Keeping in theme with my Expansion Pack this week, I thought I’d use this feature to revisit one of my favorite edutainment games from my childhood: Super Solvers: Outnumbered!. Published by The Learning Company, this game features the series’ recurring villain, the Master of Mischief, attempting to take over a TV station for some reason or another. Your job is to find his hiding place before midnight by solving a series of improbable math problems.
It’s almost charming, how absolutely transparent SSO is about its educational aims. The game box proudly announces that it builds math and problem solving skills. The bulk of the gameplay involves doing arithmetic drills and solving story problems, with no attempts at obfuscation towards the children who would presumably be playing the game. This is a common trait of early educational games, such as the Munchers and Carmen Sandiego series, as well as contemporary examples, if the games on my local library’s computers are any indication. I can only speculate as to why videogames are so straightforward compared to other forms of children’s media. Perhaps the traditionally poor reputation of video games with parents means that video game publishers have to obviously transmit their edifying qualities in order to overcome that stigma; or maybe they leverage the fact that they actually are fun to play (especially compared to a dry textbook) to overcome any distaste the kids may have developed for “educational” fare.
Outnumbered! plays to the strengths of the medium in many ways. Players get points for getting the correct answer the first time, but are not penalized for getting the answer wrong; the story problems can be attempted multiple times until the correct answer is determined, while the quick drills flash the correct answer before moving along to the next question. Your score is added to a cumulative ranking, with more difficult problems being unlocked as the player reaches higher ranks. In large part, the major concepts in the “gameification” trend that sparked and then faded recently have always been present in edutainment games. Perhaps the main criticism that could be leveled from that perspective is that edutainment games are often heavily on rails, and don’t allow opportunities for other learning styles or lateral thinking to come into play (but then again, there’s The Incredible Machine).
The funny thing about edutainment games is that I don’t know anyone who actually had their parents buy them for their home computers, but it was a safe bet that any computer in a grade school would have some game from the Super Solvers series on it. And there would always be a line of kids who wanted to jump on the computers and play them whenever there was some free play time. Kids always wanted to play the edutainment games, and I don’t know if that was because we all found the games genuinely compelling or if they were just better than the alternative, but I can tell you that I played Outnumbered! more than the bare minimum required to write this post. Can’t let the Master of Mischief get away with whatever that nefarious plan is, after all.