I babysat a four-year-old recently. He beat my ass at a video game. Quite spectacularly. And I’ve never experienced that. After the umpteenth time he took my controller and showed me what to bloody well do with it, he walked away and said “I’m kind of a genius“. That was an unexpected bit of humour to soften the blow of my modernity-based panic attack.
It’s not exactly news that computer technology is rapidly advancing, and as a result kids are technologically competent from much younger ages. Two year olds can use iPads these days, and that’s fucking awesome, but I’ll readily admit that I’m still scared. However, I have no reason to be. I have no time for parents who do not fully embrace technology as educational tools for their kids (and yes, they do exist). But all means feel free to limit computer time, a kid still has to read a book once in a while and taste the fresh air. But if kids do not have enough time around educational computer software, they won’t have all the tools to succeed later in life.
Most jobs I have had would not have been achieved if I hadn’t started using computers educationally from a young age. Most jobs these days require computer literacy if not proficiency, but when my kids are grown up that term is going to have a whole new meaning. My kids are going to experience the best in educational software, just as I did growing up.
This led me to look back on my younger years and remember what I have learned from computer games, as there are many things I know for a fact I would not have learned without these games. So here is my top 10.
Grandma’s Garden taught me the basics
This was the very first computer game I ever played. Back when we only had a couple of computers at school. At least I think it was Grandma’s Garden, all I really remember was something about a wizard and a potion, but I’m pretty sure this is it. Grandma’s Garden is literally the first memory of a computer I have, and I used to play it at school before my entire class got their own laptops (yes) and we installed this bad boy on each of ’em:
SkiFree taught me the meaning of fear
Fine, so this was more of a life lesson, one that I would have picked up elsewhere in the end. But it also helped with my dexterity and concentration. But really it was all about that heart-stopping moment when that beast appeared and just gobbled you up. You didn’t have a chance in hell against that one.
Barbie Story Maker taught me to edit
Given that I have had actual jobs in video editing, this is highly relevant to me, though it may not be for everyone. Story Maker wasn’t exactly branded as educational software, but it was the game that sparked my interest in editing; which turned into a creative yet ultimately abandoned career path. Still a great time though, and a really good game. Fuck me, it was sparkly.
Carmen Sandiego taught me history trivia I never learned at school
Marco Polo, Yuri Gagarin, Johannes Gutenberg. What do these historic figures have in common? Answer: they are all people who I would not have heard about if it hadn’t been for one game: Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time. I bloody loved that game, and I wish I had more of the Carmen Sandiego games. It was one of the first games I played with decent late-nineties graphics, it had video integration and a simple (but oh so good) point-and-click gameplay. And I feel like I learned most of my history from it. Well, that and the Horrible History books. Not joking though, I do not remember ever hearing about Marco Polo and the silk road at school. Nor Yuri Gagarin, Gutenberg, Queen Hatshepsut or in fact the vast majority of historical figures featured in the game. And some of them are fucking important to know about.
The interactive Hunchback of Notre Dame taught me about unhappy endings
Readers of this blog should know how obsessed I am about fairy tales and how traumatised I was when I discovered that The Little Mermaid did not end happily ever after. It really felt like a rite of passage, reaching that moment of realization that life is not a Disney movie, and sometimes things end badly.
I discovered the original ending to The Little Mermaid when I was 10, but I was reading the interactive story book of The Hunchback of Notre Dame well before that. I had a few interactive story books: Hunchback, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Each was comprised of a shortened version of the novel and a whole bunch of mini games. Peter Pan was by far the best and I still miss it terribly.
Let me note, these were not the Disney interactive story books, and when it came to The Hunchback of Notre Dame…
I don’t remember feeling hugely shocked, maybe I just repressed it all, but the ending to the interactive book was vastly different from my beloved Disney version yet I didn’t have the same reaction as I did to The Little Mermaid. Maybe it was because I identified with Ariel so much. But for whatever reason, learning that Esmeralda dies in the end didn’t shock me, but it did stick with me. (The game makers left out the part about Quasimodo curling up inside Esmeralda’s grave and dying of starvation.)
Rafiki taught me how to touch type
I know that my parents bought me a lot of educational computer games, but I was SO IN LOVE with Timon and Pumbaa’s Typing Adventures I have no idea why they couldn’t upgrade me from the demo, I really don’t. I swear Rafiki is the reason I am touch typing this right now. I’m sure Timon and Pumbaa helped, but I literally only remember the part with Rafiki (fucking demo). Short of actually firing up an emulator and reliving the gameplay, I cannot adequately tell you how great this program is. But give it to your six-year-old and they will learn to touch type. Honest.
The Magic School Bus taught me more about the ocean than David Attenborough
I am obsessed with the sea. I’m a Pisces, born on a tiny island, learned to swim when I was two, trained as a life guard, I love water okay. Which is probably why I played The Magic School Bus Explores the Ocean for something like six years. It was such a massive game though. It was so concise I don’t think I ever found out everything you could do with it. It had everything about the sea, minus your standard killer whales eating other whales and the fabulous mating ritials of deep sea fish.
I learned so much from this game: all about the tides, waves, fish, whales, plankton, terrifying angler fish, fucking kelp, everything. I learned that there is such a thing as a sea cucumber. I learned that a baby whale is called a calf. I learned that putting a sea shell to your ear does not allow you to hear the ocean but in fact your blood pumping in your ear. That last one was like finding out the truth about Father Christmas, believe it or not.
Not only that, the program was littered with special little mini-games, both educational and fun. Aaaaah 🙂
Jump Start First Grade taught me fractions
My dad tutored me in maths for years and years. He’s a chartered accountant and I’m still a mathmatical disappointment to him. He is the reason I learned how to divide big numbers (just long enough for me to pass a test or two then forget the whole thing), and remember some of my times tables. But for however long he tried to get me to learn fractions, I only remember getting it when this game came to town. That’s not even the embarrassing part. The embarassing part is that it wasn’t even my game, it was my brother’s game. Who is almost five years younger than me.
I really don’t care though, it was immense. You had so much to do in this game, and even though the subjects were varied, I tended to drift more to the maths ones despite my pure maths hatred. Maybe it was because of the joy I felt from finally understanding fractions and money. Maybe it was because all the maths activities took place in the pixelated cafeteria with pictures of oddly enticing food. Maybe it was because the literature activities were fucking racist.
The Cluefinders 3rd Grade Adventures helped me navigate through french school
I hated this game. Why? Because I had the French version. There was a good reason for this: my family had recently moved to France and I was charged with the task of continuing my education while adapting to a new culture & learning their language. Hence the ONE, SINGLE computer game my parents bought me to try and help. Very out of character.
It took me months to finish this game. Of course it did, I couldn’t understand anything for about five of those months. But I did finally finish it, and looking back I think it did help me continue my education that was right for my age range, while helping me learn French. I can’t remember much about what I learned from ClueFinders, but I’ll never forget that the French word for “beetle” is “scarabée”. I spent half a lifetime on that game talking about fucking scarabées.
Zoombinis taught me logic & problem solving
Zoombinis gets the top spot because of course it does. It was the absolute best in educational software, while still remaining entertaining as hell. I would still be trying to get an emulator working on this business if it hadn’t been recently announced that Zoombinis is coming back. Zoombinis was addictive. And seriously hard once you started progressing. But that was the great thing about it: of all the dozens of educational games I have played, I don’t think a single one apart from Zoombinis actually incorperated the competitive gameplay. Because you wanted to succeed so badly, because you wanted to get all the zoombinis to Zoombiniton and build a thriving blue metropolis, you kept coming back for more. You kept coming back to learn more logic and improve that brain! It’s bloody genius. And it taught us two of the absolute more valuable skills: logic and problem solving. I may be biased, but that’s better than advanced maths any day.
What were your favourite educational games growing up and what did they teach you?