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Educational Video Games: From the Classics We Love to the Newest on the Market
By
Volume 45, Number 6 - November/December 2021

While parents and educators agree that technology in the classroom is a necessity, they disagree as to the educational value of video games. At one point, classroom use of reel-to-reel films on screens and overhead projectors was considered cutting-edge technology. In the early 1990s, my class would go once a week to the computer lab for “computer time.” Technology in the classroom meant graphing calculators and VHS videos. Those computer lab visits were the highlight of my week. I have plenty of vivid memories of attempting to get my wagon train across the country and to the end of The Oregon Trail. But that was not the only computer game we loved to play. Mario Teaches Typing and Wrath of the Gods (which I believe single-handedly sparked my interest in ancient Greek history) were very much a part of the curriculum in school for their “educational value.” 

Video games hold a controversial space in education. While some games are deemed “educational,” many question their overall educational vs. entertainment value. Many individuals still view video games as a hobby, even though there have been studies that prove otherwise. This column examines a bit of educational game history and research, famous educational games, and the hottest educational games of 2021. 

Video Ho! Educational Games Take Off

While there were some educational games created in the 1960s and 1970s (Logo and Lemonade Stand), these games were aimed at very specific topics and userbases, such as business training or learning a specific computer programming language. One of the first educational video games with widespread implementation and use was The Oregon Trail. Its players attempt to transport their American settlers across the country, facing obstacles just like pioneers did hundreds of years ago. Players complete the game by eventually arriving alive in Oregon (“A Quick History of Educational Video Games,” May 8, 2017;  gamerpros.co/education-and-video-games). This game’s impact is still felt today through popular culture references and its continued classroom use. 

While they are similar, educational games differ from entertainment video games. The sole purpose of entertainment video games is having fun; educating the player is not the primary focus. Educational games provide training and learning value to the player. These games challenge the player to solve puzzles or build cities or theme parks. They often cover certain areas of study, such as physics or history, and could even serve as a gateway to computer programing or game design (“Gaming to Learn,” April, 2015;  www.apa.org/monitor/2015/04/gaming). 

In educational games, players are enjoying themselves, but they are also completing learning objectives in the process as well as acquiring cooperation and teamwork skills by interacting with their classmates and fellow players. This new type of video game, dubbed “edutainment,” exploded in the 1980s and 1990s and was focused on school-age children. As these games developed more throughout the early 2000s, video game companies began to branch out and develop educational software/learning games for adults. The popular Brain Ageis a series of minigames designed to improve players’ mental processes, helping adults stay cognitively sharp as they get older (Brain Age: Concentration Training 2021; nintendo.com/games/detail/brain-age-concentration-training-3ds).

The Great Debates

While edutainment has saturated the market since the 1980s, the benefits of games in the classroom are still up for debate. Research performed in the last 20 years has been disjointed and has not been comprehensive enough to truly evaluate the potential/impact of educational games on learning. There is not enough data to even validate The Oregon Trail, which was modeled after the popular action-adventure video-game genre. Some argue that the educational value of the game was lost in the shadow of the entertainment components, a point that is addressed in the previously cited article, “A Quick History of Educational Video Games.”

There have been studies and questions about the effectiveness of adult cognitive game players as well. Even if there are some minor measured successes, there simply has not been enough testing in the right areas of research to truly understand the effects and potential upsides these brain games have on their users (“Does Brain Training Actually Work?” Sept. 24, 2020; scientificamerican.com/article/does-brain-training-actually-work).

Games On!

As we move into a new era of online learning, and technology use increases in education, additional research into the value of educational games will become extremely useful. This technology helped teachers and students continue learning throughout the pandemic. Here are some interesting educational games and technology that have been available in 2021.

In recent years, educational gaming has grown to other formats, including website games, applications, and even electronic toys. These educational games often have whole websites and supplementary resources available to players to enhance the overall learning experience. Created in 1999 by Dr. Avraham Kadar, BrainPOP is an online learning resource for students (grades K–12) and covers subjects such as social studies, health, math, and engineering and technology. Since this is a supplemental support resource, players watch short movies that have activities or complete assessments using games that are related to core subjects they are learning about in school. BrainPOP is even accessible via mobile devices (About BrainPOP; about.brainpop.com). This technology also encourages group work and creativity through its interactive assessment activities. It is also an educational game recommended for home school students or as a tool to help students fight the “summer slump” in between grades (“How to Beat Summer Learning Loss and Find Success in Summer Learning Online,” Aug. 7, 2021; zdnet.com/article/how-to-beat-summer-learning-loss-and-find-success-in-summer-learning-online).

Another hot educational game in 2021 has been the Khan Academy Kids Android app. This app was designed specifically for children 2 to 8 years of age to cultivate enthusiasm for learning and to promote the enhancement of basic educational skills through minigames. Khan Academy Kids is an entirely free application with no hidden fees (Khan Academy Kids;  learn.khanacademy.org/khan-academy-kids). While not designed to support a specific set of curriculum or subjects, these minigames are straightforward and fun and improve children’s core skills such as reading comprehension and logic and expression (“19 Best Educational Games for Kids in 2021,” March 30, 2020; codakid.com/educational-games-for-kids). There are also often printable resources to go along with minigames, as well as the Preschool Circle Time YouTube channel, where you can also access interactive learning game videos (youtube.com/channel/UCOTYXAQ0g5cKdr1mFJRPy2g). 

Code-a-pillar is an electronic toy designed to help younger kids develop basic coding skills. The Code-a-pillar caterpillar has different sections of its body, including its head, numbered and that light up in a different color. These sections detach and reattach in different orders. Depending on the order of the body sections, players program the Code-a-pillar to do certain tasks. One order of sections makes the Code-a-pillar move side to side; another combination makes it wiggle all around the room. Players know that their combination was a success once the entire Code-a-pillar lights up and begins to perform the task (“Code-a-Pillar Coding Caterpillar-A Review,” Sept. 6, 2016;   techagekids.com/2016/09/code-pillar-coding-caterpillar-review.html). 

While Roblox was not designed to be an educational video game, it falls in an in-between category because of its structure and game objectives. It is an online game, which means players interact with other players from all around the world. Players can design and build their own games for the Roblox online community or play the games designed by others, which are available on the online platform. Roblox improves coding skills for children as well as introduces them to teamwork and problem solving. The game is extremely popular with kids, and while it is entertaining, they are learning valuable future coding and collaborative skills. A free version is available for users, and there are options to buy virtual upgrades (Roblox; corp.roblox.com). 

Oldies But Goodies

We cannot finish up without taking a look back at the classics. It is from these games that “edutainment” emerged and developed into the genre that gaming and technology is today. The first classic game that deserves another shout out is The Oregon Trail. For many, this is the first and most memorable educational game they played in school. The game was released in 1971 and developed by three Minnesota student teachers: Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger. This game has remained consistently available ever since—even in the present day via mobile and online versions. The object of the game is for players to follow the historic route settlers traveled during the Westward expansion from Missouri to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Before players leave, they choose how to outfit their wagon trains with food, medical supplies, etc. Players battle the elements, deal with sick travelers, and even broken wagon wheels, just like the historical settlers who ventured out West (The Oregon Trail;  worldvideogamehalloffame.org/games/oregon-trail). Since it is one of the first educational games that emerged before computers were a part of the average American home, it is also credited with introducing many students to computers.

Another classic is the Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? franchise. The first PC game was released in 1985, and it went on to have 16 different versions for players to enjoy. Players are members of the ACME detective agency tasked to hunt down V.I.L.E., an international group of thieves led by the infamous Carmen Sandiego. Players travel around the world tracking V.I.L.E. by collecting clues and, in the process, learn about geography and history and improve reading comprehension skills (Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?; worldvideogamehalloffame.org/games/where-world-carmen-sandiego). Each time a player captures a member of V.I.L.E., he or she is promoted. Once they reach the top level, players get a chance to catch Carmen Sandiego herself. The game was extremely popular and eventually led to a successful TV show that aired original episodes from 1991 to 1995. The franchise has sold more than 4 million copies as of 2021. 

More Potential or Potentially More

While they have been part of curriculums around the world since the 1980s, the potential of educational games has still not been fully realized. As the field of education moves toward utilizing technology more and more, research into finally understanding the true benefits of educational games is extremely justified. In the meantime, there are many players out there, both young and old, who believe they are building skills and who are also developing positive attitudes about learning new concepts. 

Sometimes technology’s impact is more than what can be measured through learning improvement. It is more abstract, like sparking curiosity in a new subject or making fun memories with classmates. Educational games created fond memories for many adults during their K–12 school years, when life were simple and computer lab day at the school was the best day ever. These games are also responsible for providing fun and alternative learning experiences for an entirely new generation of school kids during a challenging year of online instruction and pandemic lockdowns.


Carly Lamphere is reference librarian for Crowell Public Library. She has already made a post-holiday shopping spree list from all the savings she anticipates this season using her shopping apps! 

 

Comments? Email the editor-in-chief: marydee@xmission.com

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