As an interactive medium, video games can be valuable teaching tools.
They have the ability to engage students in a way that books and film can’t, and teachers around the world are taking advantage of this fact to impart lessons on things like math, reading, and computer programming.
Some recent studies suggest that video games, even violent ones, can increase a child’s learning, health, and social skills, and many educators are now looking for ways to integrate them into school curriculums.
With that in mind, we reached out to some game designers who are also educators, or who work in educational software, and asked them to name some of the most instructive examples of games that teach effectively--whether they're intended to be educational or not.
Jesse Schell, founder of Schell Games and professor at Carnegie Mellon, and Nicholas Fortugno, CCO and co-founder of Playmatics. both single out DragonBox. Fortugno thinks DragonBox is a great example of an educational game because it imparts its lessons in an abstract way.
It's a suite of apps that seek to teach basic math to children as young as four. The Big Numbers app, for example, teaches long addition and subtraction while the player collects resources and decorates alien houses. Algebra 5+, meanwhile, teaches basic algebraic concepts with an instant feedback mechanic to tell you what you’re doing wrong. “It’s elegant and hidden, the way good educational games should be,” says Fortugno, “but since it’s grounded in an abstract mechanic of what algebra is logically, it scaffolds smoothly into actual math. It’s a beautiful experience.”
Takeaway: The best educational games don’t feel like they’re educating.
Mike Arevalo, lead programmer at Labcoat Studios, thinks Mario Teaches Typing is an obvious choice because it’s the first game that made learning to type actually fun. “It didn't even feel like a ‘typing’ or ‘educational’ game," he says. "It just felt like a new and different way of playing a classic game."
Published in 1991, Mario Teaches Typing used the familiar elements of a Mario game to teach keyboarding. Inputting letters and words made Mario, Luigi, or Princess Peach punch blocks and stomp goombas. A chalkboard at the end of each level detailed how well the player performed.
“A typing game can be more than a learning game,” says Arevalo. “It's just gotta have that same fun factor.”
Takeaway: The trappings of a familiar and beloved game can make an educational game more compelling.
"When Typing of the Dead came out, we realized typing games could be fun and exciting," says Arevalo. "Even a little scary."
A remake of Sega’s arcade shooter The House of the Dead 2, The Typing of the Dead trades in a light gun for a computer keyboard. The player, as a secret agent in zombie-infested Venice, must type words and phrases quickly and accurately to kill the approaching undead hordes. The game’s atrocious voice acting and absurdist word play add to its quirky charm, making a pretty mundane task (improving one’s typing skills) a weirdly fun experience.
What makes it so singular--besides the utter bizarreness of it--is that it really is just an arcade-style shooter with a new input device. “Good educational games instrumentalize learning, and this is some of the greatest instrumentalized learning I know,” said Fortugno. “You’re trying to kill zombies before they kill you. You have to type to kill zombies. You don’t think about typing. You just type as fast as you can. So, you rehearse typing hundreds of times without thinking about it, trying to get faster and more accurate, which is exactly what you want to do when you train at typing. And it’s fun. Brilliant.”
Takeaway: Sometimes, simply changing the input method of a typical game can create a great educational game.
Although it didn’t begin life as an education game, Minecraft is amazingly good at fostering creativity. That’s why Microsoft recently released Minecraft: Education Edition. It takes the familiar Minecraft experience and adds a collaborative element. Students can work together in teams to solve problems, while in-game tools make it easier for teachers to monitor and help them with their projects.
Eric Zimmerman, co-founder of Gamelab, believes that Minecraft’s ability to encourage creativity is what makes it so important as an educational game. And he's talking about the standard game, not the special educational edition. “Games are not hypodermic needles that inject players with content,” said Zimmerman. “They are spaces where players do things with each other. Minecraft demonstrates that what can happen inside a rich community of players is more important than what happens between one player and a game.”
Takeaway: Collaborative play can be a more effective form of educating than a single-player experience.
Human Resource Machine is a puzzle game that teaches the precepts of computer programming via the exciting world of office management. During each level, the boss gives the player a job (i.e. a logic-based puzzle), and the player must automate that job by issuing simple programming commands to the office workers.
“As a learning game, Human Resource Machine is a triumph of scaffolding,” said Brandon Pittser of Filament Games. “Solving puzzles unlock new types of code, which are then used to solve harder puzzles, effectively tying the player's progression, reward, and learning together into a unified experience.”
Takeaway: When trying to teach a new skill, it’s important to start off small. Teach the basics, then build from there.
Although it’s not an education game, Pittser believes This War of Mine gives players a perspective on warfare that games completely overlook -- the impact on civilians in war-torn areas.
Inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, This War of Mine is a strategy game in which the player controls a group of civilian survivors and tries to keep them alive by scavenging for supplies, crafting useful items, and bartering with NPCs. Sometimes, the game presents difficult moral decisions, like whether or not to rob an elderly couple because you need their food. That growing sense of desperation is what makes the game so effective.
“This War of Mine gains much of it's impact by leveraging players' existing game literacy,” said Pittser. ”In this particular case, the expectation of games as empowering spaces is effectively and devastatingly undercut through the game's use of a standard ‘base-building resource management’ mechanic to mirror a steady descent into desperation, rather than any kind of success or achievement.”
Takeaway: Even if it’s not a traditional education game, a game can offer invaluable insights by giving players a different perspective on the lives and struggles of others.
Like This War of Mine, Assassin’s Creed isn’t typically thought of as an educational game, but Jesse Schell believes there’s much to be learned from the way the series immerses players in meaningful historical context.
Although ostensibly a visually stunning action game about stealthily stabbing people in the face, Assassin’s Creed also builds realistic environments rooted in history. Over the franchise’s nine main games and various spin-offs, players have visited interesting time periods such as the Crusades, the Renaissance, Colonial America, and the French Revolution. They’ve rubbed elbows with Leonardo DaVinci, George Washington, and Napoleon Bonaparte. By adding these historical elements to its sci-fi narrative, Assassin’s Creed can pique a player’s curiosity about the past in a way that’s fun and engaging.
Takeaway: Exploring historical themes in a game can create many narrative possibilities, all while grounding the game’s world in a rich, realistic atmosphere.