Here at Filament, we know that the best learning games integrate educational content seamlessly with game mechanics. The best way to effectively help students achieve meaningful learning objectives with games is through game-based learning! That’s not to say, however, that commercial entertainment games never have any educational value. There’s a handful of games that have achieved both educational and commercial notoriety (edutainment, if you will): The Oregon Trail, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, and Minecraft: Education Edition, to name a few. Regardless of whether they’re designed for education, edutainment, or just plain ol’ entertainment – most games have something useful to offer their players. Whether that takes the form of the fine motor skills of deftly using a controller, the empathy of putting oneself in another’s shoes, or time and resource management, many games are rich experiences.
Some games are just more subtle about what they can teach you than others! Not convinced yet? Here are a couple of concrete examples. As a teenager, NPR columnist Kaity Kline played a lot of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, which takes place in the early 18th century Caribbean, during the golden age of piracy. One day, her history teacher passed out a quiz she had forgotten about. It was all about the geography of the Caribbean and using the knowledge she’d picked up from the game, Kline got an A.
While Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and their sequels are certainly not the best way to learn a real instrument, the games are not bereft of any sort of music education either. The games help players learn skills such as sight-reading patterns, rhythmic understanding, and active listening. Players can also learn more about music they may not normally listen to, along with any of the cultural elements embedded into songs from times past.
As illustrated by these examples and the games listed below, some commercial game titles stealthily incorporate elements of real-world learning through gameplay, narrative design, and other means. Let’s take a look at more commercial games that do this! Played any of the following games and learned something from them? Let us know on Twitter and Facebook!
Since we’ve already mentioned Assassin’s Creed above, and since we’ve previously mentioned Ubisoft’s first Discovery Tour for Assassin’s Creed: Origins, we’re kicking this list off with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Discovery Tour! Unlike the Discovery Tours for Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, the Valhalla tour involves quests. Ubisoft wrote that the game “takes a new approach to how players explore history: instead of embarking on guided tours, they will assume the roles of different characters and take on quests, which aim to bring them closer to the material by putting them at the center of it”. As players explore this combat-free game, they will learn about Viking and Anglo-Saxon culture and history, along with Norse mythology.
LittleBigPlanet is a series of games, the third being the most recent in the main series. In the third installment, LittleBigPlanet’s main character, Sackboy, goes to another world called Bunkum and must awaken its three missing heroes, OddSock, Toggle, and Swoop. The series is primarily a puzzle platformer, but with a unique twist: the game encourages players to create their own content within the game, collaborate with others, and ultimately, share their creations. The game invites players to work together and get creative by building their own puzzles and levels!
Similar to the LittleBigPlanet series, Portal 2 is a puzzle platformer. Like its predecessor, Portal, players take on challenges in a laboratory setting. Players solve puzzles by opening portals, which can maneuver objects and the player themselves through the game’s environment. Portal 2, however, invites players to create puzzles with other players. This game is ripe with opportunities to learn content creation and collaboration skills, and even includes an educational edition for school use.
Firewatch is a game that The Guardian calls “a triumphant and involving piece of emotional storytelling.” Like What Remains of Edith Finch and Gone Home, this game doesn’t rely on combat, resource management, or other common game mechanics. Like others dubbed “walking simulators” this game relies primarily on the exploration of the environment and a strong narrative. In the game, players are put into the shoes of Henry, a fire lookout in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest. The only person Henry can talk to is his supervisor, Delilah, over a walkie-talkie. In this choose-your-own-adventure style game, players can learn about writing narrative, emotions, and dialogue. Emphasis on dialogue – Electric Literature characterizes the game as follows: “Like an (eerie) epistolary novel, the game centers on how two people talk to each other, even as the plot erupts around them.” One more note on the dialogue: due to the strong language used throughout the game, it is not suitable for all ages. Use your discretion as the game may only be appropriate for high school aged students or older.
How could we not include our CEO’s favorite series on this list? There’s a reason the Civilization games hold a special place in Dan White’s heart. This turn-based strategy game tasks players with building an empire, which includes conducting diplomacy, engaging (or not engaging) in war, and creating a culture. This game does not stick to historical facts or accurate timelines but instead allows a player to play with history, uncovering the decision-making leading up to hypothetical historical events. As we covered in our blog on Game-based Learning, History, and Authenticity, games don’t have to be perfectly historically accurate to be educational (in fact, there may be no such thing as a historically accurate game, since all history includes a multitude of perspectives). Video games like Civilization may not be focused on accuracy, but they can be highly engaging to students, encouraging them to learn more about world history, how and why real events have unfolded, and how we all can do better by one another moving forward!
I may be biased since these were some of my favorite games as a child, but If you’re looking for some early 2000s nostalgia, entertainment, and education all rolled into one, check out a game or two in HER Interactive’s Nancy Drew series. In these point-and-click adventure games, players step into the role of Nancy Drew (of Carolyn Keene’s beloved mystery novel series that was first published in the 1930s) to solve a variety of mysteries in settings all around the world, encountering new characters and new puzzles along the way. With 33 titles in the main series, I can’t pick just one to recommend, but luckily for you, the HER Interactive has a list of their top 5 Nancy Drew games for education. Among these titles is Secret of the Scarlet Hand, set in a museum centered on Mayan culture and history, The Deadly Device, set in a laboratory and inspired by the work of Nikola Tesla, and Labyrinth of Lies, set in an amphitheater putting on a rendition of a Greek tragedy. From ancient civilizations to electricity to Greek mythology and beyond, these games can teach a player plenty without them even noticing as they attempt to unravel each twisty tale.
There you have it – commercial games that have a lot to teach their players! Great games are great tools for learning since they provide a level of immersion and engagement that can’t be found in many traditional methods of teaching. Feeling inspired by the educational potential and power of games? So are we! Reach out today for a free consultation on how we can work together on your game-based learning project.
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