he said.
In conjunction with “Be The Dinosaur,” paleontologist John Hutchinson will speak on the Cretaceous background of the exhibit on June 14 and reduced-price Dino Days will be held Tuesdays from July 1 to Aug. 12.
In celebration of the museum’s 10th anniversary, visitors on the exhibit’s Saturday opening will get free cake and all admission will be $5.
The Mayborn’s attendance has exceeded initial projections, averaging around 120,000 visitors annually for the past five years and recording its 1 millionth guest last year, Caston said.
Families with children have proven the core audience for the museum, although it attracts all ages, and the museum has found adding a spring exhibit aimed at children drew substantial attendance from schools, stay-at-home moms and daycares.
The 2010 “LEGO Castles” remains the museum’s top-drawing show with some 131,000 visitors during its run. What’s ahead for the Mayborn? A gradual “refreshing” of the museum’s children-friendly Discovery Rooms, Caston said. “They’ve been loved very well over the years and are showing it a bit,” she said.