I’ve had a long-lost memory uncovered, and suddenly I remember exactly what I was doing between the ages of about 5 and 10 aside from hoarding lego and running more than I can now. The Dorling Kindersley publishing company moved into educational software in the early 1990s as accompaniment to their book series, such as the Eyewitness Guides. I admit I don’t know how well spread these things are, but in the UK they were prolific, but I rarely hear it spoken of much. Maybe it’s just one of those things that’s so endemic that we don’t notice it any more, or feel it worth remark.
Well here I am remarking!
Here is a form of education that’s actually pretty compelling. It’s an excellent example of gamification making education an enjoyable and rapid process, something that engages the mind in a way that makes it want to come back again and again.
Eyewitness Virtual Reality Dinosaur Hunter was always my personal favourite. Like many of the DM Multimedia pieces it takes the form of a virtual museum, lined with detailed dinosaur models listed by era. Along with a host of mini-games and interactive exhibits, in the middle of the museum is dig-site where you could hunt for bones and reinsert them into the incomplete skeletons above. Of course, this being a game meant that the completed skeleton would then come to life and start roaming the museum floor!
I haven’t found anything that puts this much effort into educational software without pandering. And the surprising part is that despite the simplicity that would probably bore me now, there are no childish or cartoonish graphics or animations, everything is as accurate as it could have possibly been at the time, although wildly out of date due to some important palaeontological discoveries that I probably wouldn’t have researched without this software triggering my interest!
Not to say that the occasional cartoon moment is wholly undesirable. Stephen Biesty’s Stowaway was a well illustrated step-by-step cross section of an 18th century man-o-war galleon, and while not excessively exaggerated or comical the animation was highly simplified. The only comic factor was the hunt for the stowaway himself which drove exploration onwards, but this was rather offset by the graphic depictions of death, disease and grisly amputations.
No sugar coatings here! This was bloody and agonizing pain that you won’t see in anything else targeted at kids. It’s amazing what you can get away with under the guise of education, but it works. Once the screaming has sunk in you come to a new appreciation of how much safer everything is these days.
Then we come to Castle Explorer, which wove RP and intrigue into the educational content, along with some fairly rough FLV actors playing the part of the castle’s occupants who were there to help you uncover the Baron Mortimer’s treachery against the king. Ok so there was nothing particularly revolutionary or clever about the ways in which you went about finding the clues – do jobs for the castle staff, “find” pieces of paper and other sundry items that stand out like a badly written analogy – but it’s another level of engagement that makes education passive and readily palatable.
This was some good quality early-nerdity. It actually made me want to learn more, and has sparked life-long fascinations that haven’t faded with time. I can actually draw threads from these few pieces of software through my teens and adulthood thus-far that make me realize how much of what I was exposed to then have shaped who I am now. They lead as far back as my love of Terry Pratchett, and laid foundations for later games like Myst, Heroes of Might and Magic and Dungeons & Dragons to build upon.
Aside from the nostalgia trip this has taken me on, I find myself with some serious questions, principally: “What have kids got now that even compares?” All of these awesome games are now grossly outdated, in terms of technology, visuals, and in some cases information. This is an information age, and CD’s given out in newspapers simply will not have the same effect as something more internet based, but what holds the attentions of the new generations? And how will they learn in the future.
Dorling Kindersley have changed dramatically over the last decade. Companion guides for Marvel and DC, Lego collectors guides, a YouTube channel filled with assorted lifestyle, craft and hobby, and education videos. They have been acquired by Penguin Random House, and have picked up a few new major properties such as Brady Games guides. They’re still flourishing as a company, but I doubt we’re likely to see the likes of the DK Multimedia from them again.
I dredged up the discs recently. Looking through them I can see how they shaped my future and changed my views on the world and on learning. I’m going to keep out of any kind of political discussion here, but there’s no question that things have changed. I ask you how? What resources exist now, and is there a market for Dorling Kindersley’s old style?