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Gaming for education

EdTech is not new. In its current form with a focus on computers, it has been around since at least the 1980s.

Some of my earliest memories are of playing on the computer with my dad in the late 80s. He had an Apple IIc, one of the first personal computers with those giant 5.25 inch floppy discs. You know, the kind that actually flopped.

We had a handful of games on those giant floppies; The Manhole and Barbie PC Fashion Design and Color were my favorites. A few years later, I remember sitting for hours and exploring the fantastical world of Myst with my dad. As I grew up, we continued to play games on computers, and my love for computers continued to grow.

Maybe it’s just nostalgia talking, but some of the best computer games are from the 90s.

Even back then, there was a big focus on education in computer games. In elementary school, we used to have computer class once a week. My class would gleefully prance down the hall to the school’s one computer lab chatting about what games we would get to play that day. Would it be Reader Rabbit or Lemonade Stand? Or maybe we’d be lucky enough to get to play Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? or The Oregon Trail!

The Incredible Machine
The Incredible Machine, by Sierra On-Line Inc.

I went to year-round school back when year-round school was extremely rare. There weren’t many track out programs besides the ones at the YMCA, so for variety my parents had to get creative. They found a track out camp at a computer store that I went to a couple times. I wish I could remember if we learned much about computer hardware. But what I do remember is playing The Incredible Machine. It’s a game where the goal is to do something like get a ball into a basket. The player is given an array of different objects and the task of creating a Rube Goldberg device to accomplish the goal. Some levels have different laws of physics, making it especially interesting.

Planting the seed

If I could credit one game series for planting the seed for my love of programming, it would be The Castle of Dr. Brain. This was a puzzle adventure game that took place in a castle owned by the mad scientist, Dr. Brain. The goal was to navigate through the castle to prove to Dr. Brain that you were capable of being his assistant. The castle was guarded by security puzzles that the player had to solve in order to proceed through the levels. 

The robotics room in The Castle of Dr. Brain, by Sierra On-Line Inc.
The robotics room in The Castle of Dr. Brain, by Sierra On-Line Inc.

My absolute favorite puzzle was in the robotics room. In this room, the player has to program a robot to navigate through a maze in order to retrieve different objects. The fun part is that depending on the head you place on the robot, the robot will either follow the directions, do the exact opposite of the directions, or alternately follow the directions and do the opposite. It took a lot of trial and error to figure out this game, but I adored it, and it has stuck with me for the last 24 years.

Maybe I still would be a programmer today if it weren’t for these games. It’s possible I would have found another path to my love of computers and programming. But these old games are such a part of who I am that I just can’t imagine a childhood without these games.

The adventure continues

A big part of EdTech these days is centered around computers, handheld devices, and educational games. There is controversy about “screen time” and how playing so many computer games will affect kids’ development. Part of me even feels panic at the thought of a 5 year old with his or her own tablet. But given my personal experience, I can’t wait for my kids to be old enough to start playing computer games.

I can’t wait for my kids to be old enough to start playing computer games.

They’ll sit on my lap while we explore mythical lands, and we’ll take turns “driving” with the mouse. They’ll point out details on the screen that I’ll pretend to have missed. Together, we’ll discover clues and solve mysteries.

When that day comes, I plan on digging up some of my old favorites to share. I’m sure the kids will think they’re ancient, old-fashioned relics of the past, but I hope my kids — and yours — will find the same intrigue in some of them that I did.


Here’s my list of favorites, with links to where you can get the games:

What are your favorite computer games?

Comment below and let us know.

Alisa Herr

Alisa Herr is the former chief technical officer of EducationNC.