The Evolution of Edutainment

From Carmen Sandiego to Twine

In 1998 my elementary school had just managed to implement a computer lab which allowed for students to spend an hour a week learning how to use them. This meant everything from learning how to type with the home row, how to use a 10 key, and even things as simple as navigating a desktop and opening programs. Growing up in the Silicon Valley with a technophile father, however, allowed me the ability to have access to a family computer at home. But access to games? That was unique to school.

Oregon Trail, Math Munchers, Math Blaster, Carmen Sandiego, Putt Putt…these names are synonymous with edutainment in the 1990s. Teaching kids how to use a computer while simultaneously being fun and engaging was a difficult task taken on by game developers, but somehow they managed to pull it off. I remember being excited to go to the computer lab and clicking on multiples of three and four in Math Munchers or trying to find information about the whereabouts of Carmen Sandiego using basic knowledge of geography. The games were simplistic enough for children to play them, engaging enough to keep their interest, and educational enough for schools to purchase licenses. However, it’s now 2021 and those same games, while good for their time, don’t quite meet modern standards of what edutainment should be.

I’ve been a middle school teacher for five years. Despite having degrees in English literature, philosophy, and film, television and digital media, I’ve primarily been pigeonholed into teaching classes that have focused around STEM subjects. STEM is an acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It seems that every school district and private school in the Bay Area wants great STEM classes so that they can use it in their promotional material and advertising.

In teaching STEM classes my subjects have ranged across a wide spectrum of various courses: computer usage and building, video production, robotics, game design, website development, typing, coding, electrical engineering, digital logic, and more. In order to teach these lessons in a way that’s engaging for the students, schools often want to use tried and true methods: edutainment. Just as Oregon Trail attempted to teach kids about history in between shooting galleries of buffalo and people dying of dysentery and Carmen Sandiego tried to teach about geography and historical figures through the theft of the Strait of Gibraltar and the Statue of Liberty’s torch, modern games try to teach STEM subjects through similarly outlandish settings.

Modern games require modern trappings. When I was a child, personal computers were still a rather novel idea. Sure, we’ve had the Apple II, Lisa, Commodore 64 and more in the 80s, allowing for some rather innovative growth in personal computing. As a whole, though, the 90s introduced a time when two things were able to converge: home computers, and online connectivity to one another. Now, though? Kids are using computers with touch screens, browsing the internet, and interacting with virtual worlds through VR headsets and voice chat before ever even understanding the concept of going to school. Kids today are exposed to so much more technology than could have even been conceived in the 90s; sorry Putt Putt, but talking purple cars going to the moon ain’t gonna cut it anymore. The advancement of technology has modified what children expect in terms of their education, but it has also allowed for the means of teaching to change.

One of the first games I used to teach kids about computers was Double Fine’s Hack n’ Slash. Hack n’ Slash begins in the same vein as The Legend of Zelda; the player is in a fantasy world and has a sword that they must use to take down their enemies and defeat the evil vying for power. Almost immediately after that setup, however, the sword breaks and a USB stick is revealed to be inside. Upon swinging the now-broken sword on enemies, the player doesn’t kill them, but instead time stops and the player is able to adjust variables of the enemy AI. The direction and speed of movement, the health and strength of enemies, what items they drop, and more are all at the discretion of the player. Hack n’ Slash is a game that allows for players to understand variables and logic, use digital logic gates to solve problems, and understand the basics of it’s programming language Lua.

STEM was not always STEM; it used to be STEAM, and the current missing element is art

Sometimes, though, edutainment games can be derived from non-edutainment games. In lessons about game design, binary and hexadecimal number systems, and program usage I have used NES emulators and roms of The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. Double Fine had a video series on YouTube called “Devs Play,” wherein a developer from the team talked about the design of their video games and inspiration that went into the development of their own products. In “Dev Plays” episode four, developer Brandon Dillon shows real-time modification of the hexadecimal code in The Legend of Zelda in a manner that isolates variables in the code, which therein changes the in-game elements such as health values, damage values, items, ammo and money.

I used these same principles to teach my students how to modify the hexadecimal value in the aforementioned NES games, and even had them find and modify the pixels and sprites within the game data. In essence, the kids were learning how to create their own rom hacks and developed an in-class modding community where they shared their creations with one another and built off of each other’s ideas. These were also, in terms of STEM, lessons of computer use, technology use, logic modification and understanding…and also the missing element from the STEM acronym: art.

STEM was not always STEM. Growing up in the Silicon Valley as a child and now living in San Jose, CA as a teacher and a writer, there are aspects that I can see that have changed with the rapid growth of technology. The rise of robotics, digital media, AI, internet industries and culture, semiconductor industries, Tesla, Yahoo, Facebook, Google, Apple and every other technobubble under the sun has given drastic expectations of the children being raised in the area. Schools are expected to teach STEM subjects because of the prevalence of that knowledge transferring over to high-paying jobs in these fields. The problem, however, is that, as I stated earlier, STEM was not always STEM; it used to be STEAM, and the current missing element is art.

Games are an artistic medium. From the music to the animations, the visual design to the writing, art permeates every part of a video game. They are collections of art. Businesses like Facebook and Google hire graphic designers and writers to create newsletters, marketing material, logos, branding and cohesive visual language to become some of the largest companies in the world. Apple has their products engineered to work but also designed to be visually cohesive and stylized in a way that simultaneously says that they are expensive, they are premiere products, they are Apple. These elements are all art, and yet art isn’t considered to be nearly as important as science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Art is the outlier. And yet, despite art being the outlier, it is also the most conducive means of getting kids interested in the more “serious” subjects.

As STEM is pushed forward in the educational spheres, the means of how to teach the subjects must be broached as well. I have taught STEM classes using LEGO robotics, 3D printers, taking apart computers and putting them back together. These things are fine, and they teach some of the more physical aspects of STEM subjects, but what about the more abstract notions? That’s where edutainment comes back into play. The combination of art and STEM to make STEAM is why edutainment is so important. I said before that art is the outlier, but it is, as I have found, also the best means of introducing STEM subjects to kids. Kids love games. From Roblox to Minecraft, Henry Stickman to various .io games, there is always some kind of game that speaks to a kid out there. So I realized that if I’ve had projects where kids can design their own websites and create their own rom hacks, design their own sprites and play old games with those creations, then why can’t I teach kids how to make their own games from scratch? That’s where Twine came in.

The most important part of edutainment still exists despite the changes throughout the years: these are still games

Twine is an HTML-based game engine. That means that, for people like me who grew up on forums and passively learning HTML to make our words bold, italicized, underlined, or just various colors and sizes, is super easy to learn. It also means that it is very easy to teach when I just finished teaching kids how to use HTML to make their own WordPress websites. However, instead of being bound to the idea of a website about their interests, the kids are able to make their own stories and put their innate creativity to work for them. Plus the games that they make in Twine can easily be hosted on their websites. Edutainment has changed in that, yes, games are still being developed and played to teach people about various subjects, but also the people who are being taught can make their own games as well.

The advancement of STEM in the educational space, combined with the advancements in technology and the ease at which modern students are able to pick up on the use of technology, requires more nuanced and engaging games than the ones that I grew up with. Sure, Math Blasters and Oregon Trail could be used in the classrooms today for younger students, but we aren’t going to win over any parents by trying to introduce typing skills through Typing of the Dead. Modern games—even ones that aren’t built to be edutainment like Hack n’ Slash, Quadrilateral Cowboy, and Minecraft—can be used to teach kids various aspects of STEM subjects.

Basic coding, logic gates and problem solving are all parts of these games, and those skills transfer over from being game elements and tools to being real-world applicable skills. Even more so, the most important part of edutainment still exists despite the changes throughout the years: these are still games. They are fun, they are enjoyable, they are built to entertain. By fostering the creativity and the imaginations of children through art, games are able to teach kids as much as they entertain them. The art in STEAM is what allows for the lessons of STEM to be taught to so many.

By Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper lives in San Jose, CA and works as a teacher, writer and freelance video producer. He has been writing about video games and their intersection with society, humanity, and storytelling since 2017. More of his work can be found at Unwinnable Magazine, Gayming Magazine, Exploits!, and You can also follow him on Twitter @Folkloristics

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