People who grew up playing videogames are influenced by them, especially when designing games of their own. Those who played through the 1980s are reaching their professional prime, and the games they played in school are worth examining. Here we’ll take a look at what I consider to be the top ten most influential educational games from the 1980s.
The Eighties were an exciting time for video games, as graphics and computing power increased to the point where games started to become visually appealing and interactive. Educational games from that decade in particular taught teachers, parents, students, and designers things that are still influencing titles today.
Thanks to the wonders of the web, the original versions of these games are often available online, and there are discs and ports to other platforms floating around as well. Playing the original versions, while nostalgic, also helps remind us what made these games important. Some things they taught us were good (learning can be fun when presented properly). Some things, not so good (skill and drill only gets you so far, even in a game). Read on for a trip down memory lane, a discussion of each game’s significance, and some locations to try out versions for free.
1. The Oregon Trail
Released: The Oregon Trail came out in 1985 for the Apple II from Brøderbund. Earlier versions were produced by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC).
Significance: Showed us resource management could be a fun and thoughtful element within an educational video game, with a strong dollop of historical context to boot.
Commentary: First developed in the 1970s by student teacher Don Rawitsch, the game probably stretched the boundaries of good taste in some ways, perhaps making it all the more intriguing to school children. Some of the elements bordered on the scatological (“You have dysentery!”). The hunting mini-game was popular with boys, introducing video game shoot-em-ups on school computers; those were more innocent times. But teachers in the 1980s were happy to put all those Apple II and IIe computers to good use engaging students. Even better, kids actually picked up a pedagogical point or two.
A good review, and a link to the original disc image and an Apple IIe emulator are available over at classicgaming.gamespy.com. A web version requiring merely a browser plugin is available at virtualapple.org. An online version called Westward Trail is available here.
2. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
Released: The original Carmen Sandiego title also came out in 1985 for the Apple II from Brøderbund; 1985 was a good year for the company.
Significance: Showed us a boring school topic (geography) could be presented in an interesting way within the videogame medium.
Commentary: According to Wikipedia, Gary Carlston, who helped found Brøderbund, was personally committed to making geography fun and spearheaded efforts to develop the game. Indeed, almanacs were never so cool as students followed the trail of a master thief across the world. Subsequent titles focused on the United States, Europe, and even the space-time continuum. The Carmen Sandiego games were lauded for their educational content, and found their way into classrooms everywhere. For a while, The Learning Company kept up a free online version based on the TV series. Alas, those wishing to play down memory lane for free will have to check the abandoned software sites. As of this writing, the 1991 DOS version is available for download here.
Released: One of the two first games released by Maxis, in 1989.
Significance: Showed us that games without a clear way to win can still be fun, educational, and time consuming.
Commentary: The first smash hit from legendary game designer Will Wright, and one of the first for the Maxis software company, SimCity was destined for greatness. Legend has it the project was turned down by all the big gaming companies, including Brøderbund, when Wright pitched it on account of the game’s objectives were ill defined. How they must rue the day now, as the Sim line of titles has sold in the multi-million copy range for years. The game spearheaded a wide variety of complex computer social simulations featuring variable manipulations for education, business, and entertainment.
Users have long been able to play Classic SimCity online. Earlier this year, the original code was released as open source so it could be loaded on the XO, better known as the “$100 Laptop,” as part of the One Laptop Per Child initiative. The open source version uses the name Micropolis, Wright’s original name for the program.
4. Reader Rabbit
Released: The first title in the Reader Rabbit series was released by The Learning Company in 1989.
Significance: Showed us that computer games could be effectively used in early education introducing toddlers to language arts.
Commentary: Reader Rabbit is a household name in educational software, and the series remains active. Reader Rabbit became one of the early educational gaming series that capitalized on name brand awareness. Many innovators in the edutainment genre followed the Reader Rabbit formula of placing educational content for young players in a fun and interactive environment. Among the more notable: titles in the JumpStart series.
The first edition of Reader Rabbit featured word games designed to introduce letters and sounds to children. Subsequent titles rapidly increased in complexity. It’s hard to find the original online, but for those interested in sampling the look and feel of the series, Riverdeep offers a trial download of the Learning to Read with Phonics version here.
5. Math Blaster
Released: The first title in the Math Blaster series was released by Davidson in 1987.
Significance: Demonstrated how basic math worksheets could be fun when delivered within a videogaming environment.
Commentary: Math Blaster is yet another household name in edutainment with versions still being released under the brand. Brian Crecente over at Kotaku noted a version for the Nintendo DS is to be ported over later this year. One item of interest is the notion of interspersing math problems within a pure gaming environment. I remember playing a version requiring the proper answering of basic equations in order to load up on ammo for the space “blasting” game. This particular type of edutainment has been criticized as the “chocolate covered broccoli” approach to educational gaming, notably by Justin Peters in Slate among others. In other words, it couches the boring, educationally valuable stuff (math worksheets, in this case) within a fun gaming environment. In that regard, many serious game designers today often try other approaches, such as integrating pedagogy directly in the game play. Finding a free online copy to play is tough, but a 2 hour free trial of a recent version is available from DemoNews.com.
6. Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing
Released: Software Toolworks released the first version of Mavis Beacon in 1987.
Significance: Showed us computer skills could be effectively drilled through playful software.
Commentary: I was in an electronics store in College Station in the late ’80s, near the software section. A couple of elementary teachers walked in, and one of them saw the Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing box on the shelf.
“Look! It’s Mavis Beacon,” she said, a note of wonder in her voice.
The other one said, “Mavis! What are you doing now!?”
They stood and stared for a while, gushing in their praise for Ms. Beacon. After they left, I wandered over and inspected the box. On impulse, I bought it and brought it home. Someday I’ll have to write about the house I lived in while attending Texas A&M. Up to eight guys lived there at any given time; most were engineering or ag science students. We had a BBS set up on a separate phone line, and spent a lot of time on TAMU mainframes. It was a terrific introduction to educational computing, and PCs were still young back then. To show you what nerds my roommates and I were, all of us took turns on Mavis Beacon to see who could type the fastest, a competition that lasted all semester.
Alas, little did the elementary teachers from so long ago know, nor I, nor my roommates, but Mavis Beacon was a marketing nom de guerre. It turns out the picture of the smiling Mavis was that of a model, and like Betty Crocker she was a persona created to sell products. Regardless, the product was a good one, and it has helped countless people improve their typing down through the years. Version 17 of the venerable program is available for trial download here.
7. Lemonade Stand
Released: Created by Bobb Jamison from the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) in 1973; coded for the Apple II by Charlie Kellner in 1979. Copies were included with Apple computers sold throughout the Eighties.
Significance: Showed us that potentially complex and hard to understand concepts like economic theory could be simply and effectively illustrated in a video game.
Commentary: MECC was one of the great success stories of early educational computing, and Lemonade Stand is perhaps their most famous program after The Oregon Trail. A holdover from the 1970s, a version of Lemonade Stand was included with Apple II machines into the Eighties. Countless school children fired it up and were introduced to economic theory through playing the game. A web version (one among many) is available here.
The game was a “practical simulation,” combining economic theory with simple concepts kids understand (i.e., a lemonade stand). It showed that with judicious decisions, positive outcomes were possible even with variables outside the player’s control (like the weather). The concept has not died, and there are later versions like Lemonade Empire, Hot Dog Stand, and others which follow the same concept.
8. Number Munchers
Released: The DOS version was released in 1988 by MECC.
Significance: Showed basic skill and drill for math could be much more fun on a video screen than on paper.
Commentary: NumberMunchers was the first title in MECC’s muncher series, followed by WordMunchers and others. Vaguely resembling PacMan, players rushed to find correct numbers to the problem onscreen before getting “eaten” by troggles, a process which forced quick mental calculations. It continues to prove exceptionally popular, both among those remembering it from their school days to new adherents recently discovering the game. Online versions abound, but the most important one is over at numbermunchers.org. The actual game can be freely downloaded from PC Magazine here.
Released: 1980, Infocom’s first game.
Significance: Showed that interactive fiction was a compelling medium.
Commentary: To anyone who played it, the opening lines from Zork are immortal: “You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.”
Was it educational? Indirectly. The game certainly made players read and think, exercises which parents and teachers have harangued youngsters about for years. I played an early version of this game thanks to a fun loving uncle who had access to his office’s mainframe after hours. I think the game was an eye-opener as to what could be done with narrative text and programming. It inspired legions of imitators, but was quickly made obsolete by such graphical games as Wizardry and Ultima I. Infocom’s fate was tied to the ascension of graphical computing as well, as it was bought out by Activision and faded from prominence before the end of the decade. There are still versions of all games in the Zork series floating around online, and its predecessor Adventure. Java versions of Infocom titles as of this writing are available here.
10. Windows Solitaire
Released: Developed in 1989 by Microsoft intern Wes Cherry. Included in Windows 3.0 and every Windows version since 1990.
Significance: Eased the transition to a mouse-based GUI for millions of computer users. Showed us games can have an enormous impact on business computing skills.
Commentary: Before 1990, early versions of Microsoft Windows were nothing more than fancy menu systems, presenting a list of programs to choose when starting the computer. I recall reading PC Magazine when Windows 3.0 was introduced, telling us that finally here was a version of Windows worth getting, so I did. Like many others firing up Windows 3.0 the first time, I noticed the Games folder, and quickly tried out Windows Solitaire. The brilliance behind placing this game within Windows was the fact most DOS users grew up on keyboard commands and shortcuts. Despite the proliferation of menu systems, most computers booted to the C prompt, requiring a typed command to start programs. Windows 3.0 not only used the mouse, it required the mouse for navigation. After a few rounds with Windows Solitaire, even the most diehard keyboard shortcut user who had used the same key combinations since the days of WordStar, became proficient with clicking, dragging and dropping with a mouse. In some ways, Windows Solitaire became the most successful educational video game of all time.
Windows Solitaire is still available for free in Vista. The Media Center Solitaire Power Toy for XP is available from Microsoft here.
Honorable Mention: M.U.L.E.
Released: 1983 from Ozark Softscape via Electronic Arts, originally for Atari products.
Significance: Showed developers how to do multi-player action. Inspired many future programmers.
Commentary: Lazarus Long was a character developed by science fiction author Robert Heinlein as a time travelling fellow who could not, would not die. In Time Enough for Love, readers found Long on a frontier planet, where old fashioned technology was used until colonists could become self sufficient. The book provided an interesting dichotomy between space ships bringing in supplies and colonists using farm animals to settle the new world. Among the many derivative works from Heinlein’s writings (the Starship Troopers board game and movie, for instance), came M.U.L.E., an early multi-player video game. M.U.L.E. stands for Multiple Use Labor Element, and is named after the animals used in Heinlein’s book. The game focuses on supply and demand economics, and allows players to take turns exploiting resources on a recently colonized planet (the planet’s name is Irata in the game, or Atari spelled backwards).
One of the nice things about writing a blog is feedback from readers, and with any top ten list somebody may feel an important item is left out. Keri Mogret commented to suggest M.U.L.E. should be included as an influential educational game from the 1980s, and I heartily agree, resulting in the addition here of M.U.L.E. to the original top ten.
This particular game was something I’d heard about and later read about, but never had the pleasure of playing. (Yes, I read all of Heinlein’s books, but never played the games. Sorry. I did see the Starship Troopers board game at a relative’s house, ca. 1980, and looked at it but didn’t play.)
Via emulators, M.U.L.E. can be downloaded nowadays from several sources. Here’s one good site, and here’s a great fan site. Subtrade is reportedly the best clone of M.U.L.E., and by some accounts is actually better than the original game.
Honorable Mention: Rocky’s Boots
Released: 1982 by The Learning Company for various platforms; authored by Warren Robinett and Leslie Grimm.
Significance: Showed us a graphical game engine was viable for educational gaming.
Commentary: Rocky’s Boots and its sequel, Robot Odyssey (based on the same gaming engine) were puzzle games requiring players to think their way through solutions. The object of the game involved kicking different shapes off a conveyer belt for points. The concept of using computer graphics in a game designed to make children think was somewhat revolutionary at the time, and Rocky’s Boots won several awards. Here’s a quote from an abstract for a paper in 1984:
Rocky’s Boots (RB), an educational game developed for use with Apple computers, is widely considered to be one of the most imaginative and engaging pieces of educational software currently available. RB presents an introduction to the logical concepts of AND, OR, and NOT. Players incorporate these concepts into arguments which are modeled as “machines.”
Coauthor Warren Robinett keeps a page devoted to the game here, including a disc image that can be played with an Apple II emulator.