The next few installments of Child’s Play will be devoted to educational games of the past.
Educational games are hard row to sow. On the one hand, it’s only natural to want to combine the experience learning to operate increasingly advanced devices with games and general educational goals and on the other hand…pshhh fun in learning? Get lost. The ability to match game play with school appropriate, measurable, and obvious educational material is tricky to master especially if you want it to be a fun experience.
To some degree, this has been mitigated in recent years with touch screen devices such as the iPad and educational apps. Certainly in terms of making content that is appropriate for pre-school learners and toddlers there have been incredible advances due to intuitive touch screen technology, but this is also true in educational apps and games for children of all ages. However, back in the stone age of the late 1980s and early 1990s, nobody was even dreaming of tablet computers for toddlers–hell, even Captain Picard’s tablet computers contained single reports or encyclopedias and transmissions still used television waves rather than internet (if the static screens rather than frozen buffers are to be believed). Games of the sort that we have today were not anywhere on the radar.
Back then, PC games came in one of two forms that sound silly now: floppy disks or CD-ROMs. Silly because the ROM wasn’t necessary to add to CD and for many years floppy disks just weren’t floppy anymore. At any rate, a floppy could be corrupted by sunlight or magnets and a CD could get scratched. These were clearly a far cry from the ease of cloud based downloads–though there was no such thing as “freemium” or “downloadable content” so we had that going for us. And while games like Wolfenstein, Descent, or Doom were launched from these noble content carriers, so too were games that attempted their best to teach us ADD-destined millennial and late Gen-Xers to use computers for something other than killing fantasy beasts in imaginative landscapes. They wanted us to learn. FOR FUN.
Does that mean that they were bad? No. Not necessarily anyway. Games like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, Super Munchers, Oregon Trail, and Midnight Rescue were fantastically fun opportunities for kids to play games in school during computer time (if you were lucky enough to have such a thing) and kinda sorta be learning. These four especially, hold a particular soft spot for me, with Carmen Sandiego and Oregon Trail being somewhat a staple of thousands-if-not-millions of childhoods that occurred concurrently with my own. Let’s start there.
With Carmen Sandiego it’s a little difficult to separate the CD-ROM game from the televisions shows and books–the media giant at large. Especially not the iconic PBS gameshow and its theme music.
Carmen was a serious thang back then, and though you still find her bundled in with curriculum today, she’s no longer the criminal she used to be.
I think first we need to address that Carmen Sandiego is by design a Social Studies and Geography kind of game. Carmen was/is known for stealing landmarks, monuments, and disrupting the time stream. Why she doesn’t use whatever fantastic technology enables her to steal the Pyramids or kidnap George Washington to make legitimate millions…or how she could profit from such theft is beyond me.
Either way, you Gumshoe, have been recruited by Acme Detective service to capture this high profile, not very dangerous criminal and bring her to justice. I suppose the FBI or the Army haven’t been called in because, technically, it isn’t illegal to steal Mount Rushmore…but somebody has to retrieve it. So they’re pulling out all the stops and getting a brand new recruit with a video phone (with 3 presets!) and a notepad on the case.
In a lot of ways, Carmen Sandiego is the Riddler of elementary social studies class. She really gets off on leaving clues that make her feel smarter than her pursuer. She’s not exactly stealthy–I mean really, Carmen, is that the Washington Monument in your pocket or are you just happy to see me? So instead of hiding she just keeps moving and leaving behind all these hints. Sometimes she even calls you herself to, I dunno, taunt you.
It should be noted, at this point, that solving these clues was actually pretty damned hard back then. Sure, kids today might get stumped and look for a video walkthrough on YouTube or Google the answers, but dammit we didn’t have that. God bless us in 1995 if we had an internet connection at all, and if we did the fastest we might be going is 14k on a dial up. Then, assuming the internet wasn’t giving you a busy signal, maybe you could find the answer on the limited options available, maybe. More likely you’d end up doing an A/S/L check in Public Chat Room 435 and pretending you were a grown up 17 year old.
Oh, and for all that trouble, you’d have to turn the game off anyway. If you were really intrepid you could throw in your copy of Encarta ’95 or crack open a real book to find the answer. Long story short…you had to actually learn and think.
In that regard, Carmen Sandiego as a franchise really worked. I suppose that the ease of finding the answers has in fact amounted to the decline of the franchise. The difficulty level went out the window as soon you could just open a tab to Google and have it finish your search criteria for you.
Nonetheless, the game was fun if you could follow the clues and return the water to Niagara Falls. Which, I suppose is what led to it being so successful in other venues. The original PBS show is beloved, the FOX Kids cartoon has a cult following, and the books still might be in elementary school classrooms across the country. I know I had them in mind and the kids enjoyed the “create your own adventure” format of them.
Which brings us to the ultimate question…was Carmen Sandiego educational and was it fun? The answer to the former is certainly yes. The answer to the latter is dependent on if you were good at puzzles and riddles. You could definitely spend frustrated hours at the terminal trying to solve the mystery, and while the computer game version wasn’t as fun as playing along on the television gameshow version, it certainly was entertaining. The newer versions (such as bundled with GoMath! Elementary Math programs) is not as great, even if they are graphically much better.
Which leads us to the discussion element: what are you favorite/worst Carmen Sandiego moments? How could the franchise be made to shine again?