Recovering my past through edutainment and software preservation
This was originally posted on LinkedIn, but I thought it would be a good fit for my personal blog as well, so it’s making its debut here after about a week of exclusivity.
It doesn’t come out as often or as overtly as it might’ve when I was younger, but I’ve always been fascinated by old software. There was a period in the early 2000s where almost every computer game I played was for antiquated MS-DOS systems, and I often spent more time trying to get a game to run properly than I did actually playing the games (this was before DOSBox really became a viable option, although I later embraced it as its functionality improved and I gained access to more powerful computers). Long story short – with a few exceptions, like a huge box of floppies my mother bought me at a garage sale, I relied heavily on the efforts of benevolent archivists to keep myself entertained. Despite all this, and my major/minor combination of history and computer science, I didn’t expect that one day, I would actually contribute to their efforts.
Enter Pre-Algebra World: Number Sense. My experience with this program predates my initiation into computer gaming’s past; it was instead given to me by my parents when I was 6 years old because I was displaying an early aptitude for mathematics, and they hoped that this would hone it. It presumably served its purpose, and I willingly parted with it some years later because I’d outgrown it. I took a lot of things in stride as a child, but as my awareness of computer history grew, memories of Pre-Algebra World occasionally filtered into my mind. One day, in my sophomore year of college, I suddenly became aware that it was at risk of disappearing from humanity’s memory forever. Many more famous titles in the edutainment genre (such as Oregon Trail and Math Blaster) had already been heavily discussed and documented throughout the internet. Pre-Algebra World, on the other hand, was only acknowledged by an antiquated looking website claiming to sell it for 40 dollars; this website has since gone offline. At the time, I didn’t feel like I was capable of doing anything useful to preserve and document it, especially since I needed to focus on my studies.
Over the next five years, several things happened to challenge my assumption. First of all, the concept of the “Let’s Play” (recording yourself playing a video game, often with commentary, also sometimes known as a longplay) became incredibly, enormously popular; Let’s Play celebrity Felix Kjellberg (PewDiePie) has over 40 million subscribers on YouTube as of this writing, putting him ahead of many popular musicians, comedians, filmmakers, animators, etc, and allowing him substantial influence over the game market. More recently, I’ve taken a job that while not strictly related to my tech nostalgia has encouraged me to think historically and critically about various other subjects in my life. Death metal rarely overlaps with pedagogical efforts in the same way that computer games do, but editing for a site dedicated to its preservation (amongst other things) made me wonder what I could do to keep my parts of own past from being forgotten and turning to dust and bitrot.
When I came across a copy of Pre-Algebra World on eBay at the beginning of October, the idea of archiving it suddenly went from impossible pipe dream to entirely doable. It took me some time to convince myself that this was a worthy project, but even when I first came across this, I had a complete toolset with which to expose this program to a mass audience. Not only does there exist a plethora of software repositories that would potentially be interested in this type of software, but I also have experience documenting video games, having even experimented with making Let’s Plays and game reviews some years back. I even uploaded some of my efforts to YouTube, but they languished due to my priorities consistently being elsewhere; I am still a hobbyist at best in this field. Still, I was armed with a copy of Bandicam to capture my footage, a non-linear video editing program, an armada of hardware emulators to ensure software compatibility, and crucial experience, so I eventually made the purchase; a jewel case containing the CD arrived the day before Halloween. As children took to the streets in search of candy, I prepared a lost treat for the world to see.
While I knew much of what I needed in order to see the project to completion, there were major gaps in my knowledge that I needed to fill in order to execute things properly. As part of my research, I contacted Phil Salvador, operator of The Obscuritory (obscuritory.com); any site that discusses old, forgotten software with an informative and witty style is definitely on my reading list. By following the site and its associated Tumblr blog, I saw that Phil was highly dedicated to this task of restoring and archiving old software, and figured that he would be able to give me good advice. I found what he had to say very useful, particularly in regards to how I could take the step from merely recording footage and/or commentary to making sure the software was properly preserved and made available. Needless to say, I wanted to do this as thoroughly and correctly as possible.
At this point, you might be wondering why I feel so strongly about preserving what is clearly just an educational tool, and one that’s almost certainly been obsoleted by both advances in technology, educational methods, and cognitive science. Some of the archivists would argue that everything is worth preserving. I can’t comment on the validity of that argument, given that my reasons for preserving this title are very personal in nature. However, to put it… …professionally, Pre-Algebra World is really weird. The creators were clearly fascinated by what they could do with pre-rendered computer graphics and the large storage space afforded to them by a CD-ROM. Their artistic efforts knew no restraint, and therefore, the mathematics lessons that serve as the game’s bread and butter are bound by a series of fanciful abstract landscapes with little cohesion.
However, even in 1997, the technology used to create Pre-Algebra World‘s artwork was already obsolescent in many ways. By then, the average home computer could display significantly better pre-rendered graphics due to supporting greater resolution and color depth, and it could also handle more and higher quality sound assets at once. As an example, take a look at Riven, another game released in 1997 that used many similar technologies but looks and sounds far better; it might not be the fairest comparison, since it was produced by a studio with far more resources to dedicate towards audiovisuals. Furthermore, the educational software market lagged technologically behind the personal computer software market, so aiming for a lower standard of computer may have broadened the market they could target. Not every 1990s multimedia game was Riven (or even Phantasmagoria), though, and once the novelty of the form wore off, countless titles that were once cutting edge were quickly discarded. Ironically, nearly 20 years after its release, there is now something of a subculture revolving around the excesses of 1990s multimedia software, and my (limited) awareness of this movement did much in recent years to keep this software and similar things in my mind.
With all of my preparations, I found actually playing through and recording the game very easy; this allowed me to focus my attention on the actual content. Since I’ve only experienced math education as a student, I can’t vouch for or against Pre-Algebra World‘s methods beyond that they were at least somewhat effective for me in my youth. The window-dressing that surrounds the lessons is, however, completely off the wall, and I can see how students then and now could find it distracting in how surreal it is at times. The technical limitations I mentioned are a major part of this, but the problems go beyond what merely aiming for limited hardware can do. Perhaps the greatest problem is that whatever software Cogtech used to script and choreograph everything apparently had no support for anything resembling fluent animation. Objects jerk across the screen in unnatural trajectories, with little regard for coherent motion or even self-consistent physics. They managed to relate their choice of audiovisuals for each unit to the subject at hand (i.e, the magic of word problems), and each subject is placed in a locale with something of a coherent theme, but I actually found some of the creative choices in this program disturbing. Why are the eyes of “Google” (the cone turned teacher proxy that follows you through the game) so heavily covered with veins? Why does Eratosthenes’ sieve gasp at you when you remove the wrong multiple? There are so many questions I could ask about the audiovisuals; I guess that from one perspective, it’s a plus in their favor that they’re memorably bizarre and unsettling.
Once I got over the stranger aspects of the software, preparing the video I’d captured for YouTube was a simple process. I didn’t need to spend very much time editing the video, except to add smoother transitions between separate recording sessions. I did, however, spend a while adding a large amount of annotations as commentary. Now, annotations aren’t the only way to provide commentary on Youtube; in fact, a great deal of Let’s Play content contains spoken commentary overlaid onto the original footage in a video editor. While I’ve done that before, I didn’t feel it was appropriate for this video. Perhaps the best reason to do voice commentary on a Let’s Play is to convey your personal experience with the game, but Pre-Algebra World does not contain much room for variety of experience. Either you learn the subjects and answer questions correctly, or you don’t. Furthermore, to my understanding, the amount of mathematics problems the program can generate are very limited due to how the program is constructed. Annotations, on the other hand, allow me to make the commentary an optional part of the video. A user can disable them if they don’t want my experiences and opinions to infringe on their own opportunities to experience the content. In the end, while writing commentary the video took a significant amount of time, it also allowed me some freedom of interpretation I might not otherwise have, including a mixture of serious discussion, speculation, and nonsensical humor.
Ultimately, I don’t know how much attention this project (or my documentation of it through this article) is going to get, but regardless, I feel that I’ve learned something about myself and my past from engaging in it. I like to think that all the media I’ve been exposed to has shaped and influenced me in some way, no matter how small. Therefore, having a grasp on what media I’ve consumed allows me to understand some part of my personality, and ideally leaves me less confused by some of the stranger memories of my childhood. I don’t know if I’m a particularly better person for having re-experienced Pre-Algebra World, but my efforts to rescue it for posterity may help someone else resolve their own memories, or at least give them an hour and a half of entertainment.
At the time of writing, Pre-Algebra World is not sold by its original creators – Cognitive Technologies Corporation, in fact, is long gone, although an unrelated IT recruiting firm admittedly enjoys the benefits of its name. In the late 1990s, though, their usage of multimedia and internet technology to teach mathematics may have indeed been revolutionary. However, their last bastion, a website called Mathrealm, has fallen to a domain squatter, and the only way to purchase this software now is secondhand. If the planets align (and I doubt this will happen), you might see the current rightsholder make the software available for purchase, whomever they might be, although the fact it’s almost certainly obsolete as a teaching tool makes me think this is especially unlikely.
In order to make it easier for you to experience Pre-Algebra World, I’ve embedded the video I created. You might find it interesting, at least if you share my interest in the various topics I discussed in this article.