A Brief Examination of Past Learning Games, Wii Educational Games, and the Lack of “End Bosses”

A long time ago, someone decided that learning games – from the Commodore 64 all the way through to Wii educational games, today – don’t need levels, leveling, or the standard video game staple: the end boss. This needs to change.

From MathBlaster! on the Amiga to BrainAge on the DS, developers have ignored turning their games into recognizable video games by skipping this key element. It stems from a nasty beginning: laziness and tradition. Back in the 80s and early 90s, console video game developers enjoyed a relative monopoly. You could choose Sega, or you could choose Nintendo. Parents, desperate to attempt to shoehorn learning into their children’s gaming, would buy pretty much anything that promised to teach while it entertained. Unfortunately, some of that attitude survives to taint our Wii educational games to this day.

The one exception, prior to the Wii educational games era (around the turn of the millennium), “The Typing of the Dead,” was well-received by critics, parents (for the most part!), and gamers. It turned a classic arcade shooter, “House of the Dead,” into a typing instructor. Players are faced with “shooting” hordes of zombies by typing words that appear on-screen. The faster and more accurately you type, the faster and more accurately you “shoot” the zombies. The game progressed exactly the same as its arcade original, advancing through a house infested with all kinds of monsters. Each level was capped off with an end-of-stage boss, completing the disguise and fulfilling the educational game’s promise.

What “Typing of the Dead” did was to treat what might normally be a dry, boring subject – learning to type on a keyboard – and approach it from a gamer’s perspective. Speed and accuracy, inherent to the success of most typical video games, are also keys to typing. Why not approach Wii educational games in this same way? Why not include some of the tropes of our favorite games (beyond simply attaching a favorite character as your “coach,” a la “Mario Teaches X”)? With all the peripherals available, with all the casual gamers the Wii attracts, why not make games… Games? Why march on with this ugly procession of cartoon letters and animated math figures?

These boring educational games were and are branded by kids, with few exceptions, lifeless drags to be suffered through while mom and dad look on. There was so little in-game progression, little to look forward to or train for, just an endless succession of math problems or spelling questions. Game producers knew they needed to sink precious little money in these games, so long as their cover art included math symbols and “learning!” or “educational!” somewhere prominent. Few Wii educational games have broken from this sad beginning, but there’s a bit of hope.

Today, we’re seeing some serious innovation in Wii educational games. Finally, we’re seeing levels. We’re seeing progression and high-scores, instrumental in sparking gamers’ competitive nature. Some games have taken advantage of the Wii’s unique control design and peripheral-saturation by including a physical element to learning. Recent games have included exercise in their educational game for the Wii. Games track your progression and offer encouragement in the form of virtual coaches. Others have included platforming elements, adventure motifs, and other interesting ways to help gamers enjoy learning.

Still, though – a ten-year-old game is the single standing example of an educational game that actually includes the use of “end bosses.” The game industry, gamers, and parents would all do well to recognize the lack of “end boss” opponents in educational Wii games. By including stages and end bosses, as well as all of the recent innovations, we will see a huge improvement in educational video games. We must overcome this legacy of mediocrity. Let’s make our games fun again. Let’s make our video games… games!

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