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MasterType and the Surreal World of Educational Games


January 8 is International Typing Day, a celebration of speed and accuracy in written communication that originated in Malaysia. The date was chosen so that, following a week's worth of thought and deliberation, people can write out their ideas and resolutions for the New Year. While reading about this holiday, I got to thinking about my own history at the keyboard, going back to the Atari 800XL my family acquired shortly before I started the first grade. One game we got early on was called MasterType - I don't know if this purchase was inspired by my father wanting to improve his own typing abilities or if it was more so that  my sister and I could more comfortable at the keys, but it was very likely the very first piece of "edutainment" software I ever experienced... although it certainly wouldn't be the last.

MasterType exists in the same weird conceptual space as a lot of games from its era. Like Pac-Man or Qix, the individual elements exist unto themselves without any underlying plot reason for them to be there. Even before you add the "educational" aspect, it's a strange combination onscreen  A wizard is standing on the exterior of some object in space (a ship? a station?) and is being attacked by strange shapes accompanied by various words and letters. When the player types out one of these words and presses the space bar, the wizard blasts the object with a bolt of lightning. (There should be a gameshow where contestants have to tell whether a given description is that of an early video game or an acid flashback.) If one of the objects makes it through, the game will inform you that the shield in that quadrant has been breached. Once another one gets through, it's curtains for the wizard, and the player is treated to a rather abstract interpretation of an explosion, followed by one of the only "game over" messages I wouldn't mind appearing on my tombstone: "THE WORDS HAVE WON."

Even for a game of its time, MasterType gives you very little explanation behind any of this. Each level starts with the text "type the words in the corners before they get you" and no further explanation. The manual is just as sparse, simply stating "the universe is not kind to those who type slowly. ... The Masterype has bestowed this guide on you so he can aid you when the enemy attacks. His magic is powerful - it can destroy any enemy weapon. You can gain access to his magic by carefully studying your computer's keyboard." Aside from providing a possible name for the wizard, any backstory is left as an optional exercise to the player. After all, why should there be anything more? This is a game with a specific purpose (teaching typing) and it's upfront about that. Everything else it does is in service of that goal. 

On the whole, MasterType does end up being a rather fun game, with a sense of rising tension and difficulty as you progress. Ironically, I think it fails its intended purpose by being a better game than typing instructor - you get good at typing the handful of words MasterType throws at you, but not navigating the keyboard in general or following the rhythms of sentence and paragraph structure. The educational games I'd soon be exposed to in the school computer lab, on the other hand, while being just as upfront about being teaching tools, had gameplay bordering on the nonexistent. One, for instance, was just a series of math problems. When you got the right answers, it would show you a little animation. Aside from this and the novelty of being on a screen, it offered nothing we couldn't get from doing the same work on paper. (Although the computer lab, being the only room in the school with air conditioning, was something of a treat in itself). This is contrast to the (rightfully) better-remembered Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego: games where the educational elements were at least integrated into story and gameplay... to varying degrees of success. I suspect the specific bits of history and geography those games were trying to teach didn't stick with players nearly as much as the process of organization, planning, and (in the case of Carmen Sandiego) engaging with reference material outside the game. All of which can (and were) just as easily be learned from games that aren't specifically geared towards educating the player.

In this, I think, we hit the problem when games are designed with a "have fun while learning" attitude rather than taking a "learn while having fun" approach. A lot of people in my generation and younger learned through games and computers, sure, but this was because we wanted to play those games or learn those skills. The only thing I got from MasterType, in the end, aside from its strange imagery, was the concept of the "home" keys - actually learning to type would come a few years later, simply through wanting to do so more efficiently, particularly once I started taking part in online discussions through dial-up BBSs. Others learned their math skills through resource management in 4x games or even from percentage systems in RPGs. Reader Rabbit wasn't nearly as successful in improving my reading skills as my own motivation to read things that interested me. On the whole, those educational games felt (and still do) like a kind of trick, keeping the  classroom's dry rote processes and thinking kids will be more interested if they're shown something cute once in a while. 

To be sure, I'm definitely not an educator - just a goof-off kid who never shut up. I hope that recent efforts have done a better job of engaging with students' interests, rather than simply taking a "shock and awe" approach to teaching, say... addition. When I see modern gamified teaching tools aimed at adults, such as Rocksmith, they're presented as learning systems rather than games - in this instance, a system for learning to play guitar. While there is the school of thought that a game providing the oft-mentioned "dopamine hit" when a player achieves a high score or completes a level (a concept underpinning most discussion on teaching through games) is a motivating factor, I'd argue that one can also get it from knowing that they've learned something new and are moving towards a goal of their own. (This is also why I think Gacha games, like slot machines, are ultimately more addictive than satisfying, even if the "practical" result is the same as if that time had been spent on a game where the players themselves gradually become better at playing.) Teaching through bait-and-switch methods creates an often unbridgeable divide between subject and process.

Perhaps, though, this division comes from so clearly foregrounding the teaching aspect to the detriment of building an engaging game. To go back to MasterType, there's no reason that the "accepted" game interaction of pulling a joystick and pressing a button is any more representative of a wizard's powers than typing a few words out on a keyboard. If, for example, they had been presented as "magic words" our protagonist was saying, it might have felt more naturally like a game, with their wizard character growing in capability as the players themselves become more deft typists. I recently heard people saying they had successfully learned to type from Typing of the Dead, which made the typing an actual part of the story: something, goofy as it was, existing in that game's world rather than externally forced upon it. I'm sure that the logic puzzles in Marvel's Spider-Man captured my attention far more than if they had been presented as a standalone "game" in my elementary school computer lab, and don't doubt that every person reading this has their own example.

Games and stories have both existed for as long as people have, and they've both been part of the way we learn for that entire time. They're how we conceptualize the aspects of the world we can't see, the information being shared with us. If the stories are secondary to the lessons, those lessons feel dry and disconnected - providing faces and narratives to moral and practical concepts is one major reasons mythology exists at all. It's the stories that survive us, that carry that learning forward. In this, at least, MasterType's "unbeatable" arcade nature inadvertently hits on one of the oldest truths: the Words will always win. They'll be here long after we're gone, carrying our memories into the future and teaching our descendants who we were through our songs, our stories... and our games.

 - B

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