Just like much of high school, Edutainment split into two main tribes:
- Geeky educational stuff trying to be just a tiny bit cool
- Entertainment jocks not wanting to identify as academic
The 90s saw various attempts to bring these two tribes together. The results were mixed.
1990s — Chocolate Covered Broccoli
You can’t just cover broccoli in chocolate and make it instantly better because in the end it’s still... well, broccoli.
During the 90s, many forms of edutainment ended up in this position. They didn’t do a great job at integrating entertainment and ended up with a result that looked moderately appealing but tasted pretty bad and lacked nutritional value.
The term ‘Chocolate Covered Broccoli’ wasn’t coined until 2001 by author Brenda Laurel in her book Utopian Entrepreneur, but with the exception of the likes of Bill Nye, it was very relevant to much of the 90s fare.
Gaming companies get down to business
Despite the chocolate covered broccoli being lobbed in their direction, the edutainment games companies were no fools. In 1993, one of them, Davidson and Associates, purchased a small company called Blizzard Entertainment.
Yup - the same Blizzard that’s now one of the largest game developers in the world.
And in 1998, Mattel bought The Learning Company - the creators of Carmen Sandiego - for a very tasty $3.6 billion.
But still, the broccoli didn’t taste too great. There were a lot of games out there that didn’t do a great job of blending Education and Entertainment.
The biggest culprit was arguably Raya Systems, a game publisher for Nintendo.
They were commissioned by the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to use video games to teach children about health issues.
Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon was intended to teach children about the dangers of smoking, Bronkie the Brontosaurus to help kids take control of their asthma, and Captain Novolin to teach them to stop eating junk food.
The problems were numerous: from obscured educational messages; to unengaging characters; and problem solving methods that weren’t applicable to the real-world (Rex used a ray gun to destroy tar and miniature robots inside a patient’s body).
Brands (try to) level up
After the spread of Edutainment in the 80s, the 90s saw more brands get involved in Edutainment more intentionally.
Among the brands seeking to bring some educational magic into their product marketing was one manufactured by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
Viagra (and the impotence it sought to solve) was branded in movies and TV series in different ways to raise awareness of impotence disorder and Viagra as a solution.
Viagra was featured in over 40 (!) movies and TV series - shown as not only treating impotence but also as a wonder drug that provided a solution for psychological and social needs. The movies & TV series showed everything from usage instructions, side effects, and risks, and how to store the drug.
At the end of the 90s, Edutainment was pumping away. But did it have the staying power?
Things got interesting at the turn of the new Millennium.
2000s — Crash & Burn, and Serious Fun
Crash & Burn
The late 90s saw “Edutainment” become a buzzword and The Learning Company acquired by Mattel for over $3bn. However, things were about to get a little dysfunctional.
Just 2 years later, Mattel’s new acquisition were hemorrhaging $1 million a day. By 2001 Mattel offloaded The Learning Company for less than a tenth of the price it paid. Ouch.
It didn’t help this happened in the middle of the dot-com bubble bursting, but the damage was done. Educational games needed a rebrand.
With educational games in the mire, the idea of ‘Serious Games’ re-emerged. Serious Games had been around a while - starting with the likes of Flight Simulator back in 1982. But the 2000s saw a new wave of interactive titles that took edutainment to another level.
In their 2006 paper “Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform”, David Michael and Sande Chen argued that unlike their previous incarnation, serious games "are more than just 'edutainment'":
Here are a few examples:
In 1999, PBS released A Force More Powerful, a documentary about non-violent resistance. Breakaway Games developed a video game based on the series in collaboration with one of the leaders of Serbia’s Otpor! Movement.
The game was designed to teach nonviolent methods for waging conflict using player-built scenarios.
Superbetter is the brainchild of Jane McGonigal. After she suffered a concussion in 2009, the resulting symptoms left her feeling depressed and suicidal. While she recovered, she created Jane the Concussion-Slayer, a game designed to treat her condition (as well as keeping her occupied).
Minecraft is a sandbox video game which is the technical term for ‘limitless possibilities’. It’s a visual interactive space that encourages out of the box thinking and constant creation. Minecraft is seen as being so helpful for brain development that there is also an education edition specifically for schools.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum...
This one came a bit later, but we couldn’t leave it out: Adventures in Sex City, created by the Middlesex-London health authority in Canada. In this sex education game for teens, players can choose from a variety of characters including Princess Vag and Captain Condom, as they fight against the evil Sperminator (yes, you read that correctly.)
There’s a video breakdown of the game here. Warning, strictly for adults.
The middle of the 2000s saw the Experience Economy really kick into gear.
Platforms like Airbnb took advantage of surging demand for experiences, and live events like TED, SXSW, and Comic-Con all saw unprecedented growth.
Why? Because these events hit the sweet spot for creating compelling experiences. They turned the mundane into the exciting by layering education with entertainment and empowering curious attendees to engage more deeply with an otherwise generic event.
Edutainment is a combination of these realms aimed at achieving a certain experiential aim: Education + Entertainment.
The Era of the Individual
Yet despite the brands and big events, individuals remained the leaders of Edutainment 2.0
A combination of the lionization of entrepreneurship, the emphasis on individual creators, and the rise of the “ecstatic experience economy” led to the growing popularity of coaches like Tony Robbins. People go to him to learn about ecstatic or peak states which may help them unlock their life potential.
Robbins is most definitely an Edutainer - he’s gone on record that his approach is built on 3E’s:
- Education: Expertise + Strategies + Tools
- Entertainment: Relatable entertainment will drive you to put into action what you’ve learned
- Empower: Learn to execute on command and tap into your full potential
When looking through the lens of entertainment, there are two broad groups of “educators.”
The first are the “Gurus” who are revered for their success and what they share. They’re often empowering others through storytelling and community. The second are the “Explorers” who go on voyages and share their unique experiences in idiosyncratic ways.
Collectively, these two groups led Edutainment 2.0 and helped push to its “peak” (although we’re not sure Bourdain would have liked to have been called an Edutainer...).
A Peak Moment?
Serious Games, The Experience Economy, and The Era of the Individual were propelling Edutainment forward.
Although the term itself had largely disappeared into the undergrowth, there were some commonalities with the 80s: the traits of Edutainment were permeating a wide range of the late 2000s industries and subcultures - just in more wide-ranging and sophisticated ways.