The History of Educational Video Gaming
If you’ve been a kid in the past thirty years, chances are you’ve played some semblance of an educational video game, whether it was required in school or you wanted to have fun at home. Since the boom of educational video games in the mid-80s, a lot has changed. With new technology comes innovation, and every year we have newer and better educational games for kids to play!
The earliest game that was used for educational purposes was a computer programming game developed in 1970 by Seymour Papert and Wally Fuerzeig called Logo. Logo blended mathematics and programming by allowing teaching players the basics of coding by directing a turtle-shaped cursor to draw lines.
Perhaps the most well-known educational game, Oregon Trail, developed by MECC, was released in 1971. Although not available at home until the first mass-produced personal computers, Oregon Trail could be found in some form at virtually every school from the 1970s until today, and it put educational gaming on the map. The goal of this game is to teach American geography and history by having the player guide a family on their way across the country during the 1800s. As was true with that time period, the trail was rife with sickness, starvation, and death. (Did you know you can play it online at Archive.org?!)
The market for educational gaming wasn’t very vast, however; only schools were able to purchase programs for kids. With the release of the Apple II personal home computer in 1977 and the Commodore 64 in 1982, the business changed drastically and now educational games could be played at home on disks.
Following the invention of the CD-ROM in 1982, an educational gaming boom occurred. With an increase in disk space for games, more and bigger games could be made. Companies sprung up left and right trying to help players learn new subjects in a fun way. One of the earlier companies, Brøderbund Software, is responsible for one of the most renown early educational games: Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, released in 1985. The game had players chasing after thieves all around the globe, and quizzing them with randomly generated geography questions. This is considered one of the first “fun” educational games. Carmen Sandiego became more than just a character, but a cultural icon, spawning numerous sequels and even a television show.
As opposed to geography, the Learning Company’s focus was to create a game that helped kids learn how to read. Released a year after Broderbund’s hit, Reader Rabbit rivaled Carmen Sandiego in popularity. By playing mini-games, students could learn about the alphabet and sentence structure from a cartoon rabbit, while having fun. Reader Rabbit has been a pillar of educational gaming throughout the years to different generations of kids. The most recent Reader Rabbit release was made in the early 2010s on the Nintendo Wii.
One of the most difficult subjects to get kids interested in is math, and Math Blaster, developed by in 1987, allowed them to get interested in it. By playing as an alien trying to find his dog by blasting equations in space, kids were able to get excited about numbers. What Carmen Sandiego and Reader Rabbit did with geography and language, Math Blaster did with mathematics, ranging from addition to algebra.
In 1991, the biggest thing to hit computing came to fruition: the Internet. Although not widely used in every home PC at the time, it greatly advanced the possibilities of gaming, and in this case, educational gaming for years to come.
There were a few educational games that were unintentionally academic that came out during the early 1990s, both before and after the creation of the Internet. SimCity and Civilization both involved planning and strategy, and are still regarded as critically acclaimed franchises today.
LucasFilm Games, which was founded by filmmaker George Lucas, had their hand in educational gaming, too. LucasFilm Games was able to appeal to kids with their use of licensed characters and brands, particularly with a 1998 Star Wars droid-building game called Star Wars: Droidworks. This game taught science through the construction of droids, and had the player-created droids complete puzzles. With branding now a factor in educational gaming, more budget could be allocated to such games, increasing their production value and popularity.
The first life-simulation educational game, Whyville, released in 1999, was able to blend education with everyday life. As one of the first very popular online educational games, Whyville has kids complete educational missions to earn in-game money, which could be used to customize their avatars. This game set the standard for both online and life-simulator educational gaming.
Nintendo consoles have had success with educational gaming over the past few years as well. With the touch screen of the Nintendo DS, Brain Age and Big Brain Academy allowed players to partake in a large variety of subjects. Depending on the cartridge, one could learn the basics of language, solve puzzles to keep their brain active throughout the day, or learn how to better their math or reading.
Probably the most important technological innovation for educational gaming of the past few years is the release of the Apple iPad. The iPad is the platform of choice for any child or parent: it’s cheaper, safer, less destructible, and more portable than any laptop, and it’s easy to install applications on. With millions of apps on the Apple App Store, kids and parents alike can find games that are fun and educational to play for next to nothing.
The undisputed modern-day goliath of gaming for kids is Mojang’s Minecraft. Released in 2011 (and later for iPad), this game also happens to be educational. Children can learn anything in Minecraft, as long as someone takes the time to develop a custom map for it. Parents host classroom-style servers where children can learn school subjects and play with others their age. This sandbox game can be anything that the player wants it to be, which makes it so appealing to kids and parents alike.
Educational gaming has changed a lot over the past 30+ years. From the 8-bit survival game Oregon Trail to the voxel-based building game Minecraft, educational gaming continues to follow the trends of technology and innovation by trying to create the perfect blend of learning and fun.