The very, very first video game I ever played was something my parents got my siblings and I when we got our first home PC sometime in the mid-nineties. Gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you what that game was called, but I could tell you it was sort of like a digital toybox, where you could click on random stuff to watch them do funny things and make strange noises. It wasn’t much of a game, but I was obsessed with it. So obsessed that my parents got me other random interactive junk just like it, programs where there was no plot, no real gameplay, just goofing off in front of a screen. Ate that stuff up.
It was probably my mild obsession with sitting in front of the computer that prompted my parents to invest in two of my first actual “video games”: Math Blasters 9-12, and Spelling Jungle. Educational games.
I wouldn’t get properly call myself a “gamer” until I was around eight and I got a N64 for Christmas, but these first games were probably what actually got me on track to playing games the way I do now. Games that were both fun, but also, educational. The often-ignored “Edutainment” genre.
If you haven’t played them, lemmie give you the run-down: Spelling Jungle was a simple game where you played a dude in a kinda-racist mask. You were put on a small map full of hazards: ranging from pits, dangerous animals, water, lava, falling rocks and more, with the goal of collecting the letters spread across the map. If you ran into a hazard or picked up the wrong letter at the wrong time, you were dead. If you were able to pick up the letters in the right order to spell a word correctly (spoken aloud by your bald, super-chill narrator) you could move on to the next level. You would also occasionally have to play a mini-game where you rapid-fire spelled words shot out by the narrator in order to paddle up-stream.
Not sure how they got the cheats at the bottom there. Didn’t have those when I played.
There’s a lot I don’t remember about this game, largely because I was never very good at it. I could only get a few levels in before the spelling stumped me, or the map became too difficult for me to beat. But I do recall that my mother was also sort of hooked on the game, and she would often make an attempt at beating it herself. One of my most vivid memories in my childhood was watching her beat the last level, reach the gag ending, and laugh so hard the noise filled the whole house.
Math Blasters, on the other hand, is part of an ongoing series, but the only one I played was the 1996 version of the 9-12 game, which meant my parents were severely overestimating my actual math skills because I wasn't quite that old when I first slid the CD in. In the game, you play three idiots who crash-landed on a planet because they were too busy dancing to notice they were on a collision course. To escape, they have to complete a series of math-themed mini-games for the planets monkey inhabitants to appease the terrible monkey king.
Glorious 90's cinematic. It also really likes that dude’s green butt, which is a nice change of pace as far as I’m concerned.
The games, of course, combined a bit of skill with a bit of math. One had you building a bridge using a certain number of pieces labeled by fractions. Another had you bouncing on platforms labeled with numbers while avoiding evil flying apes with bananas on their heads. Yet another had you throwing bananas at monkeys labeled with numbers, trying to insert them into math equations to get correct answers. My favorite was having you solve puzzles and navigate a maze by swapping between the three main characters to take advantage of their “personal skills” (one can touch a button, another can reach levers, ect) to open doors and reach gems. But there were lots of other games you could play, most of them with a math bend, and a lot of them that would still probably stump me if I were to play them again, with how bad I am with math.
But the point, for me at least, was never that they were educational. I guess a part of me always knew they were supposed to be teaching me stuff: but what I always cared about more was that they were fun. Scary, sometimes, because a lot of those monkeys looked kind of messed up, but mostly fun to play. That was a pretty active time of my life so I wouldn’t say I spent all day in front of it, but an hour or two a day, at least, were put into one of these games.
Which, as I said, possibly put me on the path to getting into gaming more seriously. Probably not what my parents were hoping for, and they would In fact lament my gaming habits for a time (before I showed I wasn’t completely crippled by them), but still, it’s where it all began.
That’s sort of why it breaks my heart to see that modern education games are all such… crap. I mean, I don’t mean to say that Math Blasters and Word Safari weren’t trash: looking at them objectively, even at the time, they were pretty terrible games. But they were good enough for me, and it’s not too much to want better for the next-generation of would-be gamers/students... especially since they will have the experience they need to know a crappy game when they see it, which I sorely lacked.
There are some good ones, of course. The Education Mode in the new Assassin’s Creed game was a really cool addition, and the kind of thing I’d like to see more games do when they decide to make overtly historical games. Minecraft, too, has an educational mode that’s designed to teach some basic stuff and offer kids a level of creative expression they might not normally get. And I know that a lot of companies use Extra Credits and similar content creators to fund historic content that can be released concurrently with their games. And a lot of times games will have detailed encyclopedias that can educate, but you know, those just aren’t the same. Not by a long shot.
Even those typing-based games, the rail shooters where you take down your enemies by typing accurately at them, isn’t quite the same. Because while that’s technically an educational thing, it’s very limited. It’s not an “entertaining education game”, it’s a “game with an education mode”. And it doesn’t so much teach you how to type faster as much as it makes typing faster fun/more stressful.
What all these games are missing, of course, is the fun, the gamification of the actual educational elements. In some respects, it’s hard to fault them for that: the 90’s were a sort of “golden age” for education, where parents could still more-or-less control what their children did online and might actually know more than they did. It was also a time when game development was comparatively cheap, and not as big as it is today: meaning that what little old me saw as a cool game would appear as terribly unpolished to the modern young brat. And educational games just don’t have the money to give games the kind of polish they need to impress more tech-savvy kiddos.
That’s not to say the bridge can’t be gapped: it just means that current education game studios will have to play smarter, not harder. That means shifting platforms from the PC to mobile spheres, where expectations are lower, development is cheaper, and the target audience actually plays. That means not just making a game that uses math or history knowledge as the baseline, but developing it with more player choice and options to allow people from all skill levels to play, and to incentivize improvement over mere memorization. And of course, that means making it simple enough at its core that the trimmings of bigger games can be left behind in favor of something a bit more “pick up and play”.
It might not create the same memories that I had, of sitting in front of a computer and wasting the evening hours plugging away mindlessly at numbers, only kind of trying to solve each one, but it might create something a little bit better. And what kind of generation doesn’t wish that for the next one to come along?
In any case. In researching this article I found out that the Math Blasters had a kind of reboot, and now their mascot is some creepy CGI kid who has the unique distinction of being the only human left alive who can do math. Which, if you think about it, is about a dystopian a prospect as you could possibly imagine. By that point the whole world would have to be run by machines, or we’re basically in the simple addition version of Mad Max.
It’s weird when your childhood icons grow up, sometimes.