I grew up in the 90’s and for video games the 90’s were great. SEGA and Nintendo were going at it with Sony waiting in the wings while PC gaming started to show off how cool it could be with the internet. Things were looking to be great for gamers in the 90’s, however, things weren’t the best for some gamers. Some mostly meaning myself and my younger brother. I was born in 1990 while my brother was born in 1992 and while our parents weren’t anti-gaming (thankfully especially since it was my Dad who brought home DOOM from his work buddies and let us play it), they were also very strict when it came to our video game habits. My parents didn’t want my brother and I to sit in front of the TV all day for fear our brains would turn to mush. They wanted us outside, running around or reading. Video games were the same thing. It’s totally OK to have them and play them, but you better not be playing them for the whole day. Now we didn’t get a home console until around 1998 or so but what we did have until then was our Windows 95 computer. Playing console video games was something we could only do at a friend’s house. Of course for the first few weeks when we had that PC all we had were the games we wanted, Sonic CD, DOOM, and Monday Night Football to start us off with. I was in First Grade when my parents started buying myself and my brother edutainment games.
Now for those who don’t know what edutainment games are, they are essentially just educational games where to advance you have to solve certain problems. Some of the most famous examples are Where In The World Is Carmen San Diego and Math Blasters. Two games I have played with one I loved, and one I hated for reasons. Nowadays I haven’t seen much in edutainment games or if they are still being made but that’s probably because where I’m getting my games I don’t see them. Yet in the 90’s and early 2000’s these types of games seemed to be everywhere, and there are some that are great for kids, some that are not, and some that just make you want to yell out “YIKES! Who thought this was good!?”
There are quite a few games I remember loving even though I knew I was supposed to be learning something, and a few that have truly stood the test of time. Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego were easily some of my favorites growing up. You can’t really go wrong with Oregon Trail, you had to trade, hunt, and not die from dysentery and if you made to Oregon in one piece you won. It’s still a fantastic game to play even today. Carmen San Diego made me feel like I was an actual detective hunting down the famous thief. Best part was what I was learning in class at the time actually helped me solve a few cases. These two games I mostly played in my school’s computer lab but at home I did have some that I remember fondly. Jump Start for Kids was a very basic game that came in different grade levels. I had First and Second Grade and these had all sorts of different mini games that would tackle a different subject. Of course these were simple as simple could get BUT they were very easy to understand. I also remember in Jump Start Second Grade there was a jukebox and you had to make the correct change to play certain songs. I found a way to break the system by just making change to play the banging “Science” song that was on there. Beside Jump Start what I do remember is also playing an Aladdin Math game with Robin Williams voicing the Genie and Gilbert Godfried voicing Iago. Even though math was my least favorite subject, I eventually beat the game all on my own and was one of the first games I’ve ever beaten.
Now as I grew up playing edutainment games started to feel more like a chore than something I wanted to play. Of course my parents were still strict and I had to log in some time playing edutainment games in order to play the fun ones or I wouldn’t be able to play video games at all. After Jump Start the next game I remember getting (and the last edutainment game I ever really played) was Clue Finders 4th Grade. Now here is where the edutainment games started getting iffy for me. Now every school system is different and some schools teach certain things in different grades, and these blanket games tried but they didn’t work out the way I’d hope. Now playing Clue Finders was all about solving a mystery in Egypt but you had to solve questions from a variety of different subjects to advance the story line. Now these would range from history, language arts, and of course my Achilles heel, math. It was with this game that I started to feel stupid, because some of the questions that were asked weren’t even covered in my own 4th grade class. It wasn’t just the math questions either, I had world history questions and my curriculum had us study California history instead. There were some language arts questions about grammar that had my brain hurting and when I would ask my parents for help, the response I would get would be, “Didn’t you learn this in school?” Of course they would help but it was after this my parents decided to not buy me any more Clue Finders games. I was relieved and soon after they stopped forcing my brother and I to play edutainment games in general. They would try again a few times but the games they would get us weren’t compatible with the PC we had. Of course that was the problem I had with Clue Finders, other kids may have had different issues with the game being too easy and not getting anything out of it. Of course these games could be used as a bridge to get kids to remember what they learned before they advance to the next grade, but for me they were annoying headaches that made me question my own intelligence.
So, the last game I want to mention is one that I have a very personal history with. This game not only is bad, but it was also the first time I saved up my own money for a game and bought it on my own. It also turns out to be one of the biggest wastes of money I have ever spent, and it was for a edutainment game of all things! That game is Sonic’s Schoolhouse. Yes, I saved up my own money, when I was in first/second grade, to get Sonic’s Schoolhouse. Why? Well besides the fact that I was (and still am) a huge Sonic fanboy, I wanted a new Sonic game. I already had CD and Sonic and Knuckles Collection for our PC, and I thought, “Oh, a game I don’t have yet. I want it.” Now what makes Sonic’s Schoolhouse bad? Well from what I can remember the biggest “wait what?” moment I had was when I discovered you didn’t play as Sonic. He was the teacher and you had to pick an avatar to be one of his students. The object is to just do tasks around school and complete them. What you need to DO exactly I had no idea. You would walk through a door, there would be jumping letters or numbers around, and chalkboards with a missing letter/number. Even when you completed a room there was no reward or something to tell you what to do next. You could move freely all over the school and there was only 1 mini game where you could collect rings, but that was over after you got 3-5 rings. Besides the rooms there was also a school bus where you could go on ‘field trips’ and learn about certain animals. Besides that, nothing else. This game was just Sonic in name only and even though the school had pictures of official Sonic art, that was it. No foiling Robotnik with your math skills, no helping Tails with a science experiment, just put the right thing on the board and you’re done. Yes it’s an early attempt at a edutainment game from the 90’s but I can only guess as to how many nightmares this game caused because it is not pretty to look at. Also the voice acting is, well, yikes.
Edutainment games may have gotten a bad reputation over the years, but the ones that were and are revolutionary will still remain. Oregon Trail has been remade countless times and you can even buy a handheld DOS version of the game. Heck it’s even been turned into a card game to play with your friends. Carmen San Diego currently has a show on Netflix and a novelty card game as well. Even though games like Jump Start and Math Blasters are now things of the past, we can still look back on them and thank them for being fun games, and helping us learn along the way.