August's Topic

Can a video game teach? This month asks the personal question: What have you learned from a video game? The goal is to focus on the positive, the socially responsible lessons, and to show that, at least sometimes, a video game is more than just "a video game".

It's very easy for me to unequivocally announce that I've learned a great deal from video games. Most obviously I've studied video games for years with an eye to building them, but even ignoring that and trivia picked up from game-like encyclopedias and trivia games, there is a wealth of knowledge that I've picked up from decades of game playing... To a large extent, I would not be the person that I am if it weren't for video games and the lessons they had to teach me.

My Parents Were Ahead of Their Time

It was the early 90s and my father had decided to give up his executive position for the chance to invest in his own business. He searched the trade journals looking for a franchise to invest in and eventually he settled upon the idea of franchising an LA-based business called Futurekids. What's left of the franchisees have diversified, adding in more consulting-oriented services, selling curriculum to schools and helping non-profit community centers, but my father started where most franchisees started: Computer learning centers for kids.

As I said, my parents were ahead of their time: They put several years of sweat and tears into a business solely predicated on teaching through computers; everything from teaching basic familiarity to necessary computer skills to even teaching through computer games. My parents realized that you can teach interesting concepts simply through the "fun" of video games, and Futurekids' curriculum encouraged it often through more of a "summer camp" mentality rather than a class. My parents never made enough money with their franchise operation and eventually they had to close their modest two learning centers. Perhaps it was always doomed to failure, [1] but my parents tried their best and put a lot of work into it.

I guess that I'm the person that came out with some of the biggest gains from the business attempt. I was curriculum guinea pig and contingent IT staff and my after school care when my parents were busy and I wasn't doing something to help: I was given just about free reign to play on any of the many machines around me, most of which I knew intimately what software was installed and ready to play, because I had helped install it in late night floppy-disk chains...

I Survived the Edutainment Boom of the 90s

Because of my parents and the focus of their business, I grew up surrounded by just about every major edutainment, a portmanteau of education and entertainment, title on the market. I experienced an amazing history of games as both teaching tools and entertainment, simultaneously.

It seems obvious to me that my parents weren't the only ones ahead of their time, spending money on computer games: the years that my parents worked on Futurekids roughly coincided with the big Edutainment boom where a diverse range of developers and publishers leapt entirely over this round table question of "Do games teach?" to land squarely with the assertion that "Games should teach."

In the era of the Williams' Sierra it was "obvious" that a well-rounded games publisher needed a solid foundation of edutainment titles in their line-up. I can't help but think that we've lost something major when publishers stopped asking new and upcoming developers to cut their teeth on fun games for kids, with an educational twist, and instead started focusing on movie and television licenses as the starter kits for young development houses.

If there is a genre that is truly dead right now on the marketplace it seems obvious that "edutainment" is it, and walking through a software aisle still sometimes pains me to see what's left of the "education" titles. Sometimes it still seems like the equivalent of walking into a bookstore and seeing only a graffitied shell were once stood the Children's Literature section, a war-torn reminder of the changing tides of business.

A good example of what we seem to have lost, something equally ahead of its time, were the "eco-games" of edutainment. Riding the 90s push for recycling these games came before the modern Inconvenient Truth green movement, but I don't see any modern equivalents. Easily dated by its use of a very early text-to-speech synthesizer, Eco-Saurus had kids recycling and conserving energy in order to help a friendly space dinosaur get back home. EcoQuest tried to push kids to discover the wonder, the grandeur, and ultimately the inter-dependence and fragility of our ecosystem using some of the best elements of the adventure game genre, openly encouraging exploration and curiosity and learning. You certainly don't see such "liberal propaganda" on today's game store shelves...

Particularly emblematic to me of the entire genre of edutainment is the Dr. Brain franchise. [2]

The first two games, The Castle of Dr. Brain and The Island of Dr. Brain, were set up as tests, an ordered series of puzzles focused on logic and math, with a pervading sense of fun and an atmosphere of the bizarre meets the arcane. Dr. Brain himself, who teased you to complete his puzzles so that you might be proven a worthy assistant, spun the classic "mad scientist" stereotype and made it cool. Who doesn't want a castle full of wonders and a personal island full of amazement? As a young boy I was excited every time that I managed to beat the next of Dr. Brain's puzzles, getting closer to earning his esteem. His puzzles served as my first introduction to things as diverse as the Tower of Hanoi problem to simple programming and logic gates. More than any other influence, I think the first two Dr. Brain games very much cemented my interest in programming, showing how much of the basic skills I had already internalized and helping me to internalize those basic skills I had yet to master.

You will still find Dr. Brain titles on the shelves, but the disparity with the first two is palpable. I shouldn't have to explain the disappointment I felt with The Lost Mind and I haven't bothered to try later games, the boxes tell me all I need to know in how far the games are from the ones that I spent so many hours mastering. The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain traded the sequence of increasingly difficult logic puzzles for an unordered set of mini-games. The Lost Mind traded all of the atmosphere and most of the plot, what little there was, of The Castle and The Island for a mediocre excuse for mini-games and a worse excuse for mini-game grinding. It was fun, but it wasn't the driving test that the previous games had been. After a while it got set down and forgotten. But it was easier to build and even easier to continue to "franchise", even if it failed to learn any of the lessons of what made the first two games fun. Eventually Dr. Brain was given a make-over as a "hipper" young guy and the franchise entirely lost the mad scientist appeal and aesthetic...

That's most of what you see left on the store shelves where educational games are: franchises. What's left are cookie-cutter clones of proven recipes with proven characters. Edutainment is a dead art form, and educational games a shameful shell of what once filled the shelves. If game developers have failed to learn the lessons of gaming history and fail to remember and value the classics of gaming, game developers should feel especially damned for forgetting the land of edutainment.

Even given the irony of ignoring lessons from games about teaching, it's easy to see that edutainment was always a bastard step-child of games development, even in the "good old days", but there was money there and it was a place for a good developer to make some cash until the next original project to work on. Having cut his teeth on Dr. Brain, lead developer Corey Cole went on to create Sierra's seminal Quest for Glory series. Perhaps the greatest of edutainment developers, seminal edutainment developer MECC, began as a pseudo-agency of the State of Minnesota, and maybe that's the sign that edutainment wasn't sustainable. MECC's later owners tried to capitalize on MECC's early success but were largely unable to recreate the fun of the originals in attempting to better franchise the company's products.

It might be interesting to create a list of "The Classics of Edutainment" and introduce them to today's developers. In lieu of a formal list I'd be happy to suggest the aforementioned titles as interesting starting points. I'm inclined to replay them myself.

[1]

At the time, my parents had a hard time convincing people that computers had a lot of necessary skills to learn, that in the future their kids might have to use a computer every day and that jobs and the rest of the "real world" would even require that familiarity and those skills. Even those that might have some idea of how ubiquitous computing devices were becomming sometimes had a hard time understanding why the kid's school might not be teaching them everything they need to know or introducing them to the vast realm of wonders that is computing...

Towards the end, and today they would experience it even more, my parents had to fight with the very ubiquity they had assumed... "Why should I take my kid to your center? Can't they just learn this stuff themselves on our computer at home?"

[2]It's probably also emblematic of my relationship with adventure games. I love just about the entire catalog of SCUMM games, but of the adventures built with Sierra's SCI engine my stand-out favorites are all "kid's games".

For further enlightenment: