Since the rise of controversial franchises like Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat, a harsh stigma against video games has labeled the medium a distractive and sometimes harmful waste of time. Despite their reputation, the increasing use of electronics in classrooms and the growing acceptance of video games have prompted educators to consider using video games as a teaching tool. Edutainment games like Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and The Oregon Trail have accomplished this for decades, but recent attempts at blending gaming and learning attempt to find educational value in less conventional titles.
In 2021, Tore Olsson, a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, taught a history course centered around the game Red Dead Redemption and its 2018 sequel. More recently, Poland added the war-themed strategy game “This War of Mine” to its national school reading list. Neither of these titles was designed with educational use in mind, but their presence in school curriculums suggests commercial video games may deliver lessons and engage students in ways that other teaching methods can’t replicate.
Education Through Exposure
Although many video games are themed around historical conflicts, these events often serve as little more than a backdrop for gameplay. Countless military shooters take place during World War II, but few attempt to educate players about the real-world people and settings that contextualize their digital firefights. However, some exceptions carefully incorporate history into their narratives and worlds, thereby educating players on the sights and circumstances of specific eras.
The Red Dead Redemption games are some of the best examples of this type of education. As Olsson noted in his course announcement, the narratives of both installments highlight various societal woes that lingered in America during the transition from the 19th century to the 20th. The first game shows players the end of the age of outlaws as the country moves toward rapid expansionism and commercialization. Red Dead Redemption 2 acts as a prequel set 12 years before the first game, allowing players to see major changes between the two different settings as they explore the world in gameplay. The stories and characters presented in these games may be fictional, but when players observe the changing cultural and technological climates that revolve around their conflicts, they may better understand history through perspectives that textbooks can only dream of delivering.
Similarly, the Assassin’s Creed franchise attempts to immerse players in its historical locales but differs from Red Dead Redemption by placing entries in vastly different eras and settings. This results in multiple loosely connected narratives that move between ancient Egypt, the Italian Renaissance, the Second Industrial Revolution and numerous other major points in history.
Each installment also weaves notable events and people into its narrative, placing a much greater focus on real-life events than many other history-based games. However, its depiction of both grounded and fantastical fictitious events alongside these historic moments creates a problem for its educational value. Students unfamiliar with certain events and figures might have trouble differentiating between the parts based on history and those invented by the game. Fortunately, most entries contain extensive glossaries detailing the different people and locations that players encounter throughout their playthrough, as well as additional information about the historical events portrayed in the story. Assassin’s Creed: Origins also introduced a “discovery tour,” which removes combat and allows players to freely explore the open world by visiting informative landmarks and participating in educational guided tours.
Games like Assassin’s Creed and Red Dead Redemption won’t replace textbooks, but they can introduce students to topics in a more immersive and engaging manner than most other educational formats. A 2020 study tested this by evaluating multiple history classes that used scenes and images from the Assassin’s Creed series. Although students weren’t given access to gameplay during these lessons, they still preferred the visual depictions of historical moments to using textbooks. Furthermore, students found the class to be more informative when teachers delivered lectures that provided further context and highlighted inaccuracies in these scenes. As such, video games can prime students’ interest and provide a basic understanding of educational topics.
Applying Lessons in Gameplay
While some video games introduce educational subjects through their stories, others use gameplay to test players’ familiarity with specific subjects. City management games like Cities: Skylines and the SimCity series task players with overseeing the various economic and infrastructural aspects of a city. While some schools have tried using these types of games to introduce younger students to concepts like taxation, zoning and budgeting, more advanced courses can use these games as a way for students to put their lessons into practice.
In a 2015 study, a class of urban geography students was tasked with using SimCity 4 to design cities in accordance with the specific urban-planning theories and concepts they learned from that semester. For example, one student modeled their city after a university campus, while another used the 2013 film “Snowpiercer” as inspiration for their transportation system. By learning to incorporate these defined concepts into their creatively constructed cities, students developed an in-depth understanding of the city-planning process and witnessed both the positive and negative effects of their designs through gameplay. Although SimCity has limits that make it far from a perfect replication of reality, it proves that video games can provide open-ended learning experiences in subjects that often rely on rigid curriculums.
Similarly, Kerbal Space Program delivers lessons on physics and engineering in a manner that’s accessible to students of all ages. The game tasks players with operating a space center, wherein the player manages funding, scientific research and the construction of spacecraft. This last objective is undoubtedly Kerbal Space Program’s most iconic feature, as the challenge of creating functional rockets may initially seem just as difficult as real-life rocket science. The game provides a large selection of different parts that determine the ship’s weight, stability, heat resistance, fuel capacity and numerous other factors that are essential to a successful launch. As such, its complicated yet rewarding construction feature drives players to learn about the mechanics of rocket design.
The straightforward gameplay and semi-realistic physics of Kerbal Space Program have made it a significant part of multiple educational projects. A 2021 virtual aerospace engineering summer camp used the game to introduce high school students to the basic principles of aircraft design. In this camp, students used the knowledge they gained from lectures to complete specific in-game assignments. They began with simple tasks like creating a stable aircraft but progressively escalated in scope until students could perform a successful virtual moon landing. Kerbal Space Program allows inexperienced students to directly interact with and understand advanced scientific concepts that would be difficult to grasp through textbooks alone. However, the game’s mechanical depth and breadth of content expand far enough to suit both introductory and advanced courses.
Educational Experiences with Commercial Foundations
Unlike other mediums, commercial video games can be easily altered to fit school purposes. Kerbal Space Program, Minecraft and Portal 2 all provide educational editions for academic use. These alternative versions allow teachers to build entirely new levels with educational features not present in the original games. Some titles also provide free online curriculums, with Minecraft even allowing users to upload their own custom assignments to its website.
Many other video games that lack official educational alternatives can still be repurposed into teaching tools. Mods (unofficial changes or additions made to a game) can help educators transform popular titles into new learning experiences. With mods, players can recreate important landmarks or entire countries in open-world settings, add new features to simulation titles and recreate important historical events in strategy games. One impressive mod for Civilization IV uses the game’s focus on political and warfare strategy to reenact the events of the American Revolutionary War through gameplay.
Civilization IV normally places competing players on a randomized map where they control one of multiple competing factions. However, the mod changes the map to depict cities involved in the American Revolution, with the political leaders and weaponry matching those of the era. The mod also uses the game’s progression of time to depict battles on the same dates as they occurred in real life. The effort placed into the mod’s AI programming and assets greatly exceed what would be expected of an educational tool, but it does a fantastic job of showcasing the potential modded games have for aiding students.
Do Video Games Belong in the Classroom?
Despite the benefits video games may introduce to schools, many parents and teachers worry about the potential negative effects this medium may bring to children. Most concerns around video games suggest they may incite violence and aggressive behavior, or that they are highly addictive and can distract students from their academic priorities. But these critiques of video games usually exaggerate the truth of their real effects on people.
Recent studies found that violent games do indeed increase the frequency of aggressive thoughts and often desensitize people to acts of violence. A 2015 paper cited multiple tests in which participants who played violent games on a regular basis demonstrated more aggressive personalities and less empathetic behavior than other groups. However, a similar test in 2018 found these negative traits were often only prominent during or immediately after exposure to violent games, as most participants lacked any signs of long-term effects.
Likewise, prolonged exposure to video games has also been linked to sleep deprivation and possible addiction, but these can easily be prevented by treating them as tools that should only be used when educationally beneficial. Pairing gameplay assignments with additional work, such as essays or additional readings, may further disincentivize students from playing too long. Ensuring students play in moderation will help courses use video games to engage students without encouraging unhealthy behaviors.
Not every educator understands that video games can be an invaluable resource for teaching, and many will likely continue to ignore them. However, those that can implement them carefully into curriculums will encourage students to learn more about topics in their course and develop a better understanding of complex topics. Using video games in the classroom may seem like an odd idea, but there’s plenty of potential to improve education if more schools give this growing medium a fair chance.