What do you imagine when you hear the words “learning game”? At its best, it’s Prodigy Math Game – a textbook packed into a very, very average RPG. Well, it might be more fun than the book with the same math explained so boring. But let’s face the truth: when you play and constantly keep in mind “I need to learn”, “I play it to learn”, it’s a killjoy feeling. There have been masterpieces of its own sort, like Dr. Brain series, but the industry has moved along so far since the 1990s.
Still, there are games that help kids learn (and adults as well). But don’t get surprised if they don’t look educational to you at first sight. But cognitive skills go far beyond memorizing the pages the teacher points out. And in this sense, the games that require learning are very educational. There is even more to them: as American Psychological Association admits, games can foster social and motivational progress.
So, let’s proceed to the games. Of course, you won’t see hits like Call of Duty (the series contains lots of stories – and Easter eggs – but only for those already familiar with the history of the world wars) or Tomb Raider (the same about history and geography), let alone GTA or Mortal Kombat. Still, these purely entertaining games should be kept in mind as a reference in terms of fun. If the game can’t stand the competition with these, it’s not the one to recommend.
Anyone of the games below is here to ruin the myth about games being pure evil, openly teaching violence, denying traditional values, and making fun of everything. And there is an even more harmful myth of education always being dull and boring. Here are the ones that represent the best of both worlds. The educational part of them may be hidden, but look: if the gameplay requires mastering new skills that can be used elsewhere, that’s what we call education. So, let’s reach new levels.
It’s one of the games that defined the industry in the 2010s, and it’s really big. It’s a sandbox game that pulled millions of kids out of actual sandboxes to their computers and smartphones. It may look obsolete, clumsy and blocky, with all these cubic voxels, but it’s a great space for learning as well.
You know how important the multiplayer part of it is. Teaming up, the players level up their creativity, communication skill, and so on. It has different modes: in Survival, players sharpen their lateral thinking, agency, investigation, fast response. In Creative mode, there are as well creativity, visual skills, and teamwork abilities. That’s rewarding when you see the digital masterpiece you create. You have probably seen famous buildings and locations recreated in Minecraft, even if you never tried to participate. It takes a lot of work, skill, and, consequently, learning.
Minecraft has been recognized as a learning tool by lots of educational organizations, like Code.org, that introduced Minecraft-styled tutorials with familiar settings, styles and characters. There is even an educational version by Microsoft. And there will be more opportunities when Minecraft Earth is launched.
Kerbal Space Program
They say gaming is no rocket science; have they seen Kerbal Space Program? In this game, a player becomes the head of the alien space program, so they need to oversee producing and launching rocket ships. There are many aspects of the actual space exploration recreated in the game, from design and scheduling to mathematics and physics. Though in the end, you just assemble spacecraft from parts, connecting them the right way requires special knowledge.
Not being a sandbox, just like Minecraft, this one also fosters trying new ways. Experiments may pay, but they require changing your mindset sometimes. Learn from your failures and enjoy your successes in this extraordinary simulator.
The game has “Very Positive” rating on Steam, with over 50K votes and reviews. It’s an educational game that is anything but boring. Not that it teaches some certain knowledge: it rather encourages you to learn.
Super Mario Games
Knowledge isn’t always written down and put into a book or a film. Some sorts of knowledge are to be mastered by exercise and experiment. So is, for example, moving in 3D structures, feeling like a lab mouse in a maze. And yes, that’s exactly the sort of experience that helps you learn. Have you heard about those mice showing exceptional results in learning? The good news is that humans benefit from 3D environments too.
The scientific experiment meant to prove it involved three groups of volunteers that spent some time playing a game and then were asked to pass some tests. One group played Super Mario 3D World, another group gave time to Angry Birds (a 2D game, as you know), and the third played none. The experiment proved that humans performed better at recognition memory tasks and mnemonic discrimination after stimulating their brains with some 3D experience.
The hypothesis is that 3D environments stimulate the hippocampus, and it improves our ability to learn, master and memorize. It proved right with both young people and those between 55 and 75 that played Super Mario 64 regularly for six months. This group showed an increase in the gray matter of the hippocampus, unlike their peers who took piano lessons (stimulating hearing) or doing nothing specific. It should be noted, though, that the musicians showed a different sort of progress in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. And both stimulated groups had their cerebellum growing.
So, while there’s nothing to learn directly from Super Mario games, they stimulate your brain and pump up your learning abilities in general. They also provide various tasks on spatial navigation, timing, logic, and so on. So spending your time on Mario games is not wasting it.
Rabbids are popular game characters, and this one is the first on our list that openly exploits them for purely educational purposes. It’s, in fact, an interactive textbook on coding, with Rabbids making the algorithms you write visual. The algorithm you write for driving a Rabbid out of the maze to the gate should work. After finishing, you check it and see whether it works as planned. If it doesn’t work properly, the rabbids locked in the ISS will destroy it from the inside.
One doesn’t need any coding experience to enjoy this game. On the contrary, the basic concepts are used in this game without extra complications, so even kids who never used words like “program”, “algorithm” or “condition” can play and enjoy it. As for Rabbids themselves, they turn everything they touch into a joke due to their idiotic and vivid ways. On the other hand, that’s what kids adore about them. Last but not least: the game can be downloaded for free on UPlay by Ubisoft.
It may be not that obvious in 2019, but computer users still need to learn to type. In modern schools, it’s not covered enough, as it’s considered that a kid with a computer will gradually learn this art. (Why don’t they act the same way about reading and writing?) It’s a part of today’s literacy, and, while many kids, in fact, master this art in the background, many others don’t. That’s why games like Epistory are important.
It’s a story of a young girl travelling with her cute fox through a magic country. Like any magic game, it meets you with crowds of monsters you need to fight; and that’s where your typing skills are a real killing feature. Beautifully drawn and shaped, the story is really enchanting; and the skill you get there is applicable whatever you do at your PC.
The Portal Series
While this game was developed as an extension of the Half-Life universe, now it’s a megahit in its own right. The heroine of the game tries to make it through the lab exploring portals that defy physics. But this tool needs special handling; and, being guided (or misguided) by GLaDOS, the computer that watches you everywhere and sends you through new and new puzzles, you may really feel confused.
The original physical idea makes Portal more than just a platformer; it’s a puzzle game that became a meme, and the way of thinking it requires is inventive and bold. In fact, you need to find your way out of the escape room with truly special physics, built within a revolving Rubik’s cube. It will require spatial awareness, lateral-thinking, problem solving, and so on. The logic you need to apply is not straightforward; to get out of the box, you need to think outside the box.
Not only did this game attract the player community, but also it was studied academically (as reported in Computers and Education). When compared to Lumosity, the mobile app advertised as “brain workout”, it turned out that Portal players did better at a cognitive skill test than Lumosity players. That’s another example of a game that made a great educational tool with no intention by the developers.
The Civilization Series
One of the most famous strategy series ever delivers more than fun. Though it seems now as ancient as the antique civilizations reflected in it, Civilization is still a thing. Like in many strategies, in Civilization you start with a small prehistoric tribe and develop it into a civilized society. On your way, you need to master new inventions and techniques, utilizing economics, science, technical innovations, diplomacy, and armed forces. Thus, your civilization needs to stand against the enemies and lead the way to the future.
Unlike other strategy games focusing on military history, Civilization offers four ways to win: martial, cultural, scientific, and religious (just like it happens in real life). Each of the ways requires an understanding of the basic concepts of planning, resource management, economics, and military arts as well.
It can be fun to watch various civilizations interact randomly, so we may see a samurai-vs-conquistador combat, or Alexander the Great rivaling George Washington. Still, with all these conditional leader figures, there’s more to them than simply namedropping: leaders in Civilization mirror their prototypes in terms of bonuses they give to their nations. Not that the game teaches real history: it rather makes you want to learn it.
Nintendo Labo for Switch
It’s not a digital game sensu stricto. It’s rather a construction toy set meant to create various combinations with the console and its controllers. No, it’s not just an application: it’s a set of cardboard elements that change the appearance and the features of the console.
You mean you have to use your hands? Don’t conclude the quote; maybe it’s like a baby’s toy, but a very creative one. With it, you can imitate a fishing rod, a bug bot, a driving wheel, and many other things. Your hardware options are all supported by corresponding minigames within Labo app.
Nintendo Labo is all about creativity, but this time players have to use their hands. The physical world is connected with the digital via the sensors, and you can see how they affect each other with the constructions you build. Labo also gets young players interested in how-that-works stuff, and that’s where using your hands can’t be replaced with digital analogs.
The Professor Layton Series
The scientific hero brought in by Japanese developers Level-5 is extremely stylish; imagine an archeology professor who wears a hat, solves mysteries, gets into adventures, but doesn’t resemble Indiana Jones! That’s because he has a different prototype, namely Sherlock Holmes. Professor Hershel Layton is a Victorian gentleman too, and his methods are mostly logical (though with a place for some insight).
These games are mostly point-and-click adventures; it’s a genre considered too simple sometimes, but Professor Layton games are not the case. Solving these puzzles right requires mathematical and lateral thinking, spatial orientation, and generic logic. If you want it a bit easier, you can ask for a hint; but making it through the game on your own rewards with the feeling of your victory. There are two trilogies so far, released from 2007 to 2017, and probably the professor will return.
This War of Mine / Never Alone
War games have always been heroic and reckless, but not this time. This War of Mine is developed and published by 11 Bit Studios, and the setting is much more realistic. The protagonist needs to protect a group of civilians that got somehow caught between the armed separatists and the army. The environment is as hostile as can be, but you need to survive by gathering resources, mastering stealth, avoiding combats, supporting the shelter, and so on.
The learning element of this game, though, is wider than just resource management. It shows the dark side of the society without romanticizing, and the moral choices the player faces are often hard. For example, you may need to doom other survivors to grant your people will live, because there isn’t enough food for everyone.
Never Alone is a lighter replacement for This War of Mine, so it will suit the younger players better. Based on the tale by the Iñupiat people from Alaska, it features Nuna and Fox (yes, it’s a polar fox, like in Epistory), searching for the source of the neverending blizzard. Along the way, the characters will learn more from the Iñupiat tradition about their culture and their people’s stories.
As the game was developed together with the actual Iñupiat people concerned about representing their culture correctly, it’s highly recommended to everyone curious. It’s an incredibly beautiful game, and its cultural and spiritual approach is very tender and personal.
Embrace The Learning While Gaming: Other Options
Well, these aren’t the only video games that teach and entertain equally. We may find analogs to most of them; for example, Trailmakers can compete with Kerbal Space Program, and the Age of Empires series, reissued recently, is a real-time alternative to the turn-based Civilization. As for 3D maze games, the aforementioned Call of Duty or Counter-Strike, despite their violent content, will do as well. And Minecraft has strong rivals like Roblox or Garry’s Mod.
And, as great as these games get, they are never the final instance of the learning process. While games often reference science and culture, today, we can reach and touch the originals. Reading books and visiting historical places, walking in parks and forests to make a contact with nature, physical training and real construction work can’t be replaced by video games; yet the right games encourage players to at least try.