Welcome back to That’s Edutainment, which looks at educational video games of the past and considers whether they hold up today, focusing on their development and on the relationship between education and entertainment. Previous entries can be found here.
Today, we’re headed into space for the final article in our ‘fundamentals’ series of influential 1980s edutainment: a feature on Math Blaster!, released by Davidson and Associates in 1983, and the subsequent trend of arcade-inspired educational software. All visual sources are from MobyGames unless otherwise cited.
Introduction: Blaster’s Beginnings
Few people have ever been as poised to launch an influential new line of educational software as Jan Davidson. In 1978, after starting her own after-school tutoring program in Palos Verdes, California, Davidson purchased an Apple II computer and sought out educational software in the hopes that such titles could help teach her pupils basic math and reading skills. A college professor with a doctorate in American literature from the University of Maryland under her belt, Davidson soon learned that the software then available on the market failed to meet her expectations, on a variety of levels:
They were dull and if a kid missed something they would make this horrible ‘beep,’ ” Davidson says with disdain. “Here you had this powerful tool for teaching and all you were giving a kid was negative feedback every time they hit the wrong key. And it was loud enough that everyone in the room knew that Johnny had made a boo-boo.”
As a result, Davidson soon began developing her own educational software. Her earliest titles included Speed Reader, Word Attack, and Math Blaster!, all of which were initially published through a mail-order catalogue distributed by Apple. The catalogue ceased publication only a year later and Davidson, resigned, decided to sell her products to a publisher. She arranged for lunch with a representative of a San Diego company and went to the meeting accompanied by her husband Bob.
The company rep went to the same restaurant – only, it turned out, they went to another restaurant in the same franchise, on the other side of town – and left the Davidsons in the lurch. Davidson initially remained intent on selling her software to a larger publisher; however, her husband urged her to found her own company:
As Jan recalls, “He said, ‘You know, you’re not going to be happy giving these products to anybody else. They’re like your children. Nobody understands them like you do. No one will give them the care and the love and the attention that you do. So you should start your own company.’ ”
In December 1982, Davidson borrowed $6,000 originally earmarked for her three kids’ college education and founded her own software publisher, Davidson & Associates. Math Blaster would soon become their signature product.
The first edition of Math Blaster! released in 1983 mostly consisted of simple mathematical problems, with the exception of the titular minigame. Players controlled a man who they fired out of a cannon at the correct answer to an equation.
This aspect of the game became hugely popular – as Davidson noted, “There was no ‘beep.’” – and subsequent remakes of the title developed around the astronaut character, newly christened Blasternaut, and his companion Spot. The 1991 remake Math Blaster Episode I: In Search of Spot introduced new cartoony graphics and Blasternaut’s superior officer: Galactic Commander or GC, one of the first female characters in educational software.
By 1993, the original Math Blaster title and its remakes – now known collectively as the Blaster Learning System – had sold 1.6 million copies and were a genuine phenomenon. An unusual ‘behind the scenes’ commercial was even released around the same time, in which Davidson ‘interviewed’ Blasternaut, Spot, and GC to promote the series’ latest entry:
Math Blaster wasn’t going anywhere. It fit into the trend of “drill-and-practice” educational games emerging in the mid-1980s, a genre including Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and Reader Rabbit. These games thrived on gameplay that was educational and also in its own way, addictive. But this wouldn’t, and couldn’t, last.
The Rise of ‘Arcadeification’
Despite its commercial success, the Blaster Learning System was not immune to criticism. From its very beginnings, schools fretted over whether Math Blaster and its successors were fit for a classroom setting. In June of 1993, the New York Times reported that Math Blaster! and similar products were being criticized by educators who dismissed them as mere ‘edutainment’ – “implying that they are less about learning than about fun and games.” Davidson disagreed with this position and in the process articulated her approach to developing educational software:
“Our approach,” she said, “is to start with specific educational objectives; then we try to think about what is the most engaging way those objectives can be achieved.” Paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan, she added, “Those who make a distinction between education and entertainment don’t know the first thing about either.” Her aim is to make educational materials so engaging that children don’t want to stop using them.
Davidson’s goal of endlessly engaging educational software was the drill-and-practice model taken to its next logical step: educational arcade games. Arcade games were overwhelmingly popular in the early 1980s when the earliest versions of Math Blaster! were released. (In his book The Ultimate History of Video Games, journalist Steven L. Kent identifies the ‘golden age’ of arcade video games as the period between 1971, when the first arcade video game was released, and 1983.)
However, the boom that led to the golden age of arcade gaming quickly turned into a bust. Author Mark J.P. Wolf notes in The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to Playstation and Beyond that “while the number of video game arcades [in the United States] more than doubled from 1980 to 1982, reaching a peak of about 10,000 arcades, over 2,000 would close in 1983.”
Around the same time, educational software quickly entered a phase of what one could call “arcadeification.” One could argue that the original Math Blaster minigame wasn’t entirely different from what you could find in an arcade in 1982. Similarly, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and the 1985 edition of The Oregon Trail both relied on score-ranking tables as essential parts of their addictive gameplay. In her book Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children’s Software, cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito observes that all of these games were part of a new trend in educational software:
They departed from the strictly curricular and instructional goals of the majority of school-based software by incorporating visual and narrative elements from popular culture. For example, Math Blaster took a standard drill-and-practice instructional mechanism but embedded it in a shooter-game idiom.
Later in the decade, The Learning Company’s 1989 title Midnight Rescue, the first entry in their Super Solvers franchise, relied not only on the player’s own reading comprehension but on arcade-style reflexes as well.
Perhaps surprisingly, given how much people fretted over the lack of educational content in Math Blaster! when the series debuted in the mid-1980s, modern-day criticisms of the Blaster franchise and other games released in the same period have shifted away from complaints about the paucity of their educational content – and towards claims that they focus too much on learning.
Too Much Math?
Criticisms that Math Blaster feature perhaps too much math first arose in the 1990s. In 1995, David Hill of Education Week reported that some critics called the game “a drill-and-practice program in video-game drag.” In a 2017 article “Educational Video Games Never Got Things Right,” Ernie Smith of Vice claims that “the goal of entertaining was always secondary to education at Davidson and Associates,” and that Math Blaster, “for all its success, [was] … a drill sheet without the paper.”
In 1985, Davidson’s work to make math entertaining for her young pupils was an unquestionable success – however, the definition of success in the field of edutainment has distinctively evolved over the years. Trends in educational software can be as fickle or as unforgiving as those in any other video game genre.
The Blaster franchise has been rebranded and retooled several times since its debut – first, with the introduction of Blasternaut and his compatriots, and again in conjunction with the short-lived cartoon Blaster’s Universe in 1999, which featured a human main character that has remained the franchise mascot into the twenty-first century. This ability to evolve with changing trends has helped the series survive the ‘arcadeificiation’ of the 1980s and establish a presence in the modern era.
The Math Blaster! series has been subject to a remarkable amount of criticism over the years, moreso than almost any other edutainment franchise. Nevertheless, its success and enduring presence in the educational and cultural landscape remains beyond critique.
This article concludes our look at the ‘fundamentals’ of 1980s educational software. From this point forward, entries in That’s Edutainment will focus on games released in the 1990s and beyond, with a somewhat more fluid timeline as a result.
Join us next time as we revisit the very first title in Humongous Entertainment’s catalogue, and one of the most experimental games in educational sofware: Putt-Putt Joins the Parade, released in 1992. See you then!