Five indirectly educational games on the ZX Spectrum #GamesAreAGimmick

So, Minecraft has been labelled a “gimmick”. That could be true. It’s retail incarnation isn’t sold as an “educational” game and probably doesn’t deliver the strict learnings “outcomes” that seem to preoccupy many of the teaching profession today. At its very heart though, Minecraft, delivers a level of creativity, engagement, and freedom of expression in children that has rarely been seen since the days of the BBC Micro and home computers. That should be welcomed and encouraged.

Like so many people I truly believe that games deliver good (including educational content) on so many levels. You can find something even in the most obscure title … write me a paragraph on why the Angry Birds are so angry?

In the meantime, let’s fight back and prove games aren’t a gimmick. Here are the most non-educational educational ZX Spectrum games I can think of:

(see also: The Big Sleaze, Bored of the Rings, The Hobbit, Bulbo and the Lizard King)


I covered my love of Sherlock in this other post. You can bundle every single text adventure into this entry, but for me, Sherlock probably offered the zenith of the genre on 8-bit computers: As Steven Poole commented, we shouldn’t be worried about what children are reading, just encourage and support them in what they choose to read. I wasn’t put off playing the game because I had to read (a lot), I embraced it, and the challenging puzzles not only coerced my mind into solving them, it also pushed the expansion of my vocabulary in order to match the game’s text and dictionary.

As a by-product, Sherlock spurned a wider interest in the sleuth and the ingenious addition of “feelies” (physical items that aided your adventure) in the box spanned that digital/physical world – one that Infocom would soon become synonymous with.

Skills: Reading. Writing. Vocabulary. Imagination. Puzzle-solving.

(see: Software Star, Millionaire, Mugsy, 1984, The Biz, Dallas, Oligopoly)


There were plenty of games that promoted the understanding of how businesses operated. Minder had a very simple dynamic; you bought something for a price, and then you tried to sell it on at a higher price – but it underpinned that basic business principle of making a profit.

On a tangent, I once approached the BBC with an idea for an Only Fools & Horses game that I’d “borrowed” from Minder. Imagine swapping The Winchester Club for The Nag’s Head or Sid’s Cafe and you have the idea.

Skills: Mathematics. Economics. Decision and consequence. Short and long term planning.

(see also: Lords of Midnight, Sentinel, Football Manager, Theatre Europe, Austerlitz, Falklands War)


The Spectrum had some beautifully balanced turn-based strategy games. Julian Gollop refined his original Rebelstar Raiders adding a larger playing area and single player option. The single-player option pitted you against a cunning computer opponent and elevated the challenge of the game to another level. Chess Grand Masters are revered for their cerebral thinking and I guarantee that anyone mastering Rebelstar or one of its compatriots have the same qualities and glean the same benefit from play.

Rebelstar was based in a science-fictional world, but many turn-based games delivered a big dollop of historical content, often set during key conflicts and moments in time. From these I’m sure the player couldn’t help subliminally standing in the shoes of General Chelmsford, Napoleon, or Churchill.

Skills: History. Geography. Politics. Reading. Planning and foresight. Problem solving. Concentration. Attention to detail.



I can’t make a list of games on any subject without including Elite.It came boxed with a beautifully written novella (that has spawned many pieces of fan-fiction) by Robert Holdstock that set the scene and allowed a fervent teenage imagination to fill the voids left by the game’s sparse graphics.

Along with combat, trading underpinned the DNA of the Elite universe. You had to understand and learn the nature of trading between different systems, buying what was cheap on one world and selling it on another where the price was high.

It dangled, for possibly the first time ever in a game, a huge carrot of morality: Sure, you could get rich quick and afford those beam lasers, but to do it you had to break the law and trade in a selection of rather unsavoury items. Narcotics (I’d never heard of the word before), firearms and slaves could all be added to your ship’s cargo hold, but they were considered illegal. Trade in these and your legal status would be affected. Eventually you’d be targeted by the galactic equivalent of the boys-in-blue who wanted to hand out a particularly deadly form of justice – The GalCop Police Force.

Skills: Mathematics. Economics. Decision and consequence. Politics. Imagination. Dexterity. Morality.

Ant Attack
(see also: Saboteur II, Athena, Vixen, Gauntlet, Everyone’s A Wally, Where Time Stood Still)


Sandy White’s isometric masterpiece delivers a 21st century lesson from the moment it loads: You have the choice to play as a girl or a boy.

It seems such a big deal now, but I can honestly say I never gave it a second thought back in 1983. Many other games of the time featured the opportunity to play as a female character and it just seemed completely normal.

Skills: Ethics. Citizenship. Gender equality.




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