Apr 28 2020

Microsoft DOS and the Long History of Educational Games

From The Oregon Trail to Minecraft, educational games have been a part of the curriculum for more than four decades.

Given all the options for computing in the modern day — tablets, laptops and virtual reality headsets — it might sound strange to consider that once, a single school would often share just a handful of computers.

But in the early 1980s, when the first version of the IBM Personal Computer came out, the PC market looked much different and was more expensive. And while driven by a Microsoft operating system — MS-DOS, to be specific — computers didn’t have the kinds of creature comforts we might expect now.

But one thing that hasn’t changed between then and now is the games. There were lots of them, and for many Gen Xers and Millennials, early educational games defined the vintage computing experience.

Almost from the beginning, the personal computer drew interest from educational software makers as a way to mix learning with play. But it took them a while to embrace MS-DOS.

What Did Early Educational Software Look Like?

Educational software long predated the PC itself and came to be thanks in part to a forward-thinking state government that saw an opportunity to embrace technology in its schools.

That state was Minnesota. Leveraging the large number of technology companies in the state at the time, the legislature founded the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) in 1973.

The firm developed numerous educational games during its quarter century of existence including the math-driven early classics Lemonade Stand and Number Munchers.

But the best known of MECC’s titles, by far, is The Oregon Trail, a game in which players relive the pioneering days of the United States’ western expansion. The earliest versions of the game were played over teleprinter-based terminals, but it grew immensely successful outside of Minnesota after it appeared on the Apple II in 1980, eventually gaining graphics that inspired a generation of learners. (The IBM PC received a version in 1990.)

The Oregon Trail Handheld Game

The Oregon Trail Handheld Game, a game in which players relive the pioneering days of the United States’ western expansion. Photo Credit: James Case, Flickr.

Another early developer of educational software, Davidson & Associates, was responsible for the long-running Math Blaster series and a number of licensed games based on Fisher-Price toys. Software developer Broderbund also distributed numerous educational programs popular with kids, including The Print Shop, which was many students’ first encounter with graphic design, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, which taught geography and world history. Graphics quality varied — some games were text-based, while others were more colorful and visually appealing, depending on the computer monitor’s capabilities.

And even then, educational games weren’t limited to software; the Logo programming language, an early attempt to teach programming skills to children, used a turtle robot that could draw objects based on what was programmed on the screen. (The groundwork for this program later led to STEM devices such as Ozobot.)

Some educational software was designed to teach students about the computer itself. One seminal program from the era was Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, a typing game designed to teach students young and old about their “home row.” Other hit typing programs include the Nintendo-branded ‌Mario Teaches Typing, which first appeared on MS-DOS in 1992. The video game giant also developed an early edutainment game, Donkey Kong Jr. Math, in 1983.

MORE ON EDTECH: Discover how K–12 students can benefit from cloud-based gaming.

How Did MS-DOS Become a Favorite for Educational Software?

While educational software was having a major impact on the computer industry, it was a while before Microsoft’s MS-DOS (and, later, Windows) came to dominate the educational games market.

The IBM PC, originally built for business users, grew into a major platform for educational software gradually. During the 1980s, many home computers were manufactured by other companies, such as Apple and Commodore. These non-IBM computers offered significant advantages to game players of the era, such as the number of colors on the screen or the audio quality. The original IBM PC’s CGA graphics mode displayed only four colors at a time, and as popular technology YouTuber David Murray, aka The 8-Bit Guy, noted in 2016, those colors weren’t particularly pretty on standard monitors.

Additionally, early school computer programs put together by national and local governments favored proprietary solutions — most famously, BBC Micro, developed by Acorn Computers in the United Kingdom. MECC, meanwhile, had a long-lasting partnership with Apple that helped the Apple II become common in schools in the 1980s.

Slowly but surely, however, the market shifted in favor of MS-DOS and the PC. In 1984, IBM released the PCjr, which offered more colors and better sound quality, in an effort to attract home and educational users. IBM also courted major software publishers of the era, including Sierra On-Line, Software Publishing Corp. (SPC) and The Learning Company (famed for its Reader Rabbit series), to develop educational games for the platform, but PCjr ultimately was a market failure.

The IBM PCjr

The IBM PCjr with its original display and "chiclet" keyboard. Photo Credit: Rik Myslewski, Wikimedia.

However, that failure helped lead to the PC’s eventual success with consumers, as manufacturers such as Tandy created more popular consumer-friendly machines based on some of the innovations in the PCjr. Other DOS-based computer makers improved on the PC’s graphical capabilities, and the clone market helped to grow the footprint of MS-DOS in classrooms and homes alike.

But the real turning point in the rise of educational software might have been the CD-ROM, along with multimedia hardware such as VGA graphics and the Sound Blaster sound card. These tools eventually allowed MS-DOS (and, eventually, Windows) to outpace the Apple II and other ’80s competitors. Multimedia opened the door to key educational tools such as CD-ROM encyclopedias, but it also allowed for increasingly sophisticated games.

That encouraged firms that originally focused on other platforms, such as MECC and Broderbund, to emphasize the PC. By the early 1990s, companies like Sierra On-Line were developing games that took advantage of multimedia, such as Mixed-Up Mother Goose, which taught players nursery rhymes, and EcoQuest, a game about the environment.

DISCOVER: Read about the benefits of gaming for K–12 students.

How Did Teachers Feel About the Rise of Educational Games?

The personal computer in the classroom posed a question: Could schools mix fun and games with education?

For many teachers, the answer was yes. By 1989, a study commissioned by IBM found that 85 percent of educators said that computers had a positive impact on education (even as they felt outpaced by the computer’s growth). More than half of respondents to the survey said they often felt that students were more computer literate than they were.

But educational games ultimately won their place in classrooms in part because they worked. A 2017 study by Vanderbilt University commissioned by the educational games platform Legends of Learning found that students boosted their test scores by more than half a letter grade when games were used in classrooms over a three-week period.

Old games or new, the lesson is clear: Interactive learning with games holds a lot of value.

READ MORE: Learn how one school district benefitted from an esports program.

Where Are Things Going Next?

Of course, things would not slow down from there. Despite hiccups — including the ill-fated sale of The Learning Company to Mattel in the late 1990s — educational games have largely remained common and popular into the present day. They’ve even won some surprising advocates along the way; among them, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who supports educational game development through a nonprofit.

In fact, educational software in many ways looks nothing like the edutainment of yore. Games like Minecraft and Roblox allow for sophisticated, well-integrated educational opportunities that don’t look like glorified drill sheets, something Math Blaster has been accused of. Low-end hardware offers gaming experiences far beyond what was possible with high-end hardware twenty years ago. And even traditional video games have gained a place in the classroom thanks to the growing popularity of esports.

And with increasing improvements in graphics, sound and interactivity, it’s likely education and gaming will continue hand in hand for decades to come.

One can only imagine what the next version of The Oregon Trail might look like.

“This Old Tech” is an ongoing series about technologies of the past that had an impact. Have an idea for a technology we should feature? Please let us know!

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