Friday, November 7, 2014


Educational video games have been around since the early days of home computing.  Some of the most well known titles are the history focused Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego series.  However, I think it's important to stress that a game doesn't need to be labeled "educational" to facilitate learning.  Minecraft is now part of the Swedish elementary school system curriculum as an introduction to architectural design.  Similarly, I've always felt that Lemonade Stand is a good way to teach children the basics of economics.  Early entries in the Simcity series were also a great way to illustrate the importance of city planning.  For me educational games go back even further.  On the Atari 2600 Artillery Duel was my first real exposure to applied physics.  Sid Meyer's Pirates! taught me a lot about the geopolitical situation of that time and place.  More recently NASA has endorsed Kerbal Space Program as a tool for understanding the rudimentary ideas behind aerospace engineering.  All of this is wonderful stuff, in my opinion, but what about the fundamentals?

In the USA the foundation for all higher education centers on what is referred to as "The Three Rs".  More specifically; Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic.  Yes, I know only one of those actually starts with an "R".  It's supposed to be a joke about how even educators can't know what...never mind.  Regarding reading, it's pretty much a given that any game featuring text will advance that particular skill.  Pure arithmetic, on the other hand, is so abstracted from any tangible aspect of reality it's difficult to have math in a video game without shifting the area of study to one of the other sciences.  So having addressed both of those "R"s all we're left with is writing.

Text parser video games are one way to learn typing and spelling skills, but what about grammar (or what is the probably the most interesting part of English literature coursework, creative writing)?  Up until just recently I would have said making an educational game about this sort of thing is impossible, but now that Elegy for a Dead World has been successfully funded on Kickstarter I'm having second thoughts.  The premise of this creative writing edu-game is to tell the story of one of three extinguished civilizations.  Each is unique in that the concept, or seed (to borrow a term from Minecraft), is derived from real life poetry penned by long-dead authors.  Players take the role of an interstellar traveler exploring ruined landscapes and committing to words the circumstances in which each world came to its ultimate end.  Evocative text prompts and inspiring on-screen visuals are provided in places to help spark the spacesuit-wearing writer's creativity.  Once the player has finished they can view the entire record like a kind of mini visual novel.  Of course this can be shared online with peers which should produce some interesting interpretations of each world's demise.  Granted, a lot of attempts will result in banal tales filled with more typos that what you find in these weekly blog posts (hard to believe, I know).  That's alright though because mistakes are how English is learned and ultimately mastered.  So while I'm not expecting any modern day Shakespeares, I think whatever players write, it will be better for them than if they write nothing at all.  

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