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Dtoid Community Discusses: Educational games

5:00 PM on 02.18.2009 // Jesse Cortez

[Dtoid Community Discusses is stepping up today as the regular Destructoid Discusses series is taking a break for the week. Join Tactix, Conrad Zimmerman and a few other Dtoiders talk about educational games. -- CTZ]

Hey gang! Its time for another Dtoid Community Discusses! Every week, I get a panel of Destructoid community members together to discuss a topic. If this is the first one you are reading and want to check out some past topics, check out the the list found on my sidebar on my community blog page!

This week, I asked the panel to talk about educational games. I know when I was younger, there were plenty of games on computers at school with the purpose of teaching math or reading. I was curious as to what other members of the Dtoid Community thought of educational games and what games they played as children, so I gave them the following prompt:

It’s easier to learn when you are having fun. And wouldn't you know it, playing games is fun. I love nothing more than spending my Sundays at home in my jammies with a controller in my hands. I suppose that’s why there have been efforts to make educational games throughout the years, from Reader Rabbit to Brain Age. Miyamoto himself claimed that Wii Music would be a great way for children to learn music!

What do you guys think of using videogames as educational tools? Did you play any of these educational games when you were younger? What did you learn from them?

Anyway, our panel this week consists of Unangbangkay, Vlambo, Guttlesswonder, and Passionate Styos ... with a very special guest, Conrad Zimmerman! Read on to find out what they had to say!


I have no problems with devs and publishers using and promoting games as educational tools, but there's a kind of dark side that paranoid hardcore gamers like me might perceive. Sometimes folks can associate "games" too strongly with the idea that they're all toys for children, especially since the vast majority of “edu-tainment” titles are angled towards just that market. Janet Reno once railed against videogames and suggested that they teach real-world skills, and the comedians Penn and Teller worked on an unreleased Sega CD game Desert Bus, a "simulation" of the largely uneventful bus ride between Tucson and Vegas.

And then there's that other dark side, where anti-games folks would call the games we play "murder simulators" that help us "learn" to kill, steal cars, and so on. That America's Army game doesn't quite help, though having played it, it's quite useful as an informational tool, in the sense that it gives us access to information about the army that we might not have been interested in otherwise. It helps that it's a decent game to boot.


Educational games are one of the few things in this world that can make school actually fun. Before I got into this "Internet" thing, all my time spent in computer class was on educational games. Being a youngin' myself, my choice of educational computers may be larger, but there still are some pretty memorable ones. I say I have spent more time playing (and learning) from the games Reader Rabbit and The Magic School Bus than I did in my first few years of elementary school. How would a teacher keep my attention? Give me a videogame that can teach me my multiplication tables, and help me read. It obviously did something right, as I usually was the best student in class.

However, any game can teach you some pretty useless and scary knowledge. Thanks to the Call of Duty series, I can now pretty much spot a number of guns and tell you what they are. Might come in handy one day when I gotta file that police report. Sadly, most people, like Josh said above, believe games such as GTA are "murder" simulators that teach us to kill. Did it teach me to kill? FACK NO! It taught me the difference between virtual reality and reality. I know it's only a game, and playing those at such a young age helped me mature at a much faster rate and understand that.

Passionate Styos

Unlike most of you guys, I'm the one who hasn't played that many educational games, and never needed actually. I always had the "games are for having a good time, not to educate" mindset, so I always tried to avoid those kinds of games. Still, I have played some of them like the classic Oregon Trail and some obscure ones, like games that stared the Moomins and friends that taught how to do simple math problems and such. At the beginning they were quite fun, but I get bored easily and tried other games that had absolutely nothing to do with education.

To this day, I kinda have that mindset, still not completely as before. Games such as the Professor Layton and Brain Age series can add puzzle, math and other kinds of problems to be fun, addictive and give a distinct charm that can appeal to anyone. That's the kind of "educational" game that I like to see, something that can really be fun and still give you the "just one more, this is the last one, I swear!" feeling. There is one game that I remember fondly, and that's Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? For some reason, the game made you feel that you were a gumshoe that could really answer anything (where most of the time I was wrong, heh), and I think it's the only one where I learned different kind of information about the world.

The only bad thing about educational games, is that most of them really fail to entertain and ironically, to educate. I think they should stop making these games today if they can't bring these two important factors, and it's a problem that always have been in these games from the start.

We found Carmen Sandiego!


I don't think that KidPix [umm…Kid Pix OMG YES! –Tactix] could really be considered a game, but it was a very fun tool for learning about art when I was a kid. I feel like it was the predecessor to games like LittleBigPlanet, allowing you to experiment with design ideas in a fun and inviting environment. Neither is really forcing you to learn something, but they both give you the tools to express yourself in interesting ways. LittleBigPlanet does teach you about game design through examples given in the single-player portion of the game, but nothing is ever force fed.

This was actually exactly what art school was like in college. Teachers don't actually tell you what is right or wrong, they just show you examples of art to give you inspiration. Then the class shows off what they made, knowing that around 90% of it is utter crap. LittleBigPlanet is the liberal arts school of educational gaming.


In my case, I totally remember games being educational tools in my childhood. I also played Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and it taught me a lot about the world outside of my small town. I also loved playing the hell out of Mario Teaches Typing, which taught me how to type while stomping on Goombas. Concerning Oregon Trail,all that game taught me was that I love hunting for way too much meat than I can carry to the camp and what "fording a river" means. However, my FAVORITE educational game was Number Munchers. You played as the Number Muncher (Munchicus Digitus) and lived on a grid. Depending on the level, you had to move around on the grid and munch on numbers that were multiples of 5, prime numbers, etc. Going off of what Styos said, I felt that this game was very successful since it was not only useful as far as teaching math, but also really fun. I WANTED to play this game.

I think its interesting that I can recall quite a few educational games from my childhood but I cant think of any ones for kids these days. I can sort of understand why some uneducated parents are concerned with the thought of games being used for education. Times are different now, and the majority of games being published are for more mature gamers with mature themes. Either there haven’t been any popular educational games released, or I just don’t know them cause I don’t spend much time in that (very) small section of Gamestop.

Besides the obvious things to teach kids through games, like multiplication tables or Reader Rabbit style stuff, what are some things that you’ve learned from existing games? For example, I feel like Animal Crossing has taught me that I will work hard to pay off my loans, only to have "the man" force me to pay more and more money (Tom Nook is a crook).


I also remember playing Number Munchers, Carmen Sandiego, Mario Teaches Typing and Jeopardy. I think we can all agree that edu-games need to be good games first to reliably teach anything. Even educational games can be tongue-in-cheek, as with Typing of the Dead. So the challenge for some "mature" games, ones constructed to entertain rather than educate, is to be able to teach us more than how to play them, giving us skills to master the "game of life", to put it melodramatically.

As Jesse mentioned, Animal Crossing taught him about usury and the debt spiral (heh). Civilization may well have taught us about what Gandhi would do if he acquired nuclear weapons (heh). But seriously, we've seen stories about how MMOs like World of Warcraft and EVE helped bring out leadership and management practice, as well as the stories about how games have helped people practice skills needed for, say, remote surgery or robot piloting. Before playing Persona 3, I had little to no knowledge or interest in tarot cards, and I probably learned more about ballistic trajectory from Worms than from my high school physics class.

I'll munch your numbers anyday!

Passionate Styos

I ... actually learned how to cook a bit better with Cooking Mama. I'm not joking, but I'm still a lousy cooker that gets his rice burned. Besides that, the most important thing I learned from videogames as a whole is English. I started playing at a very young age, and trying to read those texts was intriguing. I started to read and get more into this language when I had English classes at school. My priority now is to become an English teacher. It's kind of ironic that people these days say that videogames are bad for you and all, but thanks to that, I actually know what I want to do as a profession.

I want to add something else about this topic. As I said before, educational games needs to be entertaining and to educate at the same time, but there is also another important factor (that I think Tactix and Vlambo said in other words) is that the player need to get the feeling that he accomplished something important. You can add all the information that you want in an edu-game, and even make it a fun one, but if the player doesn't get the sense of "I've learned something new today!", then obviously something’s wrong. Let's use Wii Music as an example; it teaches you how to use an instrument (to a certain degree ... kinda), it's mindless fun (for about 5 minutes), but you still haven't learned anything from it. That's why I don't understand from many that Wii Music is a good way to teach how to play a instrument for the kids.


In the case of Wii Music, the idea is not that the game will teach you how to play music. From what I have heard, it is educational more along the lines of music theory, by showing how different instruments work together to create the melodies in a song. I think it is a lot like an elementary school music class. None of the kids are really learning how to sing properly; instead they are being taught how to coordinate their vocals in time with the music.

On the topic learning from games that wouldn't necessarily be considered educational games, I feel that it is pretty obvious that there are things to be learned. Unfortunately not all of these things are good. Games with iron sight gunplay are actually showing people how to properly use the sight on a hand gun. I don't believe a person who has never shot a gun before would know that proper aim requires lining up both the front and rear sites, and that your target should rest on top of the sight. I am not claiming that this teaches kids how to kill people, just how to be slightly more effective with a weapon.

Conrad Zimmerman

The real advantages to videogames being used as an educational tool, as I see it, are immense. More people retain information more effectively by performing relevant tasks than by any other method, such as a lecture or a demonstration in which they do not directly participate. So the benefits of gaming in this context should be obvious.

You can take the Carmen Sandiego series as an example for two different methods of learning. The first and less effective is in the geographical and historical information that the games impart. These bits of information are, in most cases, pretty much just trivia. It is presented to you in the game, you read it and some of it might stick around (but probably not all that much).

But that's not what Carmen Sandiego is actually teaching you. What the game's true lessons consist of are critical thinking and research skills. That you had to look up the answer in a desk encyclopedia (or whatever other book it was which came packaged with it, depending on the game) meant that you had to learn how to use said book to find information. Those sorts of skills, taught almost subliminally, are both of more value and more likely to become a part of normal life because it relates to an act performed by the student.


Thats all for this week's topic! Stay tuned next week for a whole new panel and a whole new topic! As always, contact me via PM (preferred) or in the comments if you are interested in taking part in a future panel! Until next week!

Jesse Cortez,
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