Long time, no see!

Long time no seeHello readers!

I know I’ve been MIA from this blog for a while, but I’ve been busy working on various other projects. Right now, I’m putting some time/energy into a little site I’m whipping up on the side. It’s called The Civil Cyborg, and it’s going to be a new blog dedicated to exploring the positive side of technology (including video games, of course!)

If you subscribed to this blog, then you probably already know that technology can be good for you– I’m going to keep exploring how on the new site!

So, if you have a chance, please be sure to check out The Civil Cyborg! I hope that all of you are doing well. Happy reading 🙂

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What Does The Holiday Shopping Season Mean For Gamers?

Gift

Happy Black Friday everyone!

If you haven’t had the time to get started on your holiday shopping, then it’s the perfect day to browse around for some deals. I’m heading out this evening to pick up a few electronics for family members, and while I was making a list, I began to reflect on how video games fit into the holiday shopping season.

Here are a few of my observations on 2012 retail trends, and how the gaming market has responded to them.

The Early Bird Gets The Worm

Wii U

Customers who didn’t pre-order the Wii U are having trouble finding one in stores.

The holiday shopping season starts earlier and earlier every year, and gamers have followed this trend to a tee. Just to give you an idea, 62 percent of all shoppers actually started their holiday shopping before Halloween. Walmart, Target, and Toys-R-Us started their holiday sales a day early this year. In Canada, 60 percent of shoppers began planning their shopping at the beginning of November.

The holiday release season for video games, which runs roughly from September to December, is more jam-packed than ever with hot titles. In fact, the season is so crowded that some developers are even delaying their releases until the winter, when they can stand out more in the sea of games.

As just a sample of this year’s offerings, we had the highly anticipated release of the Wii U (November 18), Epic Mickey 2 (November 18), Halo 4 (November 6), Call of Duty: Black Ops II (November 18), Resident Evil 6 (October 2) and Assassin’s Creed III (October 30).

Due to high demand during the crowded holiday shopping season, it’s more important than ever for players to pre-order games and consoles. As they say, the early bird gets the worm. I’ve been into my local Electronics Boutique several times now looking for a Wii U console (a fool’s dream, I know). Hopefully, I’ll get my hands on one by the new year, but it kills me that I didn’t pre-order one so I could receive it by Christmas.

Niche Items Galore

999 cover

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is one of the most highly-coveted niche games for graphic novel lovers.

These days, personalized gifts are all the rage. It’s not enough to buy a generic game for a gamer, just as it’s not enough to buy a generic book for a book lover.

The retail market loves niche items. There are perfect gifts for every hobby, and there are no shortage of websites out there to advise gift-givers on how to choose the ideal item for every family member.

For gamers, niche items are how we express our particular interests. And these days, the more specific you can get about your gaming tastes, the better.

To give you a taste of the genres out there, you’ll find 19 different categories of PC games on Amazon.com. It’s not really surprising that the single biggest category is Action, with over 7000 games, followed by the Strategy category, with over 2000 titles. But in between, there are tons of little niche categories to choose from, like Casino, Rhythm, Mah Jong, Puzzle, Racing, Cards, and Trivia.

Wikipedia also has an in-depth list of video game genres, which you can view here. And although some genres are on the verge of extinction, they’re still a key component of the gamer identity. When you’re buying a gift for the gamer in your family, it’s a good idea to know which genres they prefer.

Of course, if you’re looking for something a little more generic, gift cards are a great option for gamers too. Actually, many stores offer gift cards as a “bonus” if you purchase a game or console. And just so you know, gift cards are totally on trend; according to a recent study by the National Retail Foundation (NRF), 60% of survey participants want gift cards this year.

Bundled Gift-Giving

Wii bundle

In 2010, the red Wii console came with the New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Wii Sports.

Gift sets are all the rage. Everyone loves finding multiple goodies in the same package, and gamers are no exception.

The equivalent of a gift set in the gaming world is the bundled package. I still remember waaay back when I got the N64 and Super Mario 64 bundle for Christmas. It was great because I didn’t have to buy a game separately before trying out the console.

As it turns out, bundles are actually great for the gaming industry. It’s a proven fact that bundling games and consoles together improves sales. A recent study from the Harvard Business School showed that sales of video game consoles were higher when companies offered a “bundle” alongside the option to purchase consoles and games separately. According to the study, bundled games also motivate consumers to buy consoles closer to their release dates.

Bundles like the Humble Indie Bundle have also put indie game developers on our radar. In a sense, they’ve expanded our gift-giving horizons, allowing us to no longer rely exclusively on stores like Electronics Boutique and GameStop to find the perfect gift for friends and family.

The Ever-Growing Online Market

Steam logo

Valve’s digital distribution platform Steam is one of the most popular places to buy and gift online games.

Another major trend this holiday season is buying gifts online.

This year, online sales of gifts are expected to increase by 12%. Multiple retailers, like Target, Macy’s, and Nordstrom have also pledged to match Amazon’s online prices, and to offer other incentives like same-day shipping.

This holiday season, more gamers than ever will buy titles online. Digital platforms like Nintendo eShop, Xbox Live Arcade, Origin, and Steam (which has the biggest market share) have been a resounding success. In fact, experts are already predicting that online sales of video games will surpass retail sales, maybe even next year.

Online buying has the added benefit of making the market more accessible to “non-gamers.” Since it’s so easy to download titles onto a tablet or smartphone, more people than ever are enjoying video games on a regular basis. It’s really no surprise that games are among the best-selling apps on the App Store. With mobile technology, the gaming market is bigger and better than ever, and that’s something we should all be excited about.

Conclusion

The gaming market is one of the most competitive ones out there, but it also contains some of the hardest-working people. Over the years, industry professionals have opted to modify some key components of the gaming world, including distribution methods.

Still, they’ve managed to keep pace with market trends. And thanks to their dedication, video games remain at the top of my wish list in 2012.

I Play Video Games And I’m Not Afraid To Show It

If you’re a gamer, you’ve probably heard about the attack on Colleen Lachowicz, a Democrat who is running for the Maine State Senate. She’s not only a politician—she’s also an avid World of Warcraft player.

Over the past few weeks, Lachowicz has had her status as a candidate called into question because of her gaming habits. She’s been accused of spending too much time online, and mismanaging her priorities.

Here’s a sample of the original statement from the Republican party of Maine on her eligibility:

“Colleen Lachowicz is a Democrat candidate for Maine State Senate. In Colleen’s online fantasy world, she gets away with crude, vicious and violent comments like the ones below. Maine needs a State Senator that lives in the real world, not in Colleen’s fantasy world.”

The first thing that I thought about when I read these comments was my own status as a gamer. Does my own penchant for video games make me ineligible for certain careers or professions?

It’s something I haven’t thought much about before, but then again I wasn’t too upfront about my love for gaming until fairly recently.

The second thing that came to mind was the role of young voters in the next election. Recently, there’s been no shortage of commentary on the importance of young voters and the impact they will have on the next election.

It’s a realization that has led politicians to post their campaign messages on Twitter and Facebook. And young voters have responded in a dramatic way.

According to Twitter,  a record of 10.3 million tweets  was set during the first presidential debate, and internet memes on political themes have been popping up all over the place. One news outlet has even called Facebook the presidential “swing state” on account of its humongous influence.

Politicians have recognized the popularity of online media and already legitimized it by making it a focus of their campaigns. So if that’s true for Twitter and Facebook, then why not video games? They’re just as current and potentially just as effective at reaching a key voter base.

By attacking Lachowicz’s gaming habits, critics are delegitimizing a hobby which thousands of young Americans spend time on each night. And that’s something that I suspect a lot of gamers just aren’t going to stand for.

Think about it this way: Lachowicz has been criticized for spending too much time in the “virtual world” and not enough time in the “real world.” As proof of her discretion, the site Colleen’s World suggests that the average WoW gamers “spends 22.7 hours a week playing in Azeroth.”

I’ve done some digging and found comparable studies for television watching and Facebook use, and the stats aren’t pretty. A Nielsen report from 2011 said that Americans spend more than 33 hours a week watching television and streaming videos. We also spend at least 8 hours a month on Facebook. And 1 in 4 people spend more time online than asleep.

Lachowicz’s detractors have also suggested that playing video games makes gamers more predisposed to violence. Many video games are undoubtedly violent, but it’s unfair to target games as the singular source of violence in the media.

Television, for example, is another major culprit. According to the Parents Television Council, “violence increased in every time slot between 1998 and 2002. On all the networks combined, violence was 41% more frequent during the 8:00 p.m. (ET/PT) Family Hour in 2002 than in 1998.”

Video games aren’t for everyone, and like any hobby, they can be abused. But when used in moderation, I don’t see how they are any less legitimate as watching television, using Twitter and Facebook, or surfing the net. But in my mind, no form of media receives the same amount of flack as video games. And in a case like this, it’s quite undeserved.

We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about our hobbies. That’s something I learned after years of hiding my own love of gaming. Since I became more upfront about my hobbies, I’ve met a ton of cool people all over the world who are just as passionate about video games as I am. And it’s made me realize what a positive force video games can actually be.

So until her detractors can prove that Colleen Lachowicz’s hobby genuinely compromises her bid for the Senate, I will stand behind her. And if enough of us can lend our support, maybe we can end the prejudices against gaming, once and for all.

Warcraft, Warcraft Everywhere

Mists of Pandaria logo

In case you hadn’t heard, yesterday marked the release of the newest World of Warcraft expansion. Mists of Pandaria is quite different from the previous WoW content, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless. In celebration, I’m counting down some of my favorite places to find World of Warcraft in the real world. From literature to fashion, Blizzard Entertainment’s flagship franchise is leaving its mark everywhere these days.  Even if you’re not a Warcraft fan, it’s hard not to appreciate how much creativity and passion the game has inspired amongst its fans.

1) In Art

It’s no surprise that World of Warcraft players have produced some pretty fantastic artwork, and Blizzard has set up a page on their official website dedicated to art submissions from fans. At semi-regular intervals, new pieces are added to the database, which can then be downloaded by users. It’s a great way to explore different interpretations of the game’s characters and environment.

2) In Cooking

There are many blogs out there dedicated to gaming-inspired cooking, including a handful of quality websites on World of Warcraft “food.” If you’re craving some of the game’s most delectable treats, such as Spice Bread and Bear Basted Boar Ribs, check out this list of recipes with detailed instructions and high-quality images. Over at the Tauren Chef, there’s a whole cookbook containing WoW-inspired recipes for sale. For those of you with a sweet tooth, The Domestic Scientist featured this amazing Deathwing cake a while back that looks almost too perfect to eat.

Server blade

3) In Philanthropy

In October 2011, Blizzard announced that they would be auctioning off retired server blades to benefit St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. The blades contained a commemorative plaque and were billed as unique collector items. When the campaign came to an end earlier this year, it had raised over $330,000 US dollars for the hospital. The server blade auction is just one of many charity campaigns undertaken by Blizzard in recent years. In 2011, Blizzard also raised over $1,900,000 in support of the American Red Cross’s Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami relief efforts.

4) In Politics

World of Warcraft is certainly no stranger to politics. Regular players will know that WoW’s Trade Chat feature is often used as a platform for voicing political views. Back in 2008, Machinima even conducted in-game interviews with World of Warcraft players to gauge who would win the presidential election. Just this past summer, WoW became embroiled in world politics once again when it made headlines over US trade restrictions.

5) In Books

It’s no secret that Blizzard is behind a series of best-selling novels and comics, but did you know there’s also a book on the sociology of WoW and its impact on modern culture? Sociologist William Sims Bainbridge tackles these issues in his 2010 monograph, The Warcraft Civilization: Social Science in the Digital World. A similar book entitled Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft® Reader was released in 2008 by Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg from the University of Bergen in Norway.

WoW in Schools

6) In Schools

The next time you have fifteen minutes to spare, check out WoWinSchool, a collaborative wiki project that focuses on World of Warcraft. The site contains tons of resources for teachers looking to integrate World of Warcraft into their curriculum. There are free lesson plans in math, writing, and literacy on creative WoW-related topics, such as designing quest chains and calculating probability in cloth farming. The site is one of the most integrative, creative approaches to World of Warcraft out there, so be sure to spend some time browsing its content.

7) In Interior Design

This Horde-inspired bathroom, featuring wall-mounted weapons and a ceiling designed to look like stretched leather hides, is just one of the many interior decorating projects being tackled by WoW fans around the world. A few years back, some folks at MIT built a unique Warcraft “gaming pod” based on orc architecture. According to the description, the hut was designed to maximize play-time for the player and includes food, water, and (unbelievably) even a toilet so that you can enjoy World of Warcraft without having to leave you seat. For design options that are a little more conventional, check out PrintWarcraft for customized posters and more.

8) In Music

World of Warcraft’s award-winning score has been the inspiration for countless compositions by musicians. It’s also the focus of this stellar musical parody, which won the “World of Warcraft Movie Contest: Rise to Power” competition in 2010. You can usually find choral and orchestral arrangements of the WoW score in any well-stocked music store, but for a more comprehensive collection, check out the official World of Warcraft Sheet Music Anthology. And for a live rendition of the game’s soundtrack that is sure to give you goosebumps, sit back and enjoy the performance below by the Video Game Music Choir.

5 Gaming Partnerships That Are Changing The World

So maybe you’ve heard that video games can help you make better life choices, boost your creativity, and improve your vision. But did you know that game developers are also helping fund life-saving research, build new homes, and encourage Americans to get out there and vote?

And they’re not doing it alone. This list counts down five of the most innovative partnerships between game developers and high-profile organizations like the National Science Foundation. One step at a time, these partnerships are changing the way we live, learn, and play.

UN Habitat

1) United Nations Habitat and Mojang

The company behind Minecraft and United Nations Habitat have teamed up for a project called Block by Block. The goal of Block by Block is to let young people have a say in urban development. Participants will use Minecraft to show how they envision the urban spaces of the future.  The initiative is part of UN Habitat’s Sustainable Urban Development Network, which plans to update 300 public spaces by 2016. If you’d like to learn more, there’s already a Block by Block pilot project underway in Nairobi, Kenya, which you can check out here.

Trash Tycoon

2) Kraft Foods and Guerillapps

Kraft Foods and developer Guerillapps teamed up in 2011 to produce Trash Tycoon, an online social network game. The project also received support from Carbonfund.org, Treehugger, and TerraCycle, a company which specializes in making consumer products out of recycled materials. Trash Tycoon focuses on waste management, environmental awareness, and sustainability. Players receive points for collecting litter in the game’s virtual city and returning it to a recycling kiosk. You can also upcycle waste, such as Kraft cheese wrappers, and turn it into products that are more environmentally friendly. Sadly, the game was shut down in July 2012 so that its partners could focus on other projects.

WolfQuest

3) National Science Foundation, the Minnesota Zoo and eduweb

A 2007 partnership between the National Science Foundation and the Minnesota Zoo produced WolfQuest, an online game that lets players live the life of a wild wolf in Yellowstone National Park. The objective of the game is to teach players about wolf ecology and behavior. WolfQuest also supports an extensive community where you can talk to wildlife biologists, share artwork, and take online quizzes to test your wolf knowledge. The game has received several major updates over its lifespan, and supports both single and multiplayer modes.

Rock the Vote

4) Rock the Vote, Microsoft, Ubisoft and Epic Games

This election season, Rock the Vote is partnering with Microsoft, Ubisoft, and Epic Games to encourage youth to vote. Each of the three companies has produced an election tie-in to raise awareness about voter registration. For example,  Xbox has released an Election 2012 Hub channel on Xbox Live with a daily poll and news updates. In support of Rock the Vote, Epic Games has produced a brawler for the iOS called VOTE!!!! The Game. It’s free right now from the App Store, and it lets you brawl as either Obama or Romney using crazy props and outfits.

DonateGames

5) DonateGames and multiple game developers

Founded in 2008, DonateGames helps support kids with rare diseases by collecting and re-purposing used video games and consoles. The organization not only funds research at institutions like the Seattle Children’s Hospital, it also donates video games to hospitalized children. Over the past few years, several major companies, such as Valve, EA and Paradox Interactive, have jumped on board and donated to the cause. If you have games or gear that you’d like to contribute, check out the official DonateGames website at www.donategames.org.

Two Schools That Are Putting Video Games Front And Center

Classroom

Daydreams come in a variety of forms. As a kid, one of my most consistent dreams was that somehow—somewhere—there could be a school whose curriculum was based entirely on video games.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that there is not one but actually two schools in the United States offering such a curriculum this year. I may not be a sixth to ninth grader, but I’m pretty excited about what these two schools have to offer. With their emphasis on technology, hands-on learning, and collaborative play, these schools are literally redefining the way we learn in the 21st century.

Check out profiles of both ultra-modern institutions below.

QUEST TO LEARN

Quest to Learn was first opened in Manhattan in 2009 as the product of a joint collaboration between the Institute of Play and the New York City Department of Education. The school has also received generous grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Its sister school, Chicago Quest, opened in fall 2011. Both schools took years to plan, and their curricula are based on the extensive pedagogical research of both scientists and educators.

The curriculum at Quest to Learn emphasizes inquiry-based learning, collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and real-world problem solving. The students play games as well as design them, but they also work on other multimedia projects, such as videos and blogs. Additionally, students have option of learning up to five different languages, including Spanish, French, Mandarin, Latin, and German. For older students, the school offers internships and college prep, including the ability to earn college credits

While there are eventual plans to make Quest to Learn a 6th through 12th grade school, they currently serve students in grades 6 through 9. If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about the school, the Quest to Learn website has curriculum samples, summer assignments, a media kit, and a full break-down of the school’s learning practices and objectives. There’s also a weekly newsletter to keep parents and members of the community updated on their progress.

As part of their media package, Quest to Learn has released a series of short films on their curriculum and teaching methods. Check out the video below for more information about their program.

THE PLAYMAKER SCHOOL

The second gaming-based institution is the PlayMaker School, which opened this September in Los Angeles, California. Developed by GameDesk, it boasts an innovative curriculum designed for sixth graders to achieve “21st century success.” The school is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and AT&T, and currently has an enrollment of 60 students.

At PlayMaker, students will both build and play games, but the school’s curriculum runs much deeper. According to their website, the curriculum is based on four different “blocks of learning,” including learning through play, learning through making, learning through discovery, and learning through internet-driven design.

PlayMaker is based on the premise that each individual student will follow his or her own path to success, and the curriculum includes several “routes” which suit different learning needs. Each student is given an interactive “Adventure Map” which allows them to chart their progress through the educational material. Students can use the map for self-assessment, as well as to visualize the connections between the different course modules.

Sounds pretty intense, right? That’s probably because the PlayMaker curriculum is based on extensive research by GameDesk. The course modules are supplemented by tons of other media and software produced by the company, including Math Maker, a project which uses game design as a way of teaching mathematics.

At the heart of the PlayMaker curriculum is the belief that technology and games are an exciting way to engage students in learning. Check out the video below for more on their teaching philosophy.

Mario Is Missing And Motivational Learning

Mario captured

Can educational video games from the 1980s and 1990s still teach us something? Are these games simply artifacts from the past, or can they hold up to the high standard of educational games today? Let’s find out!

Anyone who played video games in the 90s probably remembers this little gem. Mario is Missing is an educational, geography-based game which made its way to the PC, Mac, NES, and SNES in 1992. The game is notable for being one of the first titles prior to the hugely popular Luigi’s Mansion to use Luigi as the hero.

In case you need a refresher, here’s the basic premise of the NES version of the game. Mario has been kidnapped, and Luigi must travel around the world searching for “clues” about his whereabouts. You’ll visit a handful of different international cities, such as London, Moscow, and San Francisco. In each city, you need to collect stolen items by finding and defeating Koopas. A ‘picture’ of each stolen item will appear in your inventory, and once you have collected them all, you return them to the “tourist booth” in each level and answer a couple of trivia questions.

The questions relate to the city you are visiting and some of the local landmarks. For example, when you return the picture of the Empire State Building in New York City, the tourist booth asks you to guess the height of the building (it’s 102 stories tall, just in case you were wondering).

Artifacts

After finding all of the items and completing the levels, there’s a quick battle with Bowser and you’re done the game. Boom. Easy as pie.

After beating the game for this review, I was left wondering why I felt so dissatisfied. And after giving it some thought, I think it had a little something to do with this screen.

Ending screen

See, this is the score I received at the end of the game. Can anyone tell me what it means? In the past, without the benefit of leaderboards, scores like these existed in a virtual vaccuum, providing almost no context for gauging how well you played.

Then again, this isn’t exactly the game’s fault. For games that were  published before the age of the internet, there was often no way to compare your score to other players. This was one of the great things about rented video games, since they contained a compendium of high scores from every player who had come before you. And that gave you much more incentive to do better the next time you played.

These days, global leaderboards and achievement systems are a commonplace thing. World of Warcraft rewards achievement points and “Realm First” feats of strength for being the first to reach specific goals on a realm or in a guild. Recently, iPhones and iPods have begun using the “Game Centre” to share your results with friends and even the worldwide leader boards for some games. Yes, even the New Super Mario Bros. 2 has a system for tracking your total coin count, which is then shared with other players using SpotPass.

It goes without saying that the social media aspect is big in games. And part of the reason why features like global leaderboards are so appealing is because they motivate us to do better. As Walt Disney once said, “I have been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn’t know how to get along without it.”

Now, lest you think I’ve lost sight of education in this review, let me get to my main point. As it turns out, healthy competition can actually be a normal part of the learning process. When used correctly, it’s motivating for students because it offers them real-world challenges to tackle. Instead of just striving for the top grade, students can measure themselves against their peers and experience a real sense of accomplishment when they achieve more than their competition. When students compete in teams, they learn a lot about the benefit of collaboration and see the truthfulness behind the statement, “two heads are better than one.” Of course, the key word here is definitely ‘healthy.’ If a student is ever faced with such intense competition that it undermines their success, or makes them feel undervalued, then there is absolutely no place for that in the classroom.

But the bottom line is that healthy competition can be a really effective tool for teaching us how to respect others, appreciate our teammates’ efforts, and even lose gracefully. And even more importantly, without a mechanism like competition to help gauge your progress as you learn, it’s easy to feel disconnected from the material.

This brings me back to the game in question. To conclude my thoughts about the educational value of Mario is Missing, I could talk about geography. After all, the game did test my knowledge of several major cities on a world map.

World map

I could point out the fact that the game provides trivia questions about important landmarks, such as the Great Wall of China.

Trivia

But when it comes to assessing a learning game, I like to think beyond just facts and figures. Playing Mario is Missing has made me realize that one of the most important aspects of learning games today is their ability to inspire collaboration and cooperation. And that’s the element of education here that is sorely ‘Missing.’

Have you played Mario is Missing recently? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

What Gaming-Related Skills Are You Working On?

Skills to pay the bills

I’ve just published an article over at Geared For Gamers about the skills we learn while we play video games.

As you know, video games can help you improve many important abilities, such as decision-making, problem solving, and organizational skills. I’ve admitted that I am working on improving my spatial awareness when I play, and I’m asking readers to “confess” which gaming-related skills they are currently perfecting.

To check out the full article on Geared For Gamers, please click this link.

Educational Video Games Get A Little Less Ambiguous

The Sims 3 logo

The Sims 3 is one of the most popular simulation games on the market.

There’s been no shortage of articles on gaming and education this month, and today’s pick is a piece I found on MindShift about the difference between gaming and gamification. In it, Frank Catalano tackles the often ambiguous terminology which surrounds teaching games. Being able to use terminology to identify a game is important since, according to Catalano, “everything game-like is not a game.”

The artice highlights three different terms which can be used to describe teaching games. Gamification refers to making a game out of something which isn’t designed to be a game. For example, many companies will reward customers with badges or points when they purchase products. It’s the company’s way of saying thank you to their customers, and it provides a nice incentive to shop with them again.

Medals

Incentives like medals and badges keep players (and customers) coming back for more.

Simulation is the next major category, and this one is pretty straight-forward. Games like The Sims or SimCity recreate scenarios which players will manipulate in order to achieve a desired result. Depending on your play style, the fate of your Sims can be either good or bad, but in the process, you learn something about managing your Simoleons (or money, in the real world), juggling multiple careers, and cultivating diverse relationships with people in your neighborhood.

Granted, all of these lessons are buried far beneath the surface of The Sims, so you may not be aware you are learning anything at all. But there are educational simulations out there which are currently teaching students in a more practical sense about the environment, resource management, and professional development.

The Sims store

With groceries to buy and bills to pay, Sims need to spend their money wisely.

The last category is entitled (Simply) Games. These are educational titles which self-identify as games and are designed to teach. They usually rely on some sort of reward system, and there is an end goal of “winning” when you play. In my opinion, this category of games has the potential to be the most fruitful since it fully encompasses all of the mechanics which make gaming great. The downside, of course, is that these titles may become so “game-like” that students cease learning and regard them as nothing more than the stack of Wii discs sitting by their TV.

This brings me to my final thought, which is that the most enriching experiences I’ve had with video games haven’t come from games which were labeled “educational.” To me, games are at their best when they make you realize you are learning as an afterthought. Over the years, I’ve been quietly takes notes on how video games have had a positive impact on my life. They’ve helped me improve my hand-eye coordination, critical thinking, and problem solving skills.

When I was recently taking a course about website design, The Sims 3 was my go-to place for trying out what I had learned about C.R.A.P. (contrast, repetition, alignment, proximity). In my opinion, looking at a video game and independently finding its value– that is to say, identifying how it works for you, and not necessarily the market at large– is one of the best things you can do for yourself when you play.

Trekkin’ The Oregon Trail

Can educational video games from the 1980s and 1990s still teach us something? Are these games simply artifacts from the past, or can they hold up to the high standard of educational games today? Let’s find out!

Oregon Trail Map

You’ve got a long, looong way to go.

The year is 1848 and you are a pioneer, ready to make the 3000 mile trek west along the Oregon Trail. You hope that a better life is waiting for you on America’s western coast.

Got your wagon ready? Then let’s play the PC classic The Oregon Trail!

I never played The Oregon Trail as a kid, probably because I’m Canadian. We didn’t have The Oregon Trail in schools, but played Cross Country Canada instead. I’m told the two games are actually quite similar.

After giving the game a run-through, I really do think that The Oregon Trail has many attributes which make it a good educational game. For something that was created over 20 years ago, it’s actually pretty engaging. It’s got bright colors, a solid story, and lots of different options in gameplay. But before I talk about my general impressions, I’ll give you a basic rundown of what the game entails.

You’ll begin your journey west as either a banker from Boston, a carpenter from Ohio, or a farmer from Illinois. You’ll get to choose the month you set off, as well as the names of the travelers in your party. A word of caution: there is a very good chance that someone in your party will die along the way, so steer clear of naming your characters after family members or friends.

Dysentery

The diseases in the game are annoying, but at least they’re historically accurate.

The first real ‘educational’ element in the game is when you are asked to choose supplies for your journey. You start off with $1600.00 and are advised not to spend it all in one place, but that’s exactly what you’ll want to do when you enter the shop. The shopkeeper will also offer some rather specific advice on how many oxen to take, how many pairs of clothes you’ll need, and how many pounds of food to carry on your trip. Based on the number of people in your party, you’ll need to calculate how much of each item to buy.

The Oregon Trail General store

Should you splurge on some oxen? The choice is up to you.

After you’ve purchased enough oxen, food, clothing, ammunition, and spare parts, you’ll be on your way west. As you travel, you’ll hit major landmarks along the way and will need to make decisions based on your health, food supply, and weather.

For example, when I arrived at the Kansas River, I needed to decide how I wanted to cross. Was it safe for me to ford the river, or should I pay someone to ferry me across?

The Oregon Trail Kansas River crossing

I hope there’s a lifeguard on duty.

You’ll need to consider various factors, such as the river width, depth, and weather, in order to make an educated decision about how to proceed. The game continues on in this fashion, periodically presenting you with a list of options about what to do next. If you continue making right decisions, you’ll eventually reach the end of the trail and see this screen.

Oregon Trail Finish

You made it! Home sweet home.

Now let’s talk a bit about the educational value of the game. The Oregon Trail was designed to educate students about the historic westward migration of thousands of settlers in the mid-nineteenth century. Does it do this successfully?

Yes and no. The game is full of interesting facts about landmarks along the trail, and it effectively covers the “who, what, when, and where” of this event in history. However, I think it’s missing a bit of the “why.” What was waiting for settlers at the end of the trail? What was it about the trail that caused bankers, farmers, and carpenters to uproot their lives and risk everything by traveling west? Were they all motivated by the same factors, or were there different motivations for each social class?

Of course, there are explanations for these questions in many history books, but I do think the game could have delved into the “why” a bit further.

Now let’s talk theory. You wouldn’t think that such an old game would have applications for modern historiography, but it kinda does, at least on an abstract level. Believe it or not,  the Oregon Trail embodies some of the big issues which historians are grappling with today. To give you a bit of background, there’s been a real attempt in the last few decades to revise our understanding of historical events as ‘natural’ or arbitrary. In some areas of history, there is a tendency to believe that events follow a simple ’cause and effect’ pattern. What scholars are discovering is that many big moments, like the French Revolution for example, were actually the result of diverse and sometimes disparate causes which can’t necessarily be explained as A + B = C. We’re also discovering that chance and contingency play a huge role in the outcome of events.

The element of chance in The Oregon Trail is probably just a game mechanic, but it fits into this new academic schema quite well. When you’re on the trail, you’ll periodically discover that your wagon has caught fire, or that members of your party have become injured or ill. As a player, this is infuriating since these unfortunate events are usually beyond your control. The first time my wagon caught fire for seemingly no reason, I wanted to quit the game right then and there.

The Oregon Trail wagon fire

Now where’s that fire extinguisher?

Not surprisingly, the element of chance in The Oregon Trail is probably the thing that players (kids especially) will resent the most. How fair is it to stock up your entire wagon with supplies, only to be hit with a giant fire moments later?

But the randomness of The Oregon Trail is, in my mind, one of its most compelling features. It teaches you that history is not a linear subject. In history classes, we learn that events do not unfurl naturally in a straight line; there are tons of little hiccups along the way which have the chance to seriously affect the outcome of an event.

Ironically enough, this makes the randomness of the game totally historically accurate. Due to factors such as age, weather, and disease, no two families who traveled the real Oregon Trail would have had the exact same experience along the way. The game is actually a great demonstration of why you shouldn’t generalize about historical events. Each time you play, you’re guaranteed to have a different experience based on how you make decisions in the game.

Bierstad Oregon Trail

The real Oregon Trail was filled with many hardships. Painting by Albert Bierstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Suffice it to say, the game is pretty vanilla compared to other titles produced in the last five years or so. It’s short, has 8-bit graphics, and some very outdated sound effects. The element of surprise brought some much needed life to the game and kept me engaged in the story. I think it also makes The Oregon Trail a fine platform for developing problem solving and critical thinking skills, although the game often isn’t very forgiving if you make a mistake. Still, I would give the game very adequate scores for basic mathematics, decision-making, and reading comprehension skills.

It may not be perfect, but The Oregon Trail holds up pretty well for a game that is over two decades old. It has also recently been given new life on Facebook and the Nintendo DSi, and it continues to educate students to this day. To give the 1985 version of the game a try (for free!), head on over to the Apple II Emulator, which you can find on the game’s official site.