Level Up: Using Video Games in the Classroom

Many students of the 90s have fond memories of playing games like Oregon Trail and Math Blasters in class. Now that the generation that’s grown up with video games has moved on to teaching in their own classrooms, technology is becoming a more common part of the classroom experience.  But is there a way we can use video games to teach students more effectively, rather than simply as time fillers or rewards?  Can we engage students in deeper dialogue regarding emotions and social interactions without the “cheese factor”?  Can we provide alternative methods for students to gain a more nuanced understanding of the world around them?  Video games are no longer just ways to kill time and procrastinate.  Teachers are already beginning to use games—and gamification—in the classroom to increase student engagement, and you can, too!

Historically, games have provided a visually interesting way to drill factual information or practice more technical skills: Mavis Beacon, anyone?  We need to remember that games can also provide a safe way to experience and explore complex topics without students having to necessarily put themselves on the spot.  While teachers must be intentional with the use of screen time, if an educator has done the legwork to create a structure and context for students to play video games, they can provide powerful experiences that foster empathy and socio-emotional development while helping students grapple with complex academic concepts. 

Character Development, Self-Awareness, and Self-Management

Interested in more on character development? Check out this article for more information about character selection and personal identity.

Games allow students to imagine themselves without restriction or constraint.  Character development is one of the first steps players take within games.  Most online and team-based games provide players with an element of choice, whether that choice involves selecting their character from a roster of identities or developing their own character from scratch.  In many cases, students create or select ideal mental versions of themselves within the game, which teachers can use to lead discussions about personal identity, development of self, and choices made in self-portrayal.

It’s critical to honestly evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your character in order to effectively progress in games. It’s also important to modify gameplay to best take advantage of those strengths and weaknesses.  Students who are able to take that character reflection and apply it to themselves are able to better evaluate where they are and how they’re doing, both in games and in life.  Teachers can also take the act of character development that students experience in-game, and compare and contrast that to the development of characters in other mediums, such as books and film.  

Games are challenging and players often get stuck or have to try certain levels or areas multiple times before progressing.  This perseverance and willingness to fail in the face of challenges pushes students to manage their stress and frustration, channeling those feelings towards a positive goal rather than using that energy negatively. In addition to handling stress, games can have complex stories and plotlines that can provide a wide variety of emotions experienced by the players.  Games provide a lot of positive emotions: feelings of perseverance, luck, victory, teamwork, collaboration, and more.  Students can learn to channel these positive emotions in times of frustration, especially if teachers help bridge that connection for students.

Try This: Consider using game trailers or individual scenes rather than having students play entire games.  Ask focused questions about what the students see, hear, and feel. Taking the trailer from World of Warcraft, for example, and talking about representation of fictional races and how they can tie into stereotypes and portrayals of race in our media today.  

Social Awareness and Relationship Skills

While games can provide lots of fodder for personal development, another strength of video games is the practice with building community, developing teams, and general collaboration.  Shared experiences build community.  In games that require teamwork, students learn to communicate with their classmates, encourage “n00bs”, and forgive their teammates’ failures in order to progress to the next stage.  Cooperative multiplayer games also teach students how standard rules of conduct can translate into real life behaviors.  If students learn to help one another by sharing tips and resources while in-game, those behaviors can translate to real life.

Minecraft is a game that has become immensely popular for classroom use because of it’s flexibility (you can use it in almost any content area), as well as its Lego-like simplicity.  If students –or teachers– can dream it, it can probably be created in-game.  In the world of Minecraft, students must think through content from the ground-level up.  Are you working on a unit about the American Revolution?  Students can build the locations and role-play the events as major characters!  Working on Rube Goldberg in science?  Your budding scientists can work together to build the most extravagant example in Minecraft.  What also differentiates Minecraft from more traditional classroom games is the cooperation and interactivity between players.  The cooperative online play provides an opportunity to set up expectations about community building and supporting one another while in-game.  Because Minecraft is about experimentation and learning, students are not competing with one another in a traditional manner.  Online play, whether in Minecraft or another game, provides students a “neutral” space where they can interact with one another.  Students who are normally quieter in class may feel more secure speaking up while in an online chat, or more able to interact with other students using the goals of the game as a starting point. 

Even without the ability of online cooperative play, there are games that address collaboration and acceptance of individual strengths and weaknesses.  Thomas was Alone is a prime example of a game that teaches cooperation, but is a single player game.  Don’t let the simple shape art deceive you: this puzzle platformer follows the journey of Thomas (a square) and the friends he meets along the way.  Each of his friends–various types of rectangles–has a different ability that makes them unique, but also insecurities that provide some of the conflict for the game.  Ultimately, their cooperation solves a larger problem at-hand in their world.  Topics of discussion include empathy, relationships, community, hope, diversity of personalities and different abilities.  

Games may seem isolationist and prohibitive to relationship-building, but it all depends on the type of game and how the act of playing that game is fostered.

Responsible Decision-Making and Critical Thinking

Problem-solving is central to all video games.  We typically see educational games teach decision-making explicitly, but playing almost any game requires students to engage their critical thinking skills.  When playing games, students must learn to carefully navigate new environments, thinking through all possible options and outcomes.  In many games, choice plays a role in how different situations in the game play out.  For example, in the Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” (which is based on a graphic novel about surviving during the zombie apocalypse), there are scenes where a group turns to your character for pivotal decisions: should rations be split up equally between members of a group, or should more be given to the children?  Should more be given to the ones defending the group and using more energy?  Those kinds of questions, when answered and then discussed as a class, can lead to a practice in sympathy, empathy, and philosophy.   

Games are unique because they are experienced and guided by the player; games can address both a student’s’ socio-emotional development as well as help deepen their content knowledge.   Of course, this means teachers must also put in the time to play these games prior to providing them to students, and develop some tech-savvy.  Off-the-shelf games, when not vetted by an adult, can contain material not appropriate for students or school settings.  Remember: we wouldn’t give a student a book to read and not support them in learning how to engage with it.  The same goes for digital media like video games.  We take it for granted that we should teach students how to analyze a text or a movie: why not do the same with games?  Foster discussions.  Ask students to reflect on how these games make them feel.  Push students to question why games are made the way they are.  

Try This: Ready for the next step?  Try watching THESE videos for some more inspiration, and then head over to the National STEM Video Game Challenge for more resources on another fun topic: developing games in the classroom!

Video Games for the Classroom: Our Suggestions

Consider suggesting the games below to your students to increase your “cool” factor as well as provide fodder for some great discussion and experiences!  All of these games are available through PC/MAC, and some are even available for students to play on consoles at home.  As always, be sure to play these games and experience them yourself before providing them to your students.

Elegy for a Dead World

Elegy for a Dead World — The premise of this game is that students visit alien planets and act as the storyteller of that world, creating stories of the possible people and cultures that lived there.  These words are inspired by poets Byron, Keats, and Shelley, providing an easy connection to English curriculum.  The game provides prompts to players (in Mad Lib-style), or they can write without a prompt.  There is also a grammar tutorial available to players.  This writing can then be shared online with others.  This game provides both an audience as well as a purpose for writing embedding in a fun premise.


IF: A chapter-based “choose your own adventure” iPad game developed for students ages 6-12,  this game is actually inspired by the poem “IF” by Rudyard Kipling. IF takes students on a journey through a fantasy land where they learn valuable social and emotional lessons integrated into the quest’s gameplay.  Parents and teachers can view reports showing progress and gameplay choices, and can reinforce learning in the game by using similar language and problem-solving techniques.  The first chapter is free, but subsequent chapters do require purchase.

Never Alone

Never Alone — This game has set a precedent for the respectful representation of indigenous people.  Co-developed by native Alaskans, it shares Inupiat stories, themes, and values, in addition to making cooperation a critical part of success in the gameplay.  Best of all, it features documentary-style videos on of the Inupiat people who provide context for the sights, sounds, and stories found in gameplay.

Valiant Hearts

Valiant Hearts — A major complaint I have with popular war games is that they can, to some audiences, glorify war while downplaying the intricacies of cause and effect.  The beauty of Valiant Hearts is that it doesn’t attempt to glorify war, and it doesn’t  focus on the guns and battles.  Instead, it tells a story that builds empathy, contextualizes and humanizes World War I, and offers a thought-provoking critique of war itself.  It also interjects primary and secondary source materials that allow students learn about the war in a much more digestible manner.


Journey: ThatGameCompany is a studio known for its incredibly simple, yet deeply impacting games.  In Journey, you play a character whose only goal is to get to the light on the mountain.  The extraordinary part about this game is that there is no text or dialogue to guide the player: only the (gorgeous!) visuals and musical cues.  Another bonus is that this game is fairly short: it takes approximately 45 minutes to complete.  Topics of discussion include the hero’s journey, cycle of life, perseverance, impact of technological advancement, and cooperation.   

The Republica Times

The Republica Times: For older students, there are a wide variety of games addressing social and political issues available for use and analysis.  Games, like The Republica Times, essentially play the role of interactive social commentary.  In the game, your students are tasked  with organizing the headlines for each day’s paper in the game.  Sounds easy enough, except the character they play must negotiate the challenge of personal opposition to the government while needing to protect their family from any repercussions their actions may have.  Discussions regarding media bias, political agendas, and free speech can be fostered after a brief play session in this free, online game.


Enercities: Science teachers, don’t fret!  There are games addressing science topics, like the balance between economy, ecology, population growth, and quality of life found in the free online game Enercities.  A more focused Sim-style game, Enercities provides a sandbox for students to create a city with the goal of keeping a balance between all of the aforementioned categories.  Students can be left free to play, experimenting as they go, or teachers can provide situations and variables to play with, asking students to see what happens in their virtual city when one element is out of balance.

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