Someone Make This: College-Based Educational Games


Math Blaster

I didn't understand division until Math Blasters

Educational games have been a part of the interactive entertainment industry for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, a vast majority of educational games were intensely boring.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?Even putting the Mario name on educational games couldn’t improve the fun. There were anomalies, some so fun that school boards debated over education versus fun. Games like Math Blasters (from what would eventually become Blizzard Entertainment) and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (from Brøderbund Software) mixed education with entertainment so well, some schools adopted and utilized them early and often, while other schools ignored them as just another video game.

However, beyond the educational games, video games have the potential to teach players something new. Puzzle games have been proven to teach players to think analytically and creatively, and simulation games have given players new ideas with resource management and economy.

Unfortunately, most education games continue to lag, maybe selling to schools but never making a commercially successful product. And for adults, the only education in a video game is a questionable encyclopedia (Dynasty Warriors or Assassin’s Creed II) or once-in-a-while riddles (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion).

Like me, college students today owe their knowledge and love of certain subjects to the games that were able to offer a new method of learning. If any audience is ready to accept a commercial educational video game, it is the college students of today, hungry to understand complex subjects, like foreign languages, accounting, or physics, and demanding of exciting gameplay mechanics.

The Old

Besides Math Blaster or Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, two games immediately come to mind for teaching while entertaining. Like dynamic teachers who incorporate games or jokes in the lecture, these games engages players while teaching specific subjects.

Oregon Trail Nicole has dysenteryThe Oregon Trail – Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC)

Originally meant to act as a history lesson for the difficulties of mid-nineteenth century pioneers, the game tasked players with leading a party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon.

The game involved three simple mechanics: Hunting, death, and scoring. Many children didn’t know what dysentery was until they died of it. While the game is still remembered for its death scenes, these simple mechanics made the game approachable for school districts across the country.

Since then, the game has been released several times, including last year’s free-to-play Facebook game, but the game has changed little since its original release.

The Fall of the House of UsherThe Fall of the House of Usher – Westwind Media

Released in the mid-nineties and largely forgotten,The Fall of the House of Usher was a literature quiz game. As it has been over ten years since I last played the game, I have forgotten much about the game. And unfortunately, so has the Internet.

The game did feature solid cut scenes with narration from the Edgar Allen Poe short story by the same name. In the game, players were tasked with navigating a maze, lighting lamps, and escaping the house before time ran out. To light the torches in the maze, players had to answer multiple-choice questions about Edgar Allen Poe, some based on his stories and the other based on his history. After lighting enough torches, the player could escape the maze, watch a final cut scene, and start over, hoping to get new questions.

The game did not make waves in the edutainment world, but when I entered high school, I knew more about Edgar Allen Poe than any of my peers, thanks to this game.

The New

Brain Age Train Your Brain time testBrain Age – Nintendo

Easily the best educational game from the past ten years is the game that exercises all parts of the players’ brain.

However, Brain Age fits the modern trend of edutainment: task over fun. The enjoyment gotten from Brain Age is based on the how the player chooses to enjoy the game. The game focuses on presenting its gameplay, but players turn it into enjoyment by improving their brains on a daily basis or by challenging friends and passing the game back and forth.

Global Conflicts: Palestine – Serious Games Interactive

Global Conflicts: Palestine interviewRemember the journalism game Global Conflicts? No? Neither do I.

The idea behind the game was to write articles for a newspaper by gaining trust from individuals, gathering quotes, and submitting the article. Beyond that, this game was made for educational uses, rather than commercial enjoyment. It came with an encyclopedia, primary sources, and a teacher’s guide.

However, as educational as it may or may not have been, without a commercial outlet, it becomes largely forgotten.

The New Educational Game

In my last semester of general studies classes, I took an introductory physics. I was intensely interested in the subject, but because the professor and text book were so dry, most of the class went over my head.

How much more enjoyable would physics have been for me if I had been given an entertaining video game with key physics concepts included.

Portal Momentum diagramThe closest a game has been to rekindle my interest in physics has been Valve’s Portal. However, without real-world formulas to verify why the mechanics are sound, it is only a game for me. On the other hand, if the game pushed Newton’s laws too heavily, I would have lost interest.

Modern edutainment games need to continue what Math Blaster started: sound academic principles presented with fluid and engaging gameplay.

In other words, Brain Age needs a Portal gun. Mario needs to go missing, and Luigi needs to wear his Stomping Boots with his Smart Hat. Math Blaster needs a sequel: Calculus Blaster.

Speaking from an economic perspective, if these games were sold in book stores at universities across the US, the publisher could bump the price as much as any other text book or study guide. A $60 game becomes a $250 game! And people would pay the money, because when else can grant money legitimately go towards a video game?

Who Should Make It

Nintendo – As most shovelware learning games already go to Nintendo consoles, it’s time for the king to reclaim his castle. Who better than Nintendo, with the largest install base on the market, could develop or publish an edutainment game geared towards adults and made for a commercial market?

Blizzard – The original makers of Math Blaster could come together and rock the edutainment world with games focusing on solid gameplay mechanics and sound educational principles. Unfortunately, as the adult world get excited to learn again, Blizzard would delay the game a month before releasing.

BioWare – After redefining the action-RPG genre, it’s time for the Good Doctors to shake up the gaming world again with something out of left field. And since BioWare is able to make multiple endings to the games with thousands of decisions affecting the final outcome of the game, dying of dysentery will be interesting over and over again.

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About Ben Davis

Ben writes for KWCR 88.1 Weber FM, Studio 76, the Signpost, and KSL.com and can be contacted on Twitter (@GameTaffyBen) or at Ben@GameTaffy.com!

Posted on February 16, 2012, in Someone Make This, Tasty Stuff and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Holy eff, that’s math blaster!

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