Until recent years when Nintendo and many of its third-party developers largely reversed this trend, educational games and video games were mostly considered to be two separate entities. Educational games were purchased by parents and pushed on kids, and in rare instances were adopted by schools and school systems to provide to their students -- video games, on the other hand, were the ones that children actually wanted to play. But it wasn't always like this -- long ago, educational games and video games weren't quite as distinct entities as they are now. Educational games resembled standard games more closely, adding an educational element rather than completely redesigning the game. More so, however, these games were often created with entertainment as much in mind as education, and provided a level of motivation to the player the educational games have never again been able to tap. The effectiveness of these games was never empirically evaluated, but just from playing it becomes pretty clear why they were so popular -- these games understood how to motivate kids to play, and how to keep the educational components of the game balanced with the gameplay elements to increase knowledge while encouraging continued engagement. Educational games released since these classic games focus far too much on the educational aspect and forget a simple truth: the game is only effective is the kid actually wants to play it. Make an entertaining game first, then inject educational elements into it. That's what these games did, and that's why they are -- in my eyes -- still among the best educational games ever released.

I'm going to cheat a little bit to start off and mention a game that wasn't really all that widely played or acclaimed when it came out, but was a personal favorite of mine in early middle school. Math for the Real World adopted an accessible and entertaining gameplay scenario of following a new rock band on their goal of traveling the country on tour, making music videos and getting famous. Like most other games on this list, there were two elements that made Math for the Real World an effective teaching tool: first of all, the game was fun in and of itself. A major problem with some games that attempt to be educational is that they force the player to use math (or other subjects) for completely non-mathematical tasks -- like typing letters to kill spaceships. Such games might be somewhat useful in teaching their concepts, but their lack of context severely limits the absorption of the material. In Math for the Real World, the math is just that -- for the real world. The mathematical problems that are solved involve working out the cost of different food items, calculating how much gas can be purchased, and figuring out how much money was earned. The problems presented are real problems that would face this fictitious band. More importantly, the game leaves math out of the parts where its inclusion would be too contrived -- the game features modes for playing concerts and making music videos, and neither have a contrived mathematical element.

Let's not mince words here: Mario is Missing was pretty awful, and that's an understatement. Take a look at its GameFAQs page: a 2.6 rating for the SNES version and a 3.2 for the NES one. Pretty terrible, and justifiably so: Mario is Missing was a platformer-educational game cross-over that somehow managed to ruin each genre. As a platformer, it was nearly unplayable -- your character is basically invulnerable, the bosses and enemies are completely recycled, and overall the platformer element of the game is excessively repetitive. As an educational game, the game is strictly about facts -- get pamphlets, read the facts, then answer the questions from the game correctly. No more effective than reading a darn textbook. So why am I including this game here? Mario is Missing is mentioned here not because of its inherent quality, but because of what it represents: an attempt by the game makers of the world (well, Nintendo anyway) to take their popular franchises and allow them to make a practical difference to the player. Sure, Super Mario Bros. may have increased one's ability to mash buttons on a controller at exactly the right time, but that's not a life skill that will take you very far. Education, however, theoretically has practical applications outside of the gaming world, and the interest expressed here by Nintendo in providing entertaining games that actually give the player more substantial, useful takeaways is notable. Too bad they sucked at it -- this time at least. And, well, every time after that. Mario hasn't really had a good educational game ever, but it's the thought that counts, right?

You might be wondering why this item is listed so low on this list. After all, Oregon Trail was for a long time the quintessential educational game -- the reason it is so nostalgic compared to its competitors is its widespread adoption in many school systems, allowing students to play long before home PCs became standard. Oregon Trail also had other features that made it perfectly suited to a classroom environment: it allowed players to be a bit social with the game, inputting their friends' names as characters and giggle uncontrollably at their best friend dying of a snake bite or at "forgetting" to buy any clothes; it provided a short enough game session that students could effectively take turns; and its amount of interaction was limited such that three or four students could sit around one computer and all play together without really taking 'turns' at anything except hunting. Oregon Trail was also substantially ahead of its time when released -- its first version debuted in 1974, long before most other home games even thought about entering the market, although the version we recognize was released in 1985. So why do I rank this game so low on this list? Quite frankly, Oregon Trail was a very fun game that did require a bit more thinking than most video games, but did it really teach us anything? Its intention was to teach students what life was like on the Oregon Trail, but if you ask a student whose knowledge of the trail is based on the game, odds are all you're hear is that the entire population of the state of Oregon was at one point killed by a massive epidemic of dysentery.

Throughout the 1980s, MECC was largely the champion of educational PC games. That all changed in 1986 when a fairly young company, aptly named The Learning Company (who would go on to buy MECC a few years later), released the first of what would become the three most popular educational game series of the early video game age. The first among these, aimed toward very young audiences, was the Reader Rabbit series. Reader Rabbit would go on to have 12 games in the series, focusing on different grade levels and subjects. While the age of real context-relevant educational games will come later on this list, Reader Rabbit was notable because it did make an attempt at situating the player in pseudo-realistic environments for the subject matter. For example, for spelling tasks, the player was in a newspaper position where spell checking is a real task. More importantly, though, was Reader Rabbit's role in becoming the first truly popular, truly educational (sorry, Oregon Trail) game series to see widespread usage and acceptance. It also spawned a popular spiritual successor: the ClueFinders series, taking the game's theory and objectives to an older audience. But the most important role for Reader Rabbit is in jump-starting the role of The Learning Company in the industry, starting a string of dominance that would run for ten years.

Following the critical success of Reader Rabbit, The Learning Company decided to aim for an older audience. ClueFinders, the Reader Rabbit spiritual spin-off, was still several years away, but 1989 saw the release of the Super Solvers series with its first game, Midnight Rescue. Later re-released under several other titles, Super Solvers brought a crucial new element to the educational game genre: up until now, most educational games were very short, quick exercises. Reader Rabbit, for example, was comprised mostly of short exercises that could be completed in a matter of minutes. Super Solvers partially retained this functionality in order to keep the appeal to audiences looking for a shorter-term exercised, but also introduced long-term development. Each game gave the player a certain number of points which were added to an ongoing, persisted tally, giving players incentive to player the game over and over, saving their progress and returning later. This also allowed the game to provide some crucial steps forward in difficulty, increasing the game's usefulness beyond a simple effort to help the student master a single concept. It's difficult to mention Midnight Rescue without also mentioning Super Solvers: OutNumbered!: the latter game was built on the same engine as Midnight Rescue (decently hidden, but fairly obvious after a few rounds of both games), and together the two provided excellent reading and math training to an older audience than that targeted by Reader Rabbit.

The Learning Company's third poplar series in a row was a partial spin-off of the Super Solvers series; it featured the same main character and same main enemy, but the environment was shifted entirely to a more fantastical environment, centering around a magical mountain and elves. Truth be told, Treasure Mountain alone was not an incredible improvement in the series -- like Super Solvers, it featured more long-term incentive, and mixed word and math problems well to provide a more balanced purpose, but beyond these elements it did not represent any major advancements. The recognition to Treasure Mountain goes instead to the series as a whole that it spawned -- the Treasure Mountain series would go on to include three other games: Treasure Mathstorm, Treasure Cove and Treasure Galaxy. The series' second installment, Treasure Mathstorm, was built on the same engine as the first, but the latter two games introduced entire new engines, environments and objectives. Treasure Cove took place underwater, equipping the player with a flashlight to gather clues; Treasure Galaxy was set, predictably, in outer space. The latter two games are especially notable because they focused on uniquely specific but still important topics: Treasure Cove focused on logical thinking and problem solving, largely outside the realm of a specific subject, while Treasure Galaxy focused on niche mathematical topics like units of measurement, time and calendars. Together, the four form one of the most popular educational series ever -- but the most important role of both the Super Solvers and Treasure Mountain! series was laying the path for -- in my opinion -- the best educational game of all time.

MECC and its future owner, The Learning Company, weren't the only educational video game companies to find success in the 1990s -- in fact, another company was arguably even more successful: Davidson. While they didn't possess the breadth of popular series that The Learning Company did, Davidson was responsible for arguably the most popular series of the time. Starting with the original game Math Blaster (released in 1987), Davidson's "Blaster" series would go on to consist of over 40 separately-released games, under familiar titles like "Math Blaster", "Reading Blaster", "Alge Blaster" and "Word Blaster". In its core (original) version, Math Blaster consists of four primary game modes, and like an earlier game on this list (Math for the Real World), Math Blaster's real strength comes in its balance between educational aspects and game aspects. The educational aspects of the game are enjoyable and fast-paced to the point of not being a "necessary evil", but the game avoids a tempting pitfall by not incorporating an educational element into some of the more game-esque portions of the game, like a classic firing portion. What's even more interesting about the Blaster series is its longevity -- the series has remained relevant for almost 25 years. Many of its more popular games have been graphically-updated re-releases of older games, showing the durability of the simple game concepts. The series has also begun to incorporate vastly different genres and settings as well, such as the horror-puzzle-mystery game Math Blaster Mystery: The Great Brain Robbery.

If you ask what the first educational video game was, you'll get several different answers. Some people point to Math Blaster or Oregon Trail -- to me, though, it's Lemonade Stand. Originally created for in-house usage by Bob Jamison of MECC, it was ported to the Apple II in February of 1979 for commercial distribution. Lemonade Stand does exist on the periphery of educational games in terms of content -- unlike the popular series mentioned above, the game does not focus on math or reading but rather economics. However, the remarkable accuracy with which the game models and teaches very basic economic and business principles lead to many recognizing it as an actual educational game -- the first one, at that. For its time, the game was actually surprisingly graphically innovative -- the pictures were static, but in 1979, just having pictures was a step in the right direction. But what's most notable about Lemonade Stand -- besides being arguably the first educational game -- is the accurate model of an actual Lemonade Stand it presented. It included enough factors to be interesting -- like weather, advertising, time of day, ingredient prices, sale prices, etc. -- without getting overcomplicated, and was flexible enough to take a while to solve and find a great strategy. Most importantly, the lessons it taught were applicable to the real world -- raising and lowering prices with supply and demand, responding to environmental factors, and predicting customers to avoid making too much or too little inventory. Lemonade Stand went on to spawn several early remakes, and could be considered the spiritual inspiration for the whole 'tycoon' genre.

There was in the 1980s yet one more popular company responsible for educational games: Brøderbund. Later purchased by The Learning Company, Brøderbund was founded in 1980 in (for some bizarre reason) Eugene, Oregon, and is responsible for one wildly popular educational game series: Carmen Sandiego. Originally released in 1985, the Carmen Sandiego series would go on to consist of sixteen games as well as several canceled projects. As a series, Carmen Sandiego did compete with the previous games in terms of audience, and at times tapped into a much older audience as well. But what makes this series rank so high on this list is how incredibly well-situated the learning elements of the game were in the overall environment. We've talked in this list about how some games' education elements are created solely to be educational, and don't fit into the game very well. We've all seen this -- games where you have to solve math problems to open doors or type words to destroy ships. The education here is obvious, but the learning does not fit the environment very realistically. Carmen Sandiego was different. In Carmen Sandiego, you're tasked with tracking down thieves stealing huge national landmarks (and the Dallas Cowboys playbook). You do so by bouncing from city to city, looking for clues as to who the thief was and where they were going. Here's the kicker, though: the conversations that lead you around are actually believable. You'll be in a place and talk to someone who comments on the person's hair color and says they were talking about "Taking in a race at the most famous track in the world" -- and it isn't hard at all to imagine the person noticing and overhearing such information. The game goes to great lengths to be believable (outside the whole 'they stole the Statue of Liberty' thing) and the effect is obvious: the player is well-situated in the game and learns very real, applicable information. The game's only drawback is that the information garnered boils down to discrete facts about the locations you visit.

Before I write this section, I should mention why I'm writing this list. At present, I'm getting my Ph.D., specializing in educational technology, with a notable focus on educational games. This is what I do. And this game is, to a large extent, why I do it. I played Operation Neptune as a child, and it basically introduced me to the idea that games can teach and still be fun. Released briefly under the Super Solvers series name, Operation Neptune was the best The Learning Company had to offer -- the game has everything you can ask for from an educational game. First of all, its game element is more than entertaining enough to keep the play engrossed, and to a large extent is actually the focal point of the game -- the vast majority of gameplay time is spent not solving problems, but exploring undersea zones and gathering debris from a crashed space probe. Unlike almost every other game on this list, the game also has a stronger underlying plot, told largely retrospectively through capsules the player finds throughout the game. But on a list of educational games, the game's educational value must come first, and it is truly astounding. The game features an incredibly wide range of educational topics and challenges, remaining relevant from first grade all the way into high school geometry, covering everything from basic arithmetic to chart interpretation to number bases to basic physics to unit conversions to geometrical calculations to-- heck, if you want a list of all the topics it covers, just read the Solving Problems section of my guide -- but suffice to say the number of topics is truly astounding. But all that pales in importance compared to one key detail: as we've mentioned before, the best educational games situate their lessons very well in the gameplay. The player has to actually believe that solving the problem would help their game persona progress, and here Operation Neptune passes with flying colors. Every single problem presented is a believable issue that a submarine captain would face, from ballast modifications to food storage to internal temperature modifications. What's more, these problems are even at times presented at relevant portions of the journey. For example, when you're passing through a narrow cavern, the game will present you with a question about modifying your velocity to ensure no damage comes to the submarine. After places where a collision with the wall is very plausible, the game presents you with questions regarding a crack in the sub's hull. The problems are so well-situated that I, at times, had to stop and try to figure out how the heck it knew what was going on. It's that effective, and the result is total immersion to the player. The player actually feels like they really are captaining and steering a sub on a recovery mission, and thus the lessons are really taken to heart. Between using educational elements only in fitting places, providing a great gameplay experience separate from the learning experience, and presenting truly believable problems, Operation Neptune is in a league of its own for educational games. Get it? League? It's a game about a submarine? ... ...

As I mentioned on my previous list, "Events where Gaming Impacted the Real World", gaming is seeing an increasingly renewed role in education. We haven't yet reached the point where games are penetrating schools again, but we do see substantial academic research into the possibilities that might be there. The broad and fairly young field of Interactive Narrative -- which I affectionately called gaming's academically legitimized brother -- plays a large role in this trend, seeking to situate players in game-like environments where real lessons can be learned. Through the power of games, players can take the roles of chemists, newspaper editors, archaeologists, economists, geologists, detectives -- any number of real-world professions. The lessons learned are therefore situated in the environment that they're actually applicable to, not presented in some vacuum like traditional classrooms. It's been shown on numerous occasions that learning is more durable when situated, and the field -- Situated Learning -- has become so popular in academic circles that it has spawned its own cohesive research environment, complete with its own journals and conferences. These types of simulations typically differ from gaming in that they trade gameplay elements for purely situated learning, appealing to students' natural curiosity rather than their knack for games, but the spirit of the field remains comparable to the earliest educational games. As we've seen on this list, the most effective games -- like Carmen Sandiego and Operation Neptune -- are games that do take situated learning to heart, even before the term had been coined and adopted. The future holds great potential for the further use of these simulations and games in education, and the problem with always remain encouraging schools and teachers to adopt these new methods -- so if you become a school teacher and are approached by a Georgia Tech graduate student asking to test some new software in your classroom, say yes! You could be providing the testing grounds for the next great leap forward in educational technology.


List by DDJ
(09/01/2009)

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