Remembering Educational Computer Games

For a long time, my family’s computer was in the middle of the living room.

As soon as you opened the door to our house and turned one sharp corner, you were looking right at the screen. This central placement was on purpose.

The Internet was a brand new toy and cases of pedophiles meeting kids on the Internet were just starting to become prevalent. My mom, prone to over-exaggeration, was sure every person I IMed was going to convince me to meet them at a Motel 6. I was about 9 years old.

My parents were just being cautious, but in fact, there wasn’t really much for me to do online yet. In 1997, there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Tumblr — all social networking sites where I have unfortunately seen 9 year olds these days.

Back then, there was AOL Instant Messenger where I mostly just talked to my friend Melissa, and there was Slingo, an online bingo game with an added chat function so the players could interact with each other. Most of the Slingo chat conversations had nothing to do with the actual game, and a lot to do with the good ol’ “a/s/l?” pick up line. My response was almost never the truth: “9/f/my parent’s house.”

Until I was about 13, I mostly used the computer to play educational video games. Tons of them.

The gaming started in my school’s computer class. My private elementary school had a whole room full of thick, gray monitors: the kind that went blue with white robot text when they stopped working. The room was a narrow sliver off to the side of the library and we all sat in tiny chairs back to back, facing our screens.

Our teacher was tall with frizzy brown hair and a face only a principal could love. He also had no computer science background whatsoever. That was a persistent problem at my small, religious school: no one ever had to answer to anyone else regarding hiring decisions. A lot of my teachers were less “qualified to teach,” and more “somebody’s nephew who needed a job.”

This guy clearly wasn’t going to be a resource and so my grade relied heavily on how good I was at computer games.

The most popular game in the class was Oregon Trail, a history bonanza that simulated the experience of a 19th century pioneer settler. You were responsible for your digital group’s welfare, getting food through hunting and making the tough decisions when someone fell ill. It was also supposed to teach kids responsibility and consideration.

It did not.

When it came to naming the six people in my Oregon Trail wagon, it was always me, my crush, three of my best friends and some girl that was bullying me. Then, I would squeal with delight when she inevitably got bit by a snake or developed cholera. On her epitaph, I’d write something like, “Here lies a stupid-head. She sucked.”

Though she sat three feet from me, living to noogie another day, it gave me some satisfaction to know that, at least in one universe, she had dysentery so bad she’d pooped herself to death.

The best part about Oregon Trail was the hunting, something I think college sophomores try to recreate today through the bar game Big Buck Hunter. You could bring much-needed meat back to your wagon by controlling a little rifle target and shooting bison, rabbits and deer in the face.

You know, typical kid stuff.

The other game we played at school was Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. Mavis Beacon is a fictional 30-something Afro-Caribbean (I looked up her exact race) woman whose job was to promote literacy. I was always a little unnerved by her dead-eyed, unmoving smile. It seemed to denote some sort of psychosis, maybe what lead to her obsession with proper typing.

The game’s title seemed so strict: Mavis Beacon will teach you typing. You have no choice. It’s like she was saying, “Put your see-through ghost hands on those keys in the ASDF row and use your thumbs to press the space key or I will come after you in your sleep. Don’t even think about hunting and pecking because Mavis Beacon will hunt and peck you.”

The best part about Mavis Beacon was the game room, which included car racing, avoiding sharks, and training a wayward chameleon. My favorite was called “Penguin Crossing,” wherein the pace of your tiny fingers was responsible for the lives of a bunch of adorable penguins. In a way, it was also a game about survival of the fittest: Adapt to typing fast or these endangered penguins will die.

(PS: I’m really sorry, Mavis Beacon, but it still feels super unnatural for me to type the way you taught, even though I spent so long under your fictional tutelage. Hunt and peck ‘til I die.)

Because of the prevalence of these games at school, my parents got me a bunch more to play at home. There was Storybook Weaver, Math Blaster, Reader Rabbit, Word Munchers and Number Munchers. They all came in huge, rectangular packages from The Learning Company and were played on the PC in my living room. Some were even floppy disks.

My favorite of these games was called OutNumbered! I played that game so often that I am ashamed to admit I had to Google “educational video game 90s detective” just now to remember what it was called.

OutNumbered! was supposed to teach math and computing skills. The absurd main character was a detective in a blue jacket, yellow shorts and face-obscuring red hat and huge magnifying glass.

His job was to stop the Master of Mischief from taking over a radio and TV station before midnight by solving math puzzles and fighting an evil TV robot. I’ve never seen HBO’s The Wire, but I’m going to assume the plot is just like OutNumbered!

To me, the interesting connection between these games, besides their educational value, is that they were all single player.

Nine-year-olds today would be confused by the isolation of sitting at a computer just to play a game. If OutNumbered! existed in 2011, it would have to include some kind of GChat function, you’d have to use Twitter to log in to it and you’d be encouraged to post your scores to Facebook.

My Mavis Beacon words-per-minute was for no one but myself.

And now, I’m cool going to the movies alone, or reading quietly by myself on a Friday night, or perusing articles on the computer. I make my living online, through the isolated art of writing and blogging. Being alone doesn’t make me feel insecure. It’s comfortable. The kids, like me, who grew up on these games learned math and reading, sure, but they also learned an important skill: how to entertain themselves — alone.

It’s something I’m sure most of us are still pretty good at doing. TC mark

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  • macgyver51

    Oregon Trail 101-Be a banker and buy your way across the plans. Everyone dies but you just get a new wife and kids when you get there. Also, the toll road is for wusses, raft the damn river.

  • Sophia

    oh my gosh, nostalgia overload. :)
    i loved oregon trail so much. and i definitely did the same thing when the person i hated died. yup.

  • http://twitter.com/mung_beans Mung Beans

    Used to get so stressed out during the grocery store game on Mavis Beacon.  I still totally suck at typing numbers.  

    I had a friend who was only allowed educational computer/video games so no Doom or Commander Keen (boo) but they had all the versions of Carmen Sandiego with the game atlases and Gizmos and Gadgets, which ruled and taught me about kinetic energy.  

    • Oliver Miller

      I was stunned to learn from this column that Mavis Beacon is not a real person.  As a kid, I always wondered who she was, and assumed that she was the WORLD’S GREATEST TYPIST and lived in a castle where she would type messages to her servants at 300wpm.

      Also, I had the even older version of “Oregon Trail” where you typed “bang” as fast as you could in order to hunt things.  Sucked. 

      • Anonymous

        The WORLD’S GREATEST TYPIST: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Itz2ghPDiEY

  • http://twitter.com/mung_beans Mung Beans

    Used to get so stressed out during the grocery store game on Mavis Beacon.  I still totally suck at typing numbers.  

    I had a friend who was only allowed educational computer/video games so no Doom or Commander Keen (boo) but they had all the versions of Carmen Sandiego with the game atlases and Gizmos and Gadgets, which ruled and taught me about kinetic energy.  

  • MP9090909

    AHHH MAVIS BEACON. My computer teacher called my house to tell my parents how I was behind everyone in class. They bought me the game. It creeped me out. I then download AOL Instant Messenger and learned to type fast. HAH.

  • http://thefirstchurchofmutterhals.blogspot.com/ mutterhals

    Yaaaaaassss Oregon Trail!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    There is a detective game that taught me what ‘modus operandi’ is. 

  • http://twitter.com/mung_beans Mung Beans

    Anyone play Hugo’s House of Horrors?  I didn’t beat it until I was a teenager because I didn’t know the word ‘bung’ where you were supposed to type ‘pick up bung’

    • K.

      YES. Damn Hugo. 

      Also yes to Commander Keen.

      Anyone for Treasure Mountain? Crystal Caves? Chip’s Challenge?

      NOSTALGIA!

      • http://twitter.com/mung_beans Mung Beans

        Dude, the hedge maze on Hugo was hard as hell.  I cheated.

  • http://www.oneyearintexas.com Perfect Circles

    You still hunt and peck?  Shameful.  Mavis would be rolling over in her grave if her body wasn’t lost at sea.

  • Chrissy

    How about all the Sierra games? Mixed up mother goose was a personal favorite. King’s quest series. Leisure suit Larry. Police quest. Had to type in commands to direct the characters. They all looked like they were created in Paint (so pixilated). Now those were the good ones.

    • http://fazed-girl.blogspot.com Samantha

      I was like 5 and it was so inappropriate, but my cousins and I played TONS of Leisure Suit Larry. And King’s Quest, Woodruff and Schnibble, and Space Quest. And Sam and Max. AND DAY OF THE TENTACLE! Well, most of those were a little later so they had point and click actions.

  • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

    Great article Gaby. And it’s true; I’m realizing that my own Internet-infused youth led to a lot of time alone; with games, with DOS (don’t judge me), with varying computer games that involved green and orange dinosaurs that came on the huge old floppies. You know, back when that was a thing.

    Maybe that’s why I don’t want to link my FB to my Twitter, and any game that can connect from an Xbox/PS3/whatever to the internet strikes me as a bit too much. I mean, I live in New York. I’m surrounded at all times–sometimes a girl just wants to do her dumb nerd shit without any screaming from the peanut gallery.

  • http://twitter.com/tannnyaya Tanya Salyers

    I still play Oregon Trail on my phone!!!

  • https://twitter.com/iamthepuddles Jordana Bevan

    WHYYYYYYYYY isn’t Zoombinis on here??????????????? That was the #1 elementary school game, not any of these other ones (which is maybe why i think zoombinis is educational… skool u failed mee :(  )

    • http://fazed-girl.blogspot.com Samantha

      Pizza > all

      I bet you can still read this with the right inflection…
      “Something on that, I don’t like!”

      • https://twitter.com/iamthepuddles Jordana Bevan

        FLEEEENS? YOU’RE NOT FLEEEEEENS. MAKE ME A PIZZZZZAAAA

  • http://twitter.com/YocastaArias Yocasta Arias

    Oregon Trail made me popular

  • http://twitter.com/YocastaArias Yocasta Arias

    Oregon Trail made me popular

  • http://twitter.com/dianasalier diana salier

    MARIO TEACHES TYPING

  • http://twitter.com/spencercniemetz Spencer Niemetz

    I would use Oregon Trail to buy people by sending them screenshots of their deaths to let them know how poor they were at pioneering.

  • http://twitter.com/spencercniemetz Spencer Niemetz

    I would use Oregon Trail to buy people by sending them screenshots of their deaths to let them know how poor they were at pioneering.

  • Anonymous

    Putt Putt anyone?  

    • Guest

      PUTT PUTT WAS THE BEST.

    • danielle

      JUMPSTART 3RD GRADE WAS ILL

  • Anonymous

    Putt Putt anyone?  

  • Anonymous

    Putt Putt anyone?  

  • Alison

    Zoombinis and Type to Learn. And of course Oregon Trail. God, I remember in Type to Learn if you got to a certain point in the game you could play a kind of space race thing where things would explode if you typed the right word fast enough.

    • guest

      Loved making pizzas on Zoombinis.

  • Maggie

    Pipe Dream!

  • http://www.facebook.com/krazykenzieXD Mackenzie Rose Walsh

    I still have the “where in time is carmen sandiego” video game. And circa 1997 oregon trail. I never did get to the end… Somehow I always ended up where I started. I would still play both of these but unfortunately they are so old they don’t even install on my computer anymore lol. And I remember math blasters lol. And on an unrelated note, the original sims. and some addons for it. Can’t play that for the same reason. :(

  • http://www.facebook.com/grc15r Gregory Costa

    As much as I loved the programs on the Apple IIe in elementary/middle school, they never really sped up my typing.  Typing software in high school consisted of a 60-year-old drilling us in Microsoft Word.  “J-J-J [space] K-K-K.”  It was tedious, but it did the job, and did it well. 

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