The Unintended Education: An Educational Retrospective of Scorched Earth

In this ongoing column, I’ll take a look back at a past game that may not have been specifically intended to serve an educational purpose, but still managed to teach us lessons in its own way.

Today:  Scorched Earth

Scorched Earth

Scorched Earth, 1991 DOS/PC

Scorched Earth was a 1991 DOS-era shareware game that featured two or more opposing tanks that traded rounds of fire in an attempt to destroy the other first. The game featured extremely rudimentary graphics, a wide variety of weapons, utilities and gameplay options, and was one of the first examples of deformable terrain seen in a video game.  This game’s lessons stemmed from the wide number of variables that could change before or during combat, and the trial and error experimental nature of each players turn.

One of the better multiplayer DOS games in history, Scorched Earth could feature up to 10 players, each with his or her own immobile “tank” distributed across a 2-dimensional representation of a mountain range.  Each player would take a turn to choose the weapon their tank would use, adjust the degree of the firing angle, and the power that the tank would fire with.  Most weapons could be affixed with a “tracer” which would draw the parabola of their shots trajectory, allowing the player to visually estimate and predict their next shot, should the first one miss.

Lemonade Stand was never this violent.

Lemonade Stand was never this violent.

Furthermore, when reaching their point of impact, artillery would deform the ground at a scale relative to its power.  Over the course of a game massive craters would appear, mountains would flatten, and hillsides and cliffs would collapse, often burying other tanks underneath a pile of dirt which they would then have to carefully dig out from.  The game had an extremely large number of various traditional and fantasy-themed weapons that went beyond the typical explosive shell or missile, such as the “Dirt Bomb”, which would explode in a mound of new earth, creating new hills to block incoming fire, or bury any unlucky opponent beneath.

Adding more to the variable nature of play, landscapes were procedurally generated and different every game, and after each players turn the direction and strength of the wind would potentially change, forcing players who were certain of their next move to completely reevaluate for new circumstances.  A healthy number of gameplay options kept the game fresh, allowing players to alter physics variables for air density, gravity strength, frequency and variability of the wind speed and direction, and even rudimentary “economy” options which would change the rate of interest players gained while alive, allowing them to purchase new weapons in between rounds.

I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

Aside from the theme of tanks doing battle, the game was entirely nonviolent and could provide many hours of fun between a small group of friends, a social gathering, or a modestly sized classroom, and while under the guise of entertainment, taught players the basics of patience, prediction, trial and error, and decision making in a light strategy package.

Many versions of the game exist today, from the original shareware version, online adaptations, and post-2000 versions offering updated graphics, online play and larger variety of weapons and options.  Probably the most well-known franchise fathered by Scorched Earth is the long-running Worms series, but even more widely recognizable today would be the extremely simplified form played in nearly every home: Angry Birds.







Scorched Earth © William Hendel
Worms © Team17

Angry Birds © Rovio Entertainment

Posted in Education

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