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While there has been a surge in the acceptance and prevalence of game-based learning in schools over the past decade, especially in light of the success of programs like Khan Academy, playing games in the classroom is nothing new. Educational games have been a commonplace part of the K-12 experience since the beginning of the 1980s (and in some places well before that), with early titles introducing students to fundamental math, history, and problem solving concepts just as games do today. While the graphics may not have been great, the games helped to engage a generation of kids with technology and laid a solid foundation for the educational games that were to come.
Things have changed a lot since then, but one thing has remained the same: the best educational games aren’t just tools for teaching. They show kids that education can be fun and instill a love of learning that will carry on throughout their lives. Here we highlight a few of those amazing early educational games. Some are still played today, others helped to inspire later educational games, but all still bring up fond memories in the students who used them to learn and play.
- Logo Programming (1967):
Logo is perhaps a strange inclusion on a list full of games, as it is actually a programming language, but its early application in education and use as a fun way to teach programming and mathematical concepts earn it a solid place on any list of foundational computer programs in education. Students will primarily remember Logo through its use of a turtle-shaped icon, which could be moved and altered. Through inputting commands, essentially very basic programming codes, students could use the turtle to draw geometric shapes, from circles to stars to spirals. While Logo’s use peaked during the mid-1980s, it was nonetheless pivotal in the development of educational programs, teaching a generation of kids that programming wasn’t only accessible, it could also be fun.
- Lemonade Stand (1979):
Created in 1973 and brought to the Apple II platform in 1979, Lemonade Stand is one of the oldest and most popular educational games of all time. Gameplay is deceptively simple: players run a lemonade stand, choosing the amount of ingredients to buy, how to advertise, and what to price lemonade. All of these choices, as well as uncontrollable factors like weather, play into how much profit the lemonade stand turns. Despite a basic premise, the game was actually teaching players complex lessons about business and economics and was one of the earliest to use a gaming platform to do so. Lemonade Stand, and others early economics-based games like M.U.L.E., would inspire a large number of future games including Lemonade Empire, Lemonade Tycoon, Hot Dog Stand, and even the school-inappropriate-but-still-educational Dope Wars to name a few.
- Snooper Troops (1982):
Snooper Troops was one of several popular and successful educational titles released by Spinnaker Software (others included FaceMaker, Kidwriter, and The Story Machine) in the early 1980s and is comprised of two episodes: The Case of the Granite Point Ghost and The Case of the Disappearing Dolphin. Players comb the streets looking for clues, question witnesses, investigate homes while occupants are away, and use the SnoopNet computers to solve crimes. The games are fun, interesting, and boost problem solving and creative thinking skills while teaching kids how to take notes, organize information, and expand their knowledge about police work. While the series would be short-lived, the problem-solving gameplay geared towards kids would inspire many later games.
- Oregon Trail (1985):
There is perhaps no more widely played or fondly remembered educational game than Oregon Trail. Originally developed for students in Minnesota during the mid-1970s, the game didn’t hit the wider market until 1985 when it was released on the Apple II. It was an instant success and has been re-released, modified, spun-off, and updated many times since then. Gameplay itself is fairly simple, asking players to successfully lead a family of settlers along the Oregon Trail, battling swollen rivers, broken axles, and the dreaded dysentery along the way. The early graphics were pretty rudimentary, but the game was among the first to show just how engaging a game with an educational context could be (the addition of a shooting element didn’t really hurt, either).
- Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? (1985):
Game developer Gary Carlston, a founder of Broderbund, wanted to make geography fun for learners, so he spearheaded this early educational project. To say it was successful would be an understatement, as it spawned numerous sequels (players could track Carmen through the U.S., Europe, and even time) and a game show in the early 1990s. Play involved chasing down a master thief, the eponymous Carmen Sandiego, around the world and answering geography questions correctly in order to retrieve objects and foil her plans. Its success was not only in its popularity: it also proved that games were the ideal medium for making just about any educational topic, even those that didn’t usually get kids excited about, fun and engaging.
- Odell Lake (1986):
Odell Lake was an early simulation game that challenged players to take on the identity of one of six species of fish living in Odell Lake, a real lake in Oregon. The object? Keep your fish alive by avoiding predators, eating food, and exploring the lake. Smart choices would earn you points, poor ones would take them away or end the game. MECC, the developer also responsible for Oregon Trail, would later release Odell Down Under, which expanded the concept to the Great Barrier Reef. Teaching kids about ecosystems and wildlife, Odell Lake was one of the first science-focused educational games on the market.
- Reader Rabbit (1986):
Reader Rabbit is among the most influential and successful educational games of all time. Beginning with the release of the original Reader Rabbit in 1986, the game has taught scores of toddlers and young students how to read and spell through simple but fun mini-games. Over the years, The Learning Company has added many more titles to the Reader Rabbit series (branching out to math and higher grade levels), which continue to be popular educational titles in homes and schools today. Reader Rabbit was one of the first educational gaming brands to become a household name and with a new title for the Nintendo Wii announced in 2011, it remains a powerful force in the edutainment market today.
- Number Munchers (1987):
As it turns out, munching numbers is a whole lot more fun that just doing problems out of a math book, even if the educational outcome is the same. In this popular game, students must "munch" all of the numbers that fit into a specific category. A correct answer yields a fun cut-screen. An incorrect one means getting eaten by a monster (called Troggles in the game). Popular during the 1980s and ’90s, the game was another major success for the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium and would later evolve into Math Munchers in the mid-’90s, a title that’s still available today. Number Munchers was among the first to transform basic math problem solving into something students actually look forward to doing, a hallmark of many educational games today.
- Math Blaster (1987):
Just as munching added a fun element to math lessons, so did blasting. In fact, this popular concept yielded numerous later iterations, allowing students to blast everything from algebra to reading. Like Number Munchers, Math Blaster helped turn boring math exercises into something students could look forward to, helping change the educational gaming scene for the better. The Blaster series of games was incredibly successful and it’s easy to find variations on the theme today that cover a wide range of topics and grade levels.
- GeoSafari (1987):
Unlike other titles on this list, GeoSafari isn’t a video game but a standalone system for educational gaming. The system consisted of laminated cards with varying themes like history, zoology, astronomy, math, and geology and a machine into which they were loaded. Students answered questions on the card by matching up the correct answer. Variations of the system existed through the 1990s and the system was quite successful despite the high price tag. While GeoSafari is no longer made, it inspired a number of educational toys that are similar in nature, though considerably more advanced, like the LeapFrog system.
- SimCity (1989):
SimCity was the brainchild of legendary game designer Will Wright and was the first of many successful games to be released by the Maxis software company. Players take on the role of the mayor of an imaginary city (or a real one), managing the day-to-day affairs of planning, spending, and allocating resources. Natural disasters, revolting citizens, and unexpected obstacles kept the game challenging, helping players build serious problem solving skills in the process. The recipient of numerous awards, SimCity proved that games didn’t need to be winnable to be both fun and educational. Today, there are dozens of Sim titles that players can choose from and countless games inspired by the open-ended gameplay pioneered by the game.
- Scholastic’s Microzine Series (1990):
It’s hard to find information about Schoolastic’s early education series Microzine, but many will remember playing the games that it produced. Microzine was an innovative product in the educational gaming world, as it was a subscription service. Five times a year, subscribers would get four educational programs and a printed manual with ideas on how to use those programs to teach selected topics. At the time, there was nothing like it on the market, and it produced numerous educational titles, including memorable games like Myths of Olympus, Escape from Antcatraz, Quest for the Pole, and Safari. There would eventually be over 40 issues of Microzine, providing an amazing number of early educational titles to schools and young learners all over the nation.
- Treasure Mountain! (1990):
Treasure Mountain! is part of The Learning Company’s incredibly successful Super Solvers series. Gameplay is pretty simple, as players climb a mountain, answering riddles, finding clues, and collecting treasures along the way. Puzzles focus on reading, critical thinking, and math. While somewhat repetitive, the game is incredibly addictive. The structure of Treasure Mountain! is very similar to a number of educational games and platforms today, which reward students with different levels and encourage them to collect items to advance.
- Gizmos & Gadgets (1993):
Another great Super Solvers title is Gizmos & Gadgets. Using simple machines, magnets, basic electronics, and energy sources, the game deftly introduces students to fundamental concepts in physics. Players must build machines that will enable them to win races in three categories: automotive, alternative energy, and aircraft. Yet to get the parts to build these machines players must use physics and science knowledge to navigate obstacles and open doors. Gizmos & Gadgets is an outstanding educational title because it’s so entertaining and maintains such a video-game like feel that kids likely won’t even notice they’re learning, too.
One of the earliest games released by iconic game developer LucasFilm Games (now known as LucasArts), LOOM wasn’t necessarily intended to be an educational game. Yet the problem solving and musical memorization skills used to navigate the game’s protagonist Bobbin Threadbare through the fantasy world he inhabits certainly didn’t hurt developing minds to exercise. The game also boasts a rich, young adult literature-worthy plot, including a 30 minute audio drama that draws on Greek mythology to set up the game. LOOM and the many high-quality adventure games from LucasArts that would follow would set the bar for puzzle games, many of which still challenge young gamers today.
Lemmings is another seminal title that wasn’t really intended to be educational but is actually a great tool for teaching kids about planning, problem solving, and creative thinking. The first version of the now famous game was released in 1991, becoming an instant success and one of the best selling computer games of its time. To advance, players must successfully guide a group of lemmings through a danger-filled setting using selected skills that alter the landscape. It isn’t always easy, and the challenge often keeps players trying for hours to get it right. While the original came out more than 20 years ago, versions of the game were released as recently as 2010.
- The Amazon Trail (1993):
With the success of the Oregon Trail came a number of other spin-off "trail" based games, but among the best was The Amazon Trail. To play, students would choose a guide and then venture down the Amazon in a boat. To make it more challenging, players had to actually steer the boat, fish for food, photograph wildlife, and complete other tasks along the way. As a result, it’s significantly more difficult than its predecessor but also offers a much more in-depth exploration of the culture, history, and wildlife of the time than Oregon Trail.
- Museum Madness (1994):
Players navigate through Museum Madness as a high school student who is trying to save the museum from a computer virus that’s causing the displays to come to life. As they visit each exhibit, players learn new facts and information about a wide range of educational topics, including history, geology, evolution, space, and technology. They then have to use that information to solve problems and, hopefully, save the museum. The game draws inspiration from Milan Trenc’s famous book The Night at the Museum, blending literature with innovative gameplay and education.
- Ready Robot Club (1994):
Following in the footsteps of Schoolastic, Ready Robot was a monthly subscription service. Each month, lucky kids would get a disk loaded with fun games and educational content. Digital music, memory games, science experiments, space updates, math exercises, and information about historical figures would accompany each issue. The service only lasted one year, but Ready Robot was an early precursor for many of the educational websites that exist today, offering new games and content on a regular basis.
- Storybook Weaver (1994):
What kid hasn’t wanted to write his or her own book at some point? This game allowed students to do just that. Combining clip art and a text editor, youngsters could "weave" their own tales about whatever they wanted, creating their own creative illustrations and storylines. It’s not technically a game, but it was fun enough that it may well have been. Storybook Weaver was re-released in 2004, meaning many may still be able to run it on their computers today, introducing a whole new generation to this fun, language-learning creative tool.