Once upon a time computers relied on floppy disks to run programs, required keyboard prompts instead of a mouse and were rarely seen in homes.
This is a truly fantastical tale, or so my kids think when I talk about technology during my school years that began in the mid-1980s. I might as well talk about how I used to play with dinosaurs.
When I recently suggested we play the browser versions of a few educational games from that era, they reacted as if I had just opened the door of a time machine. Granted we would be using the Internet, but I’ve misplaced my external 5-inch floppy drive, so it’d have to work.
We tried out three games. The kids found them more fun and challenging than the educational games they play at school and the graphics were a welcome novelty, calling them “cool,” “retro” and “olden” (as in, “olden days”).
Here’s what we decided about the following games:
“Oregon Trail” (1985 edition)
(5 of 5 stars)
The game immediately won over three new fans, in spite of the fact that our first venture ended after we succumbed to disease (the famous cholera/dysentery/measles trifecta) after sitting for a couple months east of the Rocky Mountains without any oxen. Our next trip got us to Oregon.
There’s a narrative. “Oregon Trail” allows players to quickly identify and engage with the story. As an added bonus, being able to name your characters turns tragic events — broken arms and other trail maladies — into comedic ones. The pros know to use family members, celebrities or a classroom crush for maximum effect.
You get to hunt. For most boys, it seems, this is what the game is about. Sure, shooting manic squirrels using keyboard commands is a bit of a challenge, but that’s part of the fun. Plus, the bald, three-dots-for-a-face man who does the shooting will elicit plenty of laughs from a graphic-savvy crowd.
It’s slow. It wasn’t until we played at home that I realized why I had no memory of the trail’s end, whether in Oregon or in illness along the way: computer lab was only 30 minutes and the game takes around an hour to complete.
“Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” (1985 edition)
(5 of 5 stars)
The game hones geography and research skills within the context of international crime fighting. My kids were confused about how research had been possible in the pre-Internet era; I explained that the original game came with a World Almanac and Book of Facts.
Sleuthing is fun. Tracking down world-class criminals only takes 15 to 20 minutes and kids get a thrill out of solving a puzzle. Unless you’re up on country flags, currencies and exports, research is a must for apprehending a henchman and kids have to look things up — in our case, using a tablet and Google rather than a printed resource.
Most kids lack a cultural context for the settings. As implausible as the crimes and clues may be, they take place in an adult world where “Notre Dame” and “the Pope” mean something. Sure kids pick up some of this along the way, but most of it remains over their heads.
“Number Munchers” (1986 edition)
(2 of 5 stars)
The idea behind “Number Munchers” is to “eat up” math facts before you get eaten up by Troggles. The related “Word Munchers” was the same concept, only using parts of speech. It’s simple enough, but my kids’ experience varied little from my own — this isn’t a game most people would consider fun.
It’s not easy. Some mental agility is required to compute and “munch” math problems, a welcome challenge for math whizzes.
You get eaten up. Fear of being eaten is hardly a positive motivator. The mathematics operations required aren’t exactly fun to begin with; there’s no reason to add trauma and inevitable failure to the mix.
Find these and other computer games of the past for free at: www.archive.org. Both educational and arcade-style games are offered in a variety of versions.