School Maze – Educational Games, Ideology, and Neoliberalism – UT


Content Warning: Flashing Lights and Colors, Sudden or Fast
Change in Colors, Racism, Sexism, Food. Educational games contain a lot of nostalgia
for people. Being able to play games at school with varying
degrees of actual educational content was exciting, but it’s also just one aspect to
these products. There’s questions of what these games are
actually teaching, how they teach that information, the ideology behind the game, and whose interests
these games are serving. Which brings me to the game we’ll be looking
at for this video: School Maze. At first glance, School Maze is a generally
unassuming game. It’s an educational game centered around
the player trying to retrieve a missing computer tape from the school lab, but before we go
into the game proper, let’s get some context around its release. School Maze was developed by Computer Island
and published by Dragon Data sometime around July 1983 for the Dragon 32. The Dragon 32 was a Welsh computer created
and sold by Dragon Data in 1982 during the UK’s early 80s microcomputer boom. Around the time of its release, the Dragon
32 was the third best-selling microcomputer in the UK, behind only the BBC Micro and ZX
Spectrum. Unfortunately for Dragon Data, the Dragon
32’s success would be short lived, as the company would collapse in 1984, though the
Dragon 32 would live on for a couple more years under different owners. Funnily enough, the often cited reason for
its failure was that it was an awful computer to develop games and especially educational
games on account of its poor graphic capabilities and inability to display lower case text,
so School Maze was doomed to obscurity with the rest of the Dragon 32’s catalogue. This does not mean Dragon Data made no effort
to push their machines and educational products, as they tried very hard to do so in schools
in Margaret Thatcher’s UK. *Record Scratch* *Corporate Music* Neoliberalism was the politics of the time,
where all aspects of life are subjected to the logic of the “market”. People reduced to consumers, public services
privatized, all in the promise that competition and a supposed “meritocracy” would solve
all our problems. Education was no different, and the microcomputer
boom offered a perfect opportunity for a new market: computers and educational software
in school. As evidenced by writing around the time of
School Maze’s release, Dragon Data tried their hardest to hit that newly open education
market. Their language makes it clear that education
was not on their minds when selling these games, and the market as a whole wasn’t
either. “The politicians made a variety of attractive
promises when they pushed the micros into schools, but their minds were on making education
cheaper, the job market, and supporting British manufacturers.” What resulted was a flood of educational games
of varying quality, effectively turning teachers and schools into consumers trying to make
the best investment that would result in the highest return on children’s education output. The claim was private intervention and “market
rationality” seeping into public education would result in a more “efficient” system
that would prepare children for work in the future. Combined with the issues that this wave of
“computer literacy” and “vocationalism” in schools had where the students who were
being encouraged or able to access computers regularly were divided along race, gender,
and class lines, being explained away on the ideas of “individual choice” and “meritocracy”,
computers and educational games were used as one piece in the ongoing neoliberalization
of public education and society. So where does School Maze fit into all of
this? It’s a relatively unknown game without any
evidence to suggest it was ever played in a school. Even with that, being a game developed and
released in that context, it would make sense if the game itself contained some of the dominant
ideology within it. And yes, it does. The objective of School Maze is to explore
the school to find a lost computer tape in the fewest amount of turns. The game shifts between two types of sections:
a map of the school that the player can move around to get to specific points in the school,
and the screens for each room in the school, sometimes including a minigame. You can choose which entrance to enter the
school and then move to the office to get a pass to two classes: 2A or 2B. From here, each classroom asks you to to choose
from two directions to go in to end up in another classroom. North and south, east and west, left and right. I assume this is to teach directions, but
the actual way these movements work make no sense. You can’t look at the map during these choices,
but it wouldn’t help anyways. Moving left and right can sometimes have you
end up on the other side of the school, so the claim on the manual of School Maze teaching
directions doesn’t pan out. The only thing consistent is that each room’s
directions will put you in the same spot each time. Eventually you reach a music room, where you
can create some neat music! *Beeps and Boops * At least I think it sounds good… From here you reach room 3B, which has a basement
you can enter. You get scared and must exit immediately,
with the choice of leaving quickly or slowly. Choosing “quickly” advances the game to the next stage: lunch! You can type in whatever you want to eat,
but it will always be unsatisfying. Next up is art, where you can draw a line
of random colors. After that is gym, where you shoot a basketball
with the potential for a very strange trajectory. We go to the locker room afterwards, where
we can either faint from smelly shoes or find the key to the kindergarten, where the computer
tape is! We pick it up and go to the computer lab to
see if it’s the correct one. If it isn’t, it’s a quick trip back to
the kindergarten to get the right one, and if it is, congratulations, you win! You are given the amount of turns it took
and other stats like the food you ate and how many times you fainted. The game overall is an average experience
in terms of “entertainment” and can seem lacking in terms of “educational value”. The thing is the lesson comes not in subjects
like math or even reading, but in how a student should exist in a school and consequently,
in society. The game encourages a sense of individuality
through its single-player experience. The player at no point interacts with students
or even sees them, it is an experience where they are centered. The only interaction the player has is with
the text parser, who offers binary choices or a once in a while comment. The Dragon 32’s reputation for being restrictive
with text is apparent, offering only curt responses. It’s less in dialogue with the player and
rather an authority issuing commands, solving the issue of not being able to adapt to the
player’s needs. The player must adapt to the text parser. There could be some enjoyment or curiosity
in exploring the school, but it’s something the game discourages through its turn stat. By quantifying the player’s time spent in
achieving their objective, the game pushes them to be as “efficient” as possible
with their time. Every binary choice is a cost-benefit analysis
where the player must make the most beneficial choice. Those fun classes like music and art aren’t
productive, so they must be cut down as much as possible. The game lacks any sort of randomization except
for the retrieval of the tape. Outside of this, the order of the classes
remains the same. After a few playthroughs, the player has internalized
the structure of the school day and has created the most efficient path to the tape. Their risk has been minimized as much as possible
through their own “individual skill”. At this point, the text parser has become
a background element. The player doesn’t need prompting, they
will follow the parser’s demands without even reading now. The process is complete: under the guise of
better play strategies, the player has become an obedient worker. School Maze isn’t particularly interested
in anything but basic computer literacy, though it’s interesting to see how it attempts this
through the ideology of neoliberalism. It seems less intentional and more that it
didn’t know any way other than the dominant ideology of the context it was released in. In this aspect it is not unique, many video
games to this day do similar things, educational or otherwise, and is why we must be aware
of the ideology in the media we consume. Unfortunately, we’re still stuck in the maze
of neoliberalism, but while they can be complex and winding, mazes always have exits. Thank you for watching. If you enjoyed this video, please consider
supporting me on Patreon or Ko-fi. Patreon is if you want to support me monthly
and Ko-fi is for one time support. These videos wouldn’t be possible without
the generous support of my patrons and ko-fis. Any amount helps this channel keep going. Anyways, here’s my twitter, my instagram,
my channel link if you want to subscribe, and some other videos I’ve made. Well, that’s all I had to say, so thanks
again for watching and I’ll see ya around!

3 thoughts on “School Maze – Educational Games, Ideology, and Neoliberalism – UT”

  1. This is an absolutely excellent vid! I would expect nobody else to put as much into covering an obscure game like this

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *