Note: The following originally appeared in the November 4, 2014 edition of Our Town
Like so many forms of entertainment, video games are this kind of shared experience. Almost everyone who has been devoted to some game at some time can remember talking about it with their friends at school and swapping hot tips and tricks. Actually, school is also one of those massively shared experiences. So we might as well combine those two things. It’s time for some edutainment!
In preparing for this article, I conducted a completely unscientific survey, i.e.: I just asked, of my friends and co-workers. This encompasses people who went to school in Arizona, California, both Dakotas, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wyoming, so that covers a lot of ground, or at least a lot of the Midwest. I asked what they played in school. While there was some variety (there are a lot of educational games of varying quality out there), a few names came up over and over. Indeed, games produced by one company came up a lot. That company is the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, or MECC.
MECC produced a large number of extremely memorable games that populated our nation’s schools, including “Odell Lake,” “DinoPark Tycoon,” “The Secret Island of Doctor Quandary,” and probably any game that end with “Trail” or “Munchers.” And no kid who grew up in the 80s or 90s really had a complete childhood without “Oregon Trail” or “Number Munchers.”
“Oregon Trail” may very well be the most famous edutainment game ever made. The saga of loading up a wagon in Missouri (or Illinois if you want to do the Mormon Trail thing) and rolling across America to Oregon is one that everyone can get behind. And amazingly, it teaches about a bunch of different subjects.
You’ve got geography and history-these should be self-explanatory. You learn about medicine-turns out that choosing the “rub salt in the wound” option when someone gets hurt is a bad idea. Also you learn all about dysentery, specifically that you can die of it. You learn about making deals-later games had a pretty robust trading system. And you get to learn about cooking-did you know that if you shoot a jillion pounds of buffalo and don’t figure out a way to preserve it, like salt, it’ll go rotten? Because it will. And then you’ll probably die of dysentery. And as a shameless plug, “Oregon Trail” was developed by some guys at my alma mater, Carleton College.
While “Oregon Trail” helped pioneer the educational historical simulation genre, for those of us who needed some form of entertainment to make math palatable, there was “Number Munchers.” The premise of “Number Munchers” is pretty simple. You’re a green Muncher dude and you move across a grid where you have to eat numbers that match a certain criterion (like prime numbers). In doing so, you have to avoid the evil Troggles, who are more or less like Pac-Man ghosts except that you can’t pick up Power Pellets to make them start blinking. As you get better, the action gets faster and there are more Troggles. I’m not actually sure whether this helped my math skills, but I’ll say it did. It sure taught me the world “Troggle,” though, which I still occasionally use in place of “troglodye,” so thanks, “Number Munchers!”
But to get away from MECC, no edutainment discussion would be complete without mentioning the only series which could unseat “Oregon Trail”-the Carmen Sandiego games. In case you weren’t familiar with the series from the Swedish developer Broderbund which saw a myriad of releases and two syndicated TV shows, the premise is pretty simple.
Carmen Sandiego and her team of crooks from V.I.L.E. steals something, usually something outlandish, like the Great Wall of China or the Sun, and you have to get it back (especially if it’s the Sun; I feel losing the Sun would be bad). You collect clues and track the criminal through knowledge about geography or history or whatever. I’m going to be completely honest-I learned all the capitals in the world in second grade for the sole purpose of getting good at Carmen Sandiego. It was that big a deal. If you actually caught Carmen Sandiego, which always happened on your 45th case, that was mad street cred. I actually unintentionally stopped class in fifth grade when I caught the mastermind herself in “Where in the US is Carmen Sandiego” because I was very proud of myself and not very considerate.
It also bears mention that there is one very special, very rare edition of Carmen Sandiego that pretty much every kid in the state played. That is “Where in North Dakota is Carmen Sandiego?” Back in 1989, some teachers in the Minot Public Schools got Broderbund to release a prototype game where Carmen was stealing things in North Dakota and you had to get them back. I’m pretty sure Salem Sue got taken a lot. Anyway, as a kid in North Dakota, this was the coolest thing ever. The locations you traveled to were real places you’d seen! Sadly, no other state-specific versions of Carmen Sandiego were made, so the North Dakota version stands as this weird historical curiosity.
Edutainment games aren’t like other genres. You don’t play them solely to get good at them. Yeah, it’s cool if you’re the best in your class at a game, but they’re there to teach you and be fun. It’s a strange balance that can only work in very specific instances. But the games discussed here have achieved some level of cultural significance. We still talk about them years later. They’re a part of many a school experience, just like touch football and the joys of fractions.
Hope is a local attorney and video game enthusiast. He is so proud of all the times he’s caught Carmen Sandiego that he put it on his resume. Special thanks to the numerous people who answered my questions about what they played in school.