by Bob Reinhard
When it comes to locations in the United States that had a huge impact on the computer tech age, not a lot of people would immediately think of Minnesota. But we aren’t just simple farm folk and fishermen up here. Throughout the last four decades of the 20th century, Minnesota was actually considered to be one of the biggest computer technology hotspots in the nation, with companies like Honeywell and IBM having large operations here. But our most unique part of the computer age was MECC, or the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium.
MECC was started by a handful of University of Minnesota teachers in the early 60s who wanted to bring computers into the classroom here in Minnesota. An effort which would play a very positive role in my education growing up. In the early days, since computers were very costly, they helped build timeshare systems to “rent” computers for classrooms. They were the go-to when it came to getting computers into classrooms during an age when this was a pretty new thing.
But it wasn’t until the 70s that they became a more known name outside of the educators circles. In 1971, MECC released their own computer game known as “The Oregon Trail” a game which would go on to be a well-known piece of video game and computer culture. Perhaps even giving birth to one of the earliest known video game memes.
This was far from their only game, however. The MECC released dozens of games for next couple decades including The Secret Island of Dr. Quandry, Lemonade Stand, Odell Lake, and other games in the Trail series including Yukon Trail and Amazon Trail.
While I did play Oregon Trail in school, along with occasionally playing Lemonade Stand and Odell Lake, the MECC games I played the most were the Munchers series. Word Munchers and Number Munchers were in my elementary school classrooms for most of my time as a kid, and we spent a lot of time running from pixelated monsters and learning words and math skills. The gameplay was very simple, but it was just silly and engaging enough to keep most of the kids entertained and interested while developing their basic learning skills. Our reward was silly little cutscenes showing our hero escaping the evil plots of the monsters to destroy us!
These games eventually became a part of the entire American education system during the 80s and 90s and many people I’ve talked to who grew up during that time have played at least one or two of MECC’s games during their childhood. This was a big part of what has made the concept of using video games to teach a real effort instead of a fleeting dream of children everywhere.
Growing up with such wonderful games helping strengthen my education, I’ve become a big supporter of the efforts to keep educational video games in schools. I believe they’re very important tools because they not only teach things like math and language, but they help develop logic and reasoning, critical thinking skills, and even help develop children’s social abilities.
MECC didn’t just play it safe, either. One of their games in particular tried to educate on a pretty hard subject to tackle: slavery. That’s right, they made a game about slavery in America call Freedom! and as you can imagine, it had a very divided reception. While the game did have a lot of people looking to ban it for claims of racism in it’s portrayal of slaves, a lot of people also applauded it for taking on such a tough subject and making it easier to learn about for children. It’s a pretty daring move trying to educate children on such hard-to-teach subjects as this, but it’s one that I think is important to try and take.
So why am I bringing this up? Besides paying homage to a company that helped develop my love of video games, my thought is that holding on to educational games and keeping them in the public eye is helpful to the industry as a whole. Whenever video games are spoken about negatively, we can present these educational games as proof that games can be used for good and can have a positive impact on the lives of the youth. I’d even go so far as to say that I think some major video game publishers should look into putting extra support behind the development of educational games both for home and classroom use.
Unfortunately, MECC shut their doors in 1998, but the torch they helped light will always be carried. Computers are still a large part of education now, and games like these will always pop up in one way or another. I hope the industry can continue to work on educational and informative video games and people are always willing to help our kids learn using these tools. Hopefully efforts like Games For Good can help continue the legacy that companies like MECC helped start.
And now, I leave you with a picture of Odell Lake. Not sure what they were teaching here beside the fact that Otters are assholes.