Anyone ever heard of “The Zoombinis?”
I suppose that the near-unanimous answer would be: no. Well, what is it exactly? Sounds weird, doesn’t it? It sounds like a species of bumblebee that’s on cocaine. But it’s anything but that (it would make for an exciting game, though). The Zoombinis is an educational game released way back in the 90s (the 80s were cooler, but the 90s came close), which was when I had been introduced to video games (i.e. I was a kid back then). Maybe that’s the reason why these games stick out so much for me since that’s how I used to learn my English with these very types of games. Back then, I didn’t even know how popular Mario was at the time (and still!), so of course, most people wouldn’t even hear of those games.
The truth is, I played several educational games, most of which were employed by my elementary school (and they also used Macintosh). But The Zoombinis sticks out the most because, even in retrospect, the game was somewhat ahead of its time. Interestingly enough, the game had really good graphics, animations, and voice acting. As I said, this is an educational game released in the 90s, a time when the mainstream media (and their audience) still accused video games of being the number one cause of violence among teenagers (which, today, has proved to be complete nonsense).
Of course, these games were always meant to be esoteric. I should know this since I was once at a lecture of the creative director of the game, in which he himself said, and I’m paraphrasing, that “Educational video games are crap”. This implies that every person who ever worked on an educational game knows there isn’t much hope for it beyond dedicated groups who have specific reasons, such as schools that want to give better education to the children attending the school.
There doesn’t really seem to be a problem with that… much
Actually, there is. Yes… These games were always focused on teaching children (as what they’re meant to be) a very specific something, and they come in all kinds of forms: puzzle-solving, mathematics, even games that teach you about art. But of course, my favourite: games that teach you languages. And I have played some of those, although they only ever taught me English (In retrospect, I never really figured out if it actually helped or just got in the way). I heard Dora the Explorer was created with the intent of teaching English-speaking children how to speak Spanish (or was it the other way around?).
So what’s the problem? It’s simple: there aren’t enough of these. Sure, even if there were more of these, it wouldn’t make people care. But what if the game had more appeal to it? Take The Zoombinis, for example… I don’t know if it required a bigger budget, but the graphics were perfect for a PC game at the time. Maybe if educational games had some sort of niche to them that could appeal to “actual” gamers.
But you can understand why no one really talks about these games, and I can’t imagine when they’ll become mainstream. If not never, then probably after I die.
A game that allows you to kick ass and learn stuff at the same time
As I said earlier, what should be done to make these games more noticeable, even in the slightest, is to add some kind of flavour that “real” gamers like. But then again, “authentic” gamers are only ever interested in killing things (being a “not-fake” gamer, I concur). Then again, some games have done this thing backwards, as in “a game where you kill stuff and learn other stuff at the same time”, namely with things that happen in World War II, since that seems to be a popular trope. In these kinds of games, you get to learn about history, even though the game’s focus is not to specifically teach you about it since that just happens along the way.
But if cool themes for educational games don’t work, maybe one should make them more accessible, especially those that teach languages, because they are my favourite (if that wasn’t apparent already). Although I only ever played those that teach English and not other stuff like Spanish or Italian or French, or honestly, any other language. But in any case, I don’t know how you make these games more “accessible”, so to say. These games aren’t meant to be “accessible”; they exist only for one purpose, and that’s to teach something.
Then again, there’s always the solution to just forget that this genre exists in hopes that it will disappear from everyone’s collective memory… but that just seems too harsh.
Educational video game developers… speak!
Like I said earlier, I was at a lecture by the creative director of The Zoombinis. Interestingly, he said he never met the voice actor in person for the game’s narrator (which was stupendously splendid). Still, the voice acting was so good they reused it for the remastered version released some 20 years after the original (did I mention already that there’s a remastered edition?). So if there’s anyone who knows best about the current state of educational video games, it would be the very people that worked on them.
In addition to that, people who played educational, child or adult, for whatever reason, should also know that there isn’t a bright future for these games. But that’s just me.
Finally, everyone who ever used these games to learn languages should also give their experience of what it was like using a video game to learn a language. Then again, it doesn’t even need to be an educational game.
Nowadays, I don’t know where you can find educational games, but I assume that Amazon might have some (Amazon has everything). But if you manage to find one, you probably wouldn’t get into it. But to be frank, The Zoombinis is worth a shot, so do that.
Also, I don’t think there should be any argument regarding the usefulness or the future of this genre. It’s esoteric, and it’s meant to stay that way, and everyone knows it.
But I will still look for that one game that can teach me something other than English. So far, I haven’t found any…