Tuesday, October 20, 2009
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Friday, August 7, 2009
Were you aware that reading allows you fly approximately two times as high as a butterfly in the sky? And that reading enables you to simultaneously be both anywhere and anything? Powerful stuff. Thankfully, as an avid watcher of Reading Rainbow, I was keyed in on this kind of insider literate knowledge. That mesmerizingly soothing theme song drew me in time after time:
Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high
Take a look, it's in a book - Reading Rainbow.
I can go anywhere!
Friends to know and ways to grow - Reading Rainbow.
I can be anything!
Take a look, it's in a book - Reading Rainbow.
Reading Rainbow, Reading Rainbow, Reading Rainbow, Reading Rainbow!
Hosted by LeVar Burton, Reading Rainbow was an educational children's television series created in the 80s to encourage elementary-age children to read. While initially a summer exploit, its popularity soon propelled it into a year-round venture. Reading Rainbow was a touchy-feely approach to children's book-learning, combating the evils of distracting adversarial forces of literature.
What's that you ask? Wasn't Reading Rainbow on TV? So what you're telling me is that kids were encouraged to watch TV as a measure to get them away from mindless television entertainment and into a cozy literate environment?
Yep. That's exactly what I'm telling you. Glad to see we're on the same page. Or in this case, channel.
Sure, it seems vaguely counter-intuitive, but Reading Rainbow was probably a welcome shift from the mind-numbing children's television entertainment that predominated the airwaves in the 80s and 90s. I suppose if parents were forced to choose a TV program to babysit their children, they may as well go with the lesser of two evils. At least the kid might get to see Billy Cosby reading an Arthur book in one of his trademark sweaters.
Everyone knows the best way to prove your love of reading children's books is to submerge yourself in them completely
Yes, Reading Rainbow featured a vast spectrum (insert groan here) of celebrity guest readers. Not just public television celebrities like Snuffleupagus or Lambchop, but real living, breathing celebrities that parents had actually heard of. People like Julia Child, James Earl Jones, Maya Angelou, Gilda Radner, and Richard Gere showed up to narrate a children's book, all in the name of child literacy. Admirable, no?
The show was more than just on-screen reading, though. Each episode generally reflected a single theme, featuring multiple books, children's reviews, and segments on issues like diversity, new experiences, self esteem, and most importantly, The Library. Reading Rainbow loved The Library. Like got-down-on-one-knee-and-proposed-to-pledge-eternal-love love. Every two minutes, we'd get another cheery plug for visiting our local library. God forbid any of us readers support the featured authors themselves by heading out to purchase the books.
Okay, okay, I admit I'm being a bit facetious. I love the library. It was one of my most favorite hangouts at a child. Actually, as a kid there's no way I would have noticed any TV show plugging anything. My favorite Saturday morning cartoons could have been surreptitiously selling me crack cocaine and I wouldn't have even an inkling that the show had been sponsored by the crack industry. I suppose there are worse things than a couple of relatively subtle nudges to go visit my local library. I retract my previous barb.
Reading Rainbow was more than adept at achieving its ultimate goal of encouraging children to read. It's format was simple, but it got results. Parents were pleased to see their kids getting excited about reading. Kids were pleased to see their parents excited about letting them watch TV. Everyone was a winner.
If your parents were either nerds or suckers for historical miniseries, they no doubt trusted deeply in the educational guidance of LeVar Burton. Known for his roles in both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Roots, Burton was a pretty credible source. That's not even counting his contributions to the planet as Kwame on Captain Planet. Oh, LeVar. Is there anything you can't teach?
If your parents did happen to be Trekkies, they were able to geek out with LeVar every now and then. In the segment below, he gives a behind the scenes look at the making of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Prepare to be beamed out of your minds:
Personally though, my favorite segment was usually the kids' very own book reviews, I am proud to present a short segment of a review, posted on YouTube by the star herself who no doubt now deeply regrets her choice in lenswear. But you don't have to take my word for it*:
Well, that's all we have for you today, kids. In the ever-wise words of Mr. Burton himself, I'll see you next time.**
*In the case that you were unaware, this was Mr. Burton's opening catchphrase prior to the children's reviews
**This was the closing catchphrase. I know, I know. My use of it in my own closing was pretty deep and symbolic. You don't have to tell me. Now it's off to enjoy my weekend after all of that deep-thinking about metaphorical reinterpretations. Oh yeah, and see you next time.
Friday, July 31, 2009
It's a parents dream: for the low low price of $9.95, you can guarantee your attention span-less child will stay put in a single spot for an uncharacteristically extended period of time. Heck, parents would probably pay upwards of $100 for results like these, so those Scholastic people are really cutting them a deal on this one. Writer Jean Marzollo and photographer Walter Wick are probably laughing all the way to their interestingly cluttered homes full of cleverly arranged tough-to-spot ornamental and thematic objects.
Following in the well-hidden footsteps of Where's Waldo, Scholastic's series of I SPY books offered a handily portable search game certain to provide children with endless hours of contemplation and entertainment. Each page was its own magical little world of plentiful well-placed objects, usually within some sort of thematic framework. The pages themselves were visually impressive enough to enthrall children of any age, while the clever written riddlers were at times enough to stump any parents reading along.
These books were full of imagination and wonder, which generally translated into them being simultaneously mesmerizing and frustrating. Sure, the pictures were hypnotizing in their high level of visual interest, but they also gave our poor little eyes stare-at-an-eclipse level strain. It's a wonder we weren't all marveling over these books stooped over with Quasimodo-esque posture donning granny glasses dangling from a chain. If anything had the power to age us prematurely, it was these damn visual puzzlers.
We all started off pretty cocky. They'd throw a few easy search assignments at you to build your confidence in typical 90s rah-rah self-esteem style. Some of the clues were completely straightforward, as least in theory. In practice, we were required to actually locate these objects amidst a sea of unimportant junk. Just when we thought we'd finally conquered these perplexing puzzles, we'd get to one that had some sort of riddle. Oh, great, so now we have to think, too? What is this, The Eleventh Hour? And no secret solution in the back? For shame.
The pictures themselves were an impressive feat alone. Where exactly were they getting all of this stuff? I've been to plenty of garage sales and swap meets, but I've never managed to accumulate this volume of junk. How could they possibly track down so many button, marbles, manacala beads, and checkers to artfully arrange in a chaotically ordered manner?
And what sort of mixed messages were these sending children? Our parents say "Clean your room," and then offer us a book full of vast quantities of object in complete disarray? I tried writing a poem to go with my messy room, but my parents weren't taken in by my I SPY-like effort. If only they'd solved that riddle, I'd perhaps have had the confidence to pursue my then-chosen career as a search picture book stanza composer. Plus, they could have found my stuffed manatee.
Parents also had the advantage of softening the blow of defeat on their younger, more fragile children (read: the illiterate. Well, they can't. But you get the point.) Many of them quickly realized that especially in a family where multiple ages of children played with this book, you could, ahem, adapt it for younger non-reading kids. In other words: lie. Lie, lie, lie. "Oh, what does all that writing say? It says, look for the big happy clown in the middle of the page! What's that? Found it already! What a smart little boy!"
Try as I might, I was never able to recreate this scene with my own Tinker Toys. Perhaps it's because I didn't have a proper protractor and rainbow xylophone on hand.
In Scholastic's infinite wisdom (evidenced by their glorious, glorious book orders), they fashioned these books to be lightweight and highly portable. Translation: bring it in the car and maybe your children will shut the hell up on a long road trip. Without this type of legitimate distraction, who knows what dire lengths you'd have to go to to satiate your restless and irritable children. In my family, we were reduced to stopping off at a cemetery so us kids could run around. Unfortunately for my parents, from then on whenever my sister and I spotted a cemetery from the car, we would eagerly implore, "Play, play!" Honestly, we wouldv'e been much better off with an I SPY book. After all, it's far more difficult to disrespect the dead with one of those babies.
So for those of you with children who prefer not to engage in any type of sacrilege sure to anger someone upstairs, I'd highly recommend investing in one of these. And for those of you without children, my advice stands. Alright, so you may get some questionable looks when you whip out I SPY: Spooky Night on your subway trip home from your hours of enslavement to the man, but just imagine how excited you'll be when you finally locate that cross-eyed jack-o-latern.
Friday, June 19, 2009
For some reason, magic rings are pretty common cartoon motif. I suppose the appeal is pretty universal: you wear on your hand not only the irrepressible power to do your magic bidding but also your membership card to an exclusive superhero club. Unfortunately there's got to be some sort of superhero hierarchy out there, meaning not all superheroes are created equal. Magic ring or not, it's pretty safe to say that Protector of the Environment doesn't quite rank up there with the coolness factor of Batman or Superman. Hell, even Mighty Mouse may have had something on these guys.
Captain Planet was the animated response to an increasing push for social relevance and educational programming in children's television programming. This brand of thinly-veiled cartoon education, dubbed "edutainment", was pretty forthcoming in its attempts to teach us all sorts of pertinent facts and figures regarding the environment and our role as informed citizens of Earth. Think of it as an animated superhero version of An Inconvenient Truth, but with fewer powerpoint presentations and more mystical Earth spirits.
In the true spirit of the 90s, Captain Planet and the Planeteers were painfully multicultural. As emphasis of the inherent value of diversity grew in the American cultural marketplace, TV producers became more and more eager to appear politically correct in their entertainment undertakings. It was no longer enough to abide by the time-honored principle of tokenness. No, children today needed not just a vaguely ethnic friend here and there but rather a full gang of worldly companions. In an painstaking effort to make it even more realistic, the American one is by far the most ignorant and least informed. Who says cartoons aren't a mirror to society?
It all starts when the spirit embodiment of the Earth, Gaia, wakes up and is pissed to see the horrible squandering of resources and pollutive tendencies of contemporary man. There's pretty much only one thing she can do: conjure up a slew of magic rings, send them to some kids around the world, and hope for the best. Gaia's convenient Planet Vision alerts these youths as to the most devastating pollutants and disasters cropping up around the world, to which they must mobilize and act. Each Planeteer controls an element: Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, and...Heart?
These kids, while marginally powerful, are not altogether qualified to confront the worlds' mounting environmental crisis. Just as the Mouseketeers could always call on Mickey for reinforcement, so too could the Planeteers summon their more powerful and well-known pal. With the power of their rings combined and and a rousing cheer of "Go Planet!", the meager Planeteers could conjure up their leader, Captain Planet.
If you think I come up with some groan-inducing puns, you should go back and take a gander at some of the god-awful punnery that Captain Planet emits. Perhaps it's smog related, but something is clearly clouding his judgment with these cheesy jokes (Clouding? Smog? Come on, throw me a line here.) Captain Planet is pretty powerful, as far as superheroes go, but he's got his limitations. Just as Superman had Kryptonite, our man CP has pollution. Scary, isn't it?
The Planeteers, while less powerful, had a few tricks up their respective natural-fibered sleeves. In the intro, we find that we too can be Planeteers. As a child, this was so exciting for me I practically tripped over own burgeoning compost heap in a maniacally frantic effort to sort my recycling or purchase a sweatshirt made out of used water bottles. Just imagine, me, a Planeteer! It's almost too much to bear. As my role as a Planeteer was not sufficiently well-documented in the series (I blame my lack of multicultural qualities for this obvious snub for camera time), our more prominent ring-bearing Planeteers got quite a bit of airtime:
Played by Lavar Burton, host of Reading Rainbow and star of the Roots miniseries. Talk about socially conscious, Burton was edutaining us from all fronts. Kwame possesses the power of Earth, which allowed him to create earthquakes, mountains, and other not-so-exciting plate-tectonic and topographic landforms. From Africa, Kwame came across his magic ring while planting trees in the Savannah. He acts as sort of an unofficial leader to the group, and always gets to be the one who shouts, "With our powers combined...!" Which when you think about it, was probably one of the best jobs on the show.
Voiced by Kath Soucie, another 90s voice actor extraordinaire. With voice acting credits like Phil and Lil of Rugrats, Lola Bunny from Space Jam, and Futurama's Cubert Farnsworth, Soucie was a veritable voice chameleon. In this case, she voiced Linka, our communist Soviet Planeteer, later replaced by the vaguer "Eastern European" Planeteer following the USSR's demise. She is incredibly stereotyped to the early-90s mounting fear of Soviet education surpassing that of the US, with superior math and computer hacking skills. Cute, no? Linka has the power of Wind, allowing her to create gusty breezes, tornadoes, and to some extent, offers her the power to levitate.
Our South American Planeteer did not boast quite as well-known voice acting credentials, but Scott Menville did play Kimmy Gibbler's boyfriend Duane on Full House which certainly gives him points in my book. Ma-Ti lives in the rainforest with his grandfather, a local Shaman. In case you had yet to notice, the Planeteers' creator took great pains in making the diversity as painstakingly obvious as possible. It was never acceptable for a South American to live in a major city, or an Asian to be scientifically non-inclined. These Planeteers took their embodied stereotypes highly seriously. Ma-Ti had the power of Heart, which was clearly the crappiest element. It wasn't an element at all, if you want to get technical. He could converse with animals, occasionally read minds, and affect others emotionally, but you have to admit that when compared to the other Planetary (Planeteery?) powers this one seemed a bit consolatory.
Voiced by Joey Dedio, who earns my seal of 90s credibility for voicing the over-the-top drug dealer in Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue! Wheeler was our American friend, and in typical typecasting fashion he is a salty, short-tempered Brooklynite. He wielded the power of Fire, which was admittedly cooler and more useful than many of the other elements. In retrospect Wheeler's role as an American was a bit insulting to actual Americans, though not altogether untrue. He came across as overly privileged and ignorant, and was forced to serve as comic relief to his smarter, more able global counterpars.
The Southeast Asian member of the group, Gi was voiced by Janice Kawaye. Proving my American ignorance in a manner not unlike that of my Planeteer pal Wheeler, I must admit I'm pretty clueless about Kawaye's other voice credits, which include such
shows as Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi. Gi is an aspiring marine biologist, and hence posesses the power of Water. She can control water to do her bidding, unless of course it is (gasp!) polluted. Gi is also unsurprisingly highly knowledgeable in science, which is not so shocking in this realm of absolute, unerring stereotyping.
With their powers combined, they could summon the reliable Captain Planet, a blue-faced, green-mulleted muscular superhero.
His intentionally hazy powers mean that he can pretty much perform whatever sort of magic necessary to fit the situation. Convenient, indeed. I always sort of thought he had something going on with Gaia, too.
Captain Planet's tagline, "The Power is Yours!" emphasized a worthwhile if cheesy take on personal responsibility to global environmental issues. Things certainly got a little (read: overtly) PSA, and by a little, I mean a lot. Observe, a call against joining gangs, vandalism, graffiti, littering, and pretty much anything else you can think of:
Obviously, the intentions were good but the edutainment factor often came off as more skewed toward the educational than the entertainment. Regardless, it was entertaining, if a bit corny. In his constant reminders that the Power is indeed ours, at least we got to feel marginally powerful, albeit in an environmentally conscious, distinctly unsuperhero type of way. At least we got to hear his never-ending pollution puns. For however ignorant the Planeteers assumed us to be, they worked tirelessly with Captain Planet to clear the air for us on all things environmental.
(insert groan here)
Check it out:
Captain Planet's TV Tropes