It began with Pac-Man. Kind of.

Pac-Man is by no means the first educational video game. Heck it isn’t even an educational video game. But in the wake of the unbridled success of Pac-Man, Educators started to view video games in a different light. Before this point, most educators thought video games were distractions or even harmful. After Pac-Man the education community began to wonder if they could harness the power of video games as an educational tool.

The first real educational game was Logo Programming. Turtle Academy released Logo Programming in 1967 with the intent of teaching people how to program using the LOGO programming language. It also happened to serve as a tool to learn mathematical concepts.

The next educational game didn’t arrive until 1973. Lemonade Stand was created as a business simulation game and taught players basic economics. In 1979, they made an Apple II port of the game. Oregon Trail quickly followed in 1982. I doubt there isn’t a child of the 80s or 90s who has at least heard of it. Oregon Trail has arguably had the biggest impact on educational games. The number of educational video games increased exponentially after its massive success. Games like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, Reader Rabbit, and Number Munchers were finding themselves in children’s classrooms and homes around the world.

Many of these early video games were released on home computers. They mostly focused on a singular broad subject. Additionally, a lot of these games tried to take advantage of the action and adventure genres. Simulation games gained popularity later on. High fidelity simulators, like pilot simulators, attempted to be as accurate as possible. These simulators were more often geared towards teaching adults new skills instead of children. Low fidelity simulators, like SimCity, were more simplistic and often marketed towards kids.

The late 80’s and the 90’s saw an explosion of educational games. Companies like Scholastic and The Learning Company were pushing out entire series dedicated to “edutainment.” Grade specific games like The ClueFinders and Reader Rabbit were quickly gaining in popularity. However, children remained the primary demographic.

Nowadays, major companies like Nintendo and Sony are creating educational games geared to both kids and adults. Games like Brain Age, Little Big Planet, and Minecraft are incredibly popular. But the number of subjects that modern educational games explore isn’t just limited to math, science, and history. Art, music, literature, typing, problem solving, and more all have homes among edutainment. What’s more, these games span a variety of different platforms including consoles, PC (both browser, download, and CD), iPad, tablet, and handheld devices.

It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows for these educational games. The effect “edutainment” games have on children is not well documented. There is not enough research that shows they help kids learn better than the traditional methods. Many of these games, especially during the 90s boon, weren’t very good. Others, like Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? failed to meet their desired outcomes. Oregon Trail was supposed to teach children about the Oregon Trail and Manifest Destiny. But the developers were so focused on the little details and simulating the circumstances that they completely missed the whole point of the game.

According to Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer (E-Learning and the Science of Instruction), there are four common pitfalls that educational games can stumble into. Sometimes the difficulty level is too high. Most people wouldn’t be able to even play, much less finish these games. Other games try to teach more than one subject and become too cluttered. These games offer too much information at once and the lessons they attempt to teach become buried. Some games have the opposite problem and don’t teach enough. Finally, Clark and Mayer believed that the act of discovery in games often prevents kids from retaining anything they might have learned.

Educational games have their good and bad points. Some people remember these games fondly and others… not so much. They started off simple and just like the rest of the video game industry, they have grown and evolved overtime. But the power these games offer might make all the difference in the world.