8-bit education

By Luke Wilusz

I can’t imagine grade school without video games. I don’t just mean the ones I played at home, after school, on my trusty old Super Nintendo Entertainment System, although that did eat up hours of my childhood. No, I’m talking about the educational games they had on the computers at school when I was little. Some of my fondest memories from elementary school involve eagerly waiting for other students to leave one of the classroom’s handful of computers, so I could get a chance to play “The Oregon Trail,” “Math Blaster” or “DinoPark Tycoon.” These games piqued my interest in topics like history, math and science, and they forced me to retain the things I learned by presenting me with challenges that put that information to use.

Games are a great way to keep kids engaged in the topics they’re learning and, more importantly, make them actually want to learn. Unfortunately, many people can’t afford modern consoles or computers, and countless children around the world are growing up without the opportunity to learn through play.

PlayPower.org is trying to change that. PlayPower is a non-profit organization dedicated to developing educational software for distribution in developing countries. In places like India, where more modern technology can be prohibitively expensive for many low-income families, 8-bit computers utilizing components reminiscent of the Apple II or the original Nintendo Entertainment System can be purchased for approximately $10. These computers even plug into TVs, eliminating the need to purchase a separate monitor.

PlayPower encourages volunteer artists, engineers, educators, developers and hackers to collaborate to create educational 8-bit games that are affordable for low-income families in third-world countries. So far, the organization has developed a game that teaches typing, a general-knowledge quiz game and a game that raises awareness about malaria.

It’s a commendable cause, and it’s receiving support from a local music scene that is just as immersed in retro technology as PlayPower. Chicago chiptune artists are coming together with PlayPower for Power Up, a benefit event on Sept. 10 at the Nightingale Theater, 1084 N. Milwaukee Ave. The event will start out with a series of 8-bit game design workshops, which will cost attendees $25, followed by a $10 concert by six local chip musicians, all to benefit PlayPower and raise awareness for its mission.

This is a great opportunity to support both a worthwhile cause and a rising music scene in a city that’s got some serious talent behind it. Local game developers might learn something new in the workshops and help underprivileged kids get a better education, and fans of energetic electronic music can support a good cause. Seems like a win-win to me.