Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 159 / DECEMBER 1993 / PAGE S3

Do kids learn from computer games? (Compute's Getting Started With: Kids & Computers)

Watching Sierra Online's Jack and Bananas hiss the sound of S and ask kids to find the letter that matches, it's easy to see that Alphabet Blocks has a lot to teach a pre-schooler. Kids can see the relationships of sounds to letters, and before long, they're able to sound out simple words. The older child who has mastered the alphabet can graduate to something like MECC's Storybook Weaver. In this program, kids beef up their vocabulary by arranging pictures and stringing together words to form a narrative that tells the story the scene illustrates. Again, it's easy to see that this program packs a lot of learning.

Not all educational software has such an obvious look and feel of education. Programs that promote language and math skills and actually get kids writing seem like animated versions of classroom activities and exercises we can recognize from our own days in school. Many times the challenges of adventure games pack an even greater intellectual wallop. Often the greater the adventure challenge, the more likely it is that the game will get kids to think critically--to determine relationships and solve problems.

For instance, MECC's The Oregon Trail, one of the oldest and most successful educational programs for children, invites kids to go on a wagon train expedition across the Oregon Trail. To complete the trip, they must determine how they'll travel and what kind of provisions to take along. There are few obvious reading and math skills involved in games like this, but they promote deductive reasoning and place kids in virtual environments that describe and simulate chapters from history. The Oregon Trail actually celebrated its tenth anniversary this year, and MECC honored the occasion by rereleasing the software program in a new, much enhanced, and highly graphical version.

Traditional arcade games also have been adapted to computers to pose educational challenges to kids. The Software Toolworks' Mario is Missing doesn't just look Nintendo-ish, it brings that system's most popular hero to the keyboard in a colorful, two-dimensional graphical screen display that bears a striking resemblance to the TV graphics. Here, as with The Oregon Trail, there's learning to be had from Mario's adventures. Mario is Missing teaches geography, but the program is so well packaged as an arcade game, you'd almost never know it. Words such as geography and maps are conspicuously missing from the box, even though they're packed into the software.

Games like this are . . . well, simply games. They're designed first to entertain children in the same familiar ways that have proven to be so popular on TV screens. But on computers they come to life. Using a mouse and keyboard, kids can communicate with the programs more directly and actually respond to the challenges instead of reacting with joysticks. They keyboard offers many more options than a joystick, and kids can respond in more ways than simple telling Mario, or his brother Luigi, to move left or right, jump, or run. Using the mouse, they can trace their route across a topographical map of the world and see the continents as they move along. Or they can enter commands to give the characters more detailed instructions.

Games that present kids with puzzles, although they may not at first appear to have strong educational themes, also challenge them to think logically and focus on relationships. These programs help kids These programs help kids learn colors, select shapes, and associate patterns; they also promote skills that will later help kids deduce geometric and algebraic problems. Quite simply, children learn to assemble components and build foundations. They learn some things must come first if certain other things are to follow.

Pre-school programs, such as Disney's Mickey's Colors and Shapes and Broderbund's Playroom, feature these discovery-type activities. Children entering school will enjoy the mazes and recognition games in both Playroom and Treehouse, Broderbund's exploratory game for older children. The elementary school set will gladly put on thinking caps for the challenging mysteries of EA Kids' Eagle Eye Mysteries, the Carmen Sandiego series, and Binary Zoo's Mystery at the Museum.

Although there's a lot of sound and voice being built into kids' computer games these days, these's still text to negotiate. Any game that teaches kids to read clues and interview witnesses by inputting questions at a keyboard is challenging them to read and write.