If you grew up in the ‘90s and ‘00s, I’m sure you can think of a number of games you played on the computer that were not so secretly teaching you something. Whether it was during computer lab time at school, or the games you had at home (shout-out to the cereal box games) when computers took off there was no end to games designed to help children learn. Since my computer lab days, technology has exploded, and now the opportunities for educational technology are seemingly endless. While everyone and their dog has access to technology-based learning these days, with computers literally in their hands, I hold a fair bit of nostalgia for those early games that helped me with reading, math, geography, and problem-solving, among many other skills I likely didn’t realize I was developing. When I think of my gaming habits as a child, it’s those games more than Mario or anything I had on my GameBoy that bring back a childish rush of excitement and glee. Looking back, I can see the benefit that games as learning tools have, not just when we are kids, but following us into adulthood as well. Here are a few of my favourite educational games from when I was young, paired with similar games and apps that help keep the magic and learning alive for us adults.
This is the Canadian child of my generation’s staple education game. It was challenging, fun, and made you think critically. The mini-games were more about problem-solving than doing actual math, but the puzzles were addicting and required thinking about ways math can apply in the real-world to solve challenges. If you tried to just beat the games without thinking about them, it was fairly difficult to win. I always liked the game where you had to try to get past all of the obstacles by timing your movement properly. It was all about being patient and thinking strategically.
Strategic thinking and patience are skills that obviously serve well in adulthood. Being able to calmly solve problems with reason is one of those skills that makes you sound great in a job interview, and also prevents you from flying off the handle in a difficult situation. As an adult, I can definitely say that I seek out games that involve puzzles and strategic thinking in some aspects, and it isn’t difficult to find games that require a bit of thought rather than just pointing and shooting. The new Tomb Raider games are great examples. The puzzles often take a fair bit of patience and playing around, and I often find myself pausing for a bit to observe the surroundings before I can come up with the solution. The satisfaction for me when I solve puzzles in games is incredibly rewarding now, on the same level as finding a solution to complicated real-world problems.
I had a bunch of games that were made by Living Books when I was young. For those unfamiliar, it was basically just an interactive version of children’s books. You could click on things in the background, follow along with the words, and play fun little mini-games as the story progressed. For kids who were learning to read, it was a great way to become familiar with words and learn to recognize them while understanding their meaning. It was also a fun way to experience the world of the book you were reading, and appreciate a lot of the details that might be missed when just looking at it on the page. Art was animated, objects in the illustrations could be interacted with, and characters were voiced. Arthur’s Reading Race was my favourite Living Book because I was a big Arthur fan as a kid, and I can vividly remember the little details of that book from playing through it so many times. I also had Sheila Rae the Brave, which was cool because you could read it in both English and Spanish, and it gave you translations for the words.
I don’t think I need to explain the benefits of reading comprehension or learning vocabulary, those are things we learn that become a central part of our lives. However, I would say that the experience of interacting with characters and stories we love, which was less obvious but still a big part of Living Books, is something that has become central to pop culture these days. Books we love become movies, tv shows, and even video games. We pay money to take pictures with good cosplayers, or visit film sets and theme parks decorated like the locations we recognize. We like to become a part of those worlds. We don’t want stories we love to end, and a good story makes us want to experience more of it. Look at how popular literally anything involving Harry Potter has become. If I could play a Living Books version of Harry Potter I would lose my mind. Please make Living Books Harry Potter.
I have always loved to write and tell stories. Telling stories effectively is a useful tool in life in general, not just for those who want to be writers. It helps you formulate clear thoughts in any kind of document, speech, or presentation. It also helps with creative thinking. As a kid, I was obsessed with Storybook Weaver as my way to come up with and illustrate stories. The game came out in 1994 and was basically just a studio-style game for making little books. Each page had a space to type, and a large area for illustrations, the game featured all kinds of clip art images and backgrounds that could be arranged on the page to illustrate the story. This was an easy and creative way to engage kids in storytelling.
As an adult who still lives for storytelling, it’s no surprise that I was drawn to RPGs. Role-playing games give me that same joy when I create a character and choose their path that I had positioning the elf clip art to correspond to my 200-word fantasy epic. A good RPG lets you play within a game universe, creating your own unique character and telling their story. It’s interactive storytelling at its most basic, where the framework is there and you just need to add in the details. We have so many great stories available to us now, where our imaginations can roam free. The best ones understand our need to tell our own stories, and have our choices change the outcome of the game. Mass Effect is a good example of this. I remember playing through Mass Effect 2 for the first time and literally all of my companions dying because of choices I had made in the game. That playthrough was a story with a much different ending for me than subsequent ones where I figured out how not to kill everyone I cared about.
Cross Country Canada
What’s better than a game that teaches you Canadian Geography by letting you simulate the life of a transport driver? Cross Country Canada is a weird one, for sure, but it’s probably my MOST memorable game from computer time at school. Probably because kids would try to do horrible things in it that the game obviously never allowed, like run over hitchhikers, but I also learned where a lot of major cities were located across my country. To put that in perspective, I never played any long haul trucking themed games about American geography, and still consistently forget what side of the continent Las Vegas is on.
You can still learn geography accidentally while playing all sorts of games as an adult! I confess that my time spent playing open-world fantasy games means I know more about the geography of Tamriel from the Elder Scrolls than I do the actual world I live in, but all game developers have to do for me to learn real-world geography is set compelling open-world games in them. Another of my all time favourite series’ has been doing this. I’m talking about Assassin’s Creed. Sure, it’s all set in the past, so I may not be getting the most up to date education on how London is laid out, or which Islands are currently a part of Greece, but I have Google Maps for that. What’s impressive is how well games like Assassin’s Creed are taking history and setting their video games in it. They make exploring the ancient world detailed, accurate, and exciting. As an adult, I laugh at the concept of “drive a transport across Canada”, but I get hype for “sail a boat around the Aegean Sea”.
Educational games often get a bad reputation. They were the games you played in school because there was nothing else. However, I’ve always seen the value in what they taught me, and in letting the games we play teach us something even now. We can always learn, develop new skills, or practice those skills that games helped teach us when we were young. These are only a few of the many educational games that are out there. If one played an important role in your education, let us know about it in the comments.