Where On the Oregon Trail is SimCity?

Okay, sorry for yet another post about video/computer games. This one, however, is a 2-for-1 special, since it's also about computers in education. Alex Madrigal recently put a post on his blog lamenting the lack of academic attention to "edutainment" software, such as Where in the World is Carmen San Diego.

Madrigal argues, plausibly, that this kind of software has shaped the minds of youngsters for the last three decades in a way comparable to textbooks. (Certainly I remember fondly whiling away my own youth on the Oregon Trail in the middle school computer lab. I can't say that I recall learning a great deal, however, except that cholera is to be avoided).

While scholars have spent considerable effort investigating the implicit cultural, political, and historical assumptions built into textbooks, Madrigal argues, software has gone relatively unnoticed. He is actually wrong, however, about the total dearth of scholarship on this issue. Alice Bell lists a number of works on edutainment software in one of the comments on his post. I'm also aware of a critique of bias in Oregon Trail from the late 1990s, and a section on the cultural assumptions of civilization and empire-building games in Chapter 6 of David Golumbia's recent book The Cultural Logic of Computation. Both of these analyses, however, seemed to me a bit lacking in nuance.

So, in the end, Madrigal is right in the sense that there is certainly more that could be done here. The fact that the publisher of Oregon Trail, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), was for a long time part of the state educational apparatus means its records from that time are quite accessible. But beyond "reading" the games themselves as cultural artifacts and studying their production, I think one would want to do some digging into the question of how these things were used and understood by users. Users matter in the history of technology, and they do not always take products at face value.