Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Don't Tell Them It's Educational....


With the rapid rise in household personal computer ownership throughout the 80s and 90s, children faced an entirely new arena of play to conquer. While kids may have viewed computers as a new uncharted frontier of free play, our parents and teachers were somewhat the wiser in regulating our zeal. Computers, they realized, were a perfect tool for tricking kids into learning material that would only otherwise be absorbed against their will. This backhanded approach to learning may not have been a perfect system, but dammit we would learn our multiplication tables and enjoy it.

Computer game manufacturers released heaps of educational titles cleverly disguised as amusing games. Bright colors and flashy animations effectively distracted children from the realization that they were indeed learning, and in their spare time to boot. Sure, we had an inkling deep down that these games were more substantial than our usual trivial fare, but throw enough Troggles or buffalo hunting into the mix and we were putty in your education-molding hands.

Whether in old-school Macintosh computer labs at school or on our crappy primitive homebound PCs, we collectively spent countless hours playing educational computer games. Parents and educators were usually pretty adept at remaining tight-lipped over the educational nature of the game, leaving us to our delusions of frivolous game play. As far as adults were concerned, what we didn't know couldn't hurt us...and it may just help us pass a geography test along the way.


Oregon Trail



Oregon Trail was the classic 80s and 90s educational computer game. It was a pioneer (this pun may be too horrible even for me) in its field, teaching children everywhere about the Westward bound wagon trains during our love affair with manifest destiny. The game was chock full of kid-friendly elements that easily outweighed our distaste for all things educational. For one, we got to name the characters after ourselves, meaning when our friends died of dysentery along the way we could write mean things on their editable tombstones. We got to pick our professions, make little computer-based lives for ourselves, the whole shebang.

The real appeal though was in the hunting portion of the game. If you weren't naturally sadistic in your youth, Oregon Trail was enough to bring out your inner puppy kicker. Whether you were into the challenge of shooting down a skittering squirrel or you preferred the Native American-decimating cultural significance of killing the snail-paced, monolithic buffalo, the hunting segment had something for everyone. Yes, our wagon could only hold 100 measly pounds of meat and we'd killed a whopping 1430, but we could always hope for one of our wagon-mates to get the measles and clear the space for more sweet, sweet buffalo.

To read the full Oregon Trail post, click here



Math Blaster



The game's producers had actually the audacity to put the word "math" in the title. The jig was up, we knew this was arithmetical. They did, at least, have the minor courtesy to include a video game word like "blaster". Do I get to kill math? Explode times tables in a fiery haze of unbridled and highly potent explosives? I guess I'd just have to play and find out.

It didn't turn out exactly as I hoped, but I did get to be a Blastronaut, which at least won major points in creative wordsmithery. The game itself was a essentially a school math worksheet cleverly disguised as a fast-paced game. Solving math problems earned you valuable ammo in your space blasting quests, which certainly came in handy when firing the lasers.




Storybook Weaver



I should have seen through this one, but I was totally fooled by its veneer of fun and whimsy. Storybook Weaver was not really a game at all, but a means of encouraging children to write and illustrate their own stories on the computer. In short, was an imaginative kid's dream. The possibilities were endless--well, almost endless, as we were limited by the available illustration graphics to augment our woven stories.

The best means of circumventing the educational aspect, of course, was to focus mainly on the illustrating process. With scores of backgrounds, characters, and design elements to choose from, it was like the world's most exciting and interactive sticker book. Even just reminiscing about it makes me yearn to drag and drop some princess images.



Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?




Broderbund released the first Carmen Sandiego games in the mid-80s, launching a vast and imposing educational game franchise. The creators' original aim was to get kids pumped about using the almanac; the first version was even released with a companion almanac included in the sale. How this premise managed to grab the attention of young people is a true testament to the entertaining nature of the game because let's be real here. Almanacs? Really?

The game featured elusive jewel thief Carmen Sandiego, who we were meant to capture and arrest in her globetrotting travels. We could interview bystanders and call CrimeNet, collecting clues and traveling from Kiev to Carolina in hot pursuit of our scarlet-hatted target while avoiding her VILE henchmen. The mystery element was more than enough to make us forget that this was essentially a map study session.



Reader Rabbit



Again, the titular focus on reading was enough to make us suspicious of this one, but it was admittedly pretty fun. The initial version was very simple, focusing on simple letter recognition and sounds, but they quickly released more advanced versions for a wider range of ages. We played some little games to form words, we got to watch some cute little animations with a little song and dance thrown in, everyone won. Unless you couldn't spell. Then you were pretty much screwed.



The Incredible Machine



Puzzle and strategy games were also pretty effective educational tools, particularly if they came in such a kick-ass cool form as The Incredible Machine. Each phase of the game gave us a delightfully eclectic assortment of random objects and charged us with completing a simple task using the implements at hand. I'm telling you, I could spend hours figuring out how to light a candle using a bowling ball and a medium-sized pulley. This game could seriously pull you in, especially when it teased you with the many near-miss solutions where you almost get the water in the bucket but then it spills all over the floor and ignites your electrical cord. Damn.


Living Books

Exactly what it sounds like. These would probably not hold the attention of today's technology-hungry overstimulated children, but they were quite a revelation to those of us who knew books only as a collection of paper pages bound with a spine. I am pretty sure that watching the Living Book version of Stellaluna would still amuse me equally as much as back in my third grade computer lab days.



Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing



Believe it or not, once upon a time typing was not an innate inborn skill we possessed from the tender age of three. While today's kids' fingers may fly over a keyboard, we needed a little guidance in the right direction. I'm not sure who Mavis Beacon is, but she has truly had a profound impact on my life. Are you out there, Mavis? I want to thank you.

Mavis Beacon was not all fun and games, though it was part of it. We had to complete a series of tasks and tedious drills before we got to move on to any of the fun stuff. By fun stuff I mean typing sentences to make a car race or typing number values to represent a grocery store checkout. Come to think of it, that doesn't sound that fun at all. Regardless, it seemed like a pretty worthy endeavor at the time. I even printed out the certificate displayed onscreen when I reached 30 WPM. Now that would be a great display piece for my office.


Number Munchers





Mmmm, numbers. Delicious. Well, at least they were to our Muncher pals, who greedily gobbled them up just as quickly as our nimble little fingers could identify multiples of nine. We did have to contend with those pesky Troggles, the imaginatively designed monsters who stalked the board in hopes of digesting our little green arithmetic-solving agent. If you aptly outsmarted the Troggles and managed to maneuver your way to the next level, you got to watch a little animation depicting your inevitable triumph over the evil Troggle. Good times.

To read the full Number Munchers post, click here



Some people criticize the "make it fun" approach, dismissing it as an ineffective means of teaching. I resent that assertion, though. Sure, while researching Number Munchers for this post I briefly played the free version online and found I don't know what a prime number is, but that's not the point. The point is that I played these games day in and day out without parental intervention. I actually wanted to learn. These games were no substitute for actual classroom-style education, but they were a nice change of pace from drill-and-test. At the end of the day, if we were motivated to begin some supplemental learning unprovoked, everyone was pretty happy.

45 comments:

Scientific Housewife said...

OMG, this brings back so many memories! I loved Oregon Trail, Storybook Weaver was awesome, and Number Munchers was so fun, I totally forgot about that game!

Maggi said...

Wowowowow, I totally played Oregon Trail and Number Munchers in school!

Mike K. said...

AHHH READER RABBIT I'M ABOUT TO EXPLODDDE OMGWTF!!!!!

Badass Geek said...

I kicked Mavis Beacon's ASS.

Christina said...

i was obsessed with number munchers!!!!!!!

JGIWC said...

O M G BRINGIN' ME BACK. Did you ever play Mario's Time Machine? It was Nintendo for a computer. I played it on my first Mac circa 1995. http://cheats.ign.com/objects/007/007322.html#

Little Mrs Domestic said...

Ooh I used to love those games! Brings back some memories!

Practically Perfect... said...

My friends and I loved "Oregon Trail". I can remember that our classroom had 1 computer with this game on it, and the rule was that whoever got to the computer first during inside recess got to use it. My best friend and I sat nearest the computer, so whenever the recess bell rang, we would "race" the boys to get to the computer first. I swear we were the ones who got to play the game 80% of the time, and I'm sure the other kids hated us, but it was so fun!

Jenn said...

oregon trail & carmen sandiego were the best. computer lab time was my favorite becauser we'd get to play them.

and holy cow i totally forgot about mavis beacon & number munchers. excellent games!!!

do you also remember some game with a little car that drove around a track and you spelled out words and if you were bad, you were called a "Sunday Driver"? I can't remember the name but I loved that one too!

Melissa said...

I forgot all about these games! My favorite secretly-educational game was always Oregon Trail... oh the memories.

Jackie said...

I still wish I could play all those games. Especially Oregon Trail.

Mighty Math Calculating Crew and the Jump Start (insert your grade here) were also my faves.

OH! And all of the Carmen Sandiego games! I just bought Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego; I haven't had time to play it yet though.

stephanieamber said...

OH MY GOSH! Math Blasters was the absolute BEST!! I'd completely forgotten all about that game until.. well, just now!

Carol said...

I loved so many of those games!

Being Pramoda... said...

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Gwen said...

Oregon Trail and Number Munchers were my favorites!!! I loved getting to go into the computer lab once a week. It was the best day by far!! XOXO

Amy said...

OMG! Math Blaster and Oregon Trail were my ABSOLUTE favorite in school. I couldn't wait until we could go on the computer to play them. Oh man, I loved them!!!

Simply_Megan said...

I LOVE Oregon Trail! I actually have a version of my own, but it's a lot newer than the picture you have on the post. I remember coming home and telling my parents how I had to kill my animals for food and how my daughter died of a snake bites. I think my parents were a little afraid haha.

Lil' Woman said...

Oregon Trail and Carmen San Diego were my games! :)

Lil' Woman said...

Oregon Trail and Carmen San Diego were my games! :)

LiLu said...

So, um, I might have just googled "number munchers" to play it.

http://www.funzac.com/play/Number%20Munchers.html

WIN.

Sadako said...

FORD THE RIVER!!!!! Except not because then you drown. Caulk the wagon and float!

nikki said...

Who didn't love Oregon Trail day at school????

Very Top Five said...

Great stuff! I loved Number Munchers and hadn't realised it was supposed to be educational (Mainly because I haven't thought about it for years). At the time I think I thought I was tricking everyone by having fun while pretending to learn.

hannahlizabeth said...

ahaha the oregon trail was so hilarious - hey children, do you want to dump all of your family's treasured possessions or sacrifice two of your children?

that was one stressful game.

The SSS Sophisticate said...

I think I played every single one of those at some point in grade school! WOW, thanks for bringing back that memory!

jeannie said...

omg, I used to love these games!! esp. number munchers and oregon trail!

valentine said...

HOT DANG! do i love me some oregon trail. i don't think i ever won that game. does that make me a total loser?

and for some reason that bunny game seems familiar....

The K Family said...

Holy blast from the freakin' past!! Love this post!! I'm glad that SOMEONE remembered Number Munchers.

What about Odell Lake??

Queen Mama said...

Ha! Wow. I don't remember much of these, except for 3. I loooved Oregon Trail, I remember the floppy disks we used in school. Ohhh how computers have changed from their orange screens and their orange writing, ha.

Mavis Beacon, I think I hated your voice, it was soooo annoying. But boy did you teach me alot. I now type over 70 wpm.. thanks. You were great.

Number munchers, definitely a fav. I just loved the sound, never realized I learned so much, lol

Yserbius said...

Ok, just so everyone knows, I hate to burst bubbles but...

There never was a person by the name Mavis Beacon.
Thats right. She was an invention of Broderbund

Melanie's Randomness said...

I was a Reader Rabbit, Oregon Trail, & Carmen San Diego Fanatic! oohh and the 1990 Apple Computers. See kids today don't know the joys of 2-D. =)

RyanF said...

does anyone remember the old mac game (same platform as number crunchers) where you have to pick the different sized rockets to try to get the most height out of your rocket launch ?

lovelila said...

Oh man, I was a Math Blaster, Number (and Word) Muncher, and Oregon Trail FIEND! Loved those games! I found an online version of Oregon Trail a few years ago and HAD to play it, haha!

Wow... I remember playing most of those... good times... good memories!

Ashley said...

Apparently those of us who went to my school were pretty deprived since we never ONCE played Oregon Trail! Never even heard of it until a couple years ago, actually. Now, Carmen Sandiego...don't recall playing the game, but definitely watched the show a lot.

The only game I remember ever playing in our computer classes was called Dino Park...and even that was only on a small handful of computers. Ha...like I said, we were deprived!

Anonymous said...

I remember playing all these games, as well as SimAnt and some dinosaur park game. What did I learn from those?!

Anonymous said...

does anyone remember a game where you were a little eskimo guy, and you had an ice pick... and there was a store in the game where you had to buy things?
I honestly don't remember anything more than that, but it's killing me!

Emily said...

MATH BLASTERS! I resent that game so much! Mainly because I was super slow at my times tables back in the day, and my mother forced me to play it every day after school! Eek!

Tahleen said...

I remember Amazon Trail was a BIG one when I was in elementary school. That's what we would fight to play. I also remember Number Munchers. There was also this game that for the life of me I can't remember anything about except we ALL played it and it had to do with getting sucked into a world like a carnival (but the creepy kind) where you had to do some problem-solving in order to get out again. The first one had to do with dolls or something.

Nosilas said...

Dude. I played Oregon Trail in 4th grade, and this was 2004. It's still around, those darn teachers reusing supplies from a decade ago! I remember Reader Rabbit too... they were fun, but once you figured out they were educational you felt cheated in a way. =)

CVH said...

Does anyone rember school house rock. and cluefinders. loved those games XD

Katy said...

Great post!! I absolutely loved Storybook Weaver...I also played Math Blasters a few times, but I failed to be taken in by the whole Blastronaut thing.

One that needs to be mentioned is Typing Pal. This game was my worst nightmare. My father actually forced me to do it for an hour each day. You would type (not the two-fingered kind...with all fingers engaged) and if you got one wrong, a virtual apple would fall on a cartoon version of you, knocking him out. This seems mildly traumatic. This may explain why I am a bit neurotic today...oh, and why I type several thousand words per minute. :)

Brittany said...

LOVE this post! Linked to it from my own flashback to Carmen SanDiego, which is celebrating its 25th birthday this year! Can you believe it?

Thanks for the Incredible Machine inclusion! I've been digging around for the name of the game and couldn't remember for the life of me! Oh, the memories...

xox Brittany

awatchcry.wordpress.com

Anonymous said...

does any one remember an old game where you could get various quality parts for different vehicles n then race them?

It's bein buggin me awhile, id really appreciate any help. thanks

Anonymous said...

The game with the vehicles with multiple parts is GIZMOS AND GADGETS. Great game.

Does anyone remember a game from the mid-90s that involved multiple levels, occasionally jumping over water and onto rooftops, and avoiding purple bad guys? Wish I remembered more... it's been driving me crazy...

ashley said...

Does anyone know of a typing game from the late 90s that had monsters calling out letters? And you had to type the correct letters enough times, and then a monster would explode. It was awesome!

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