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How to Find Learning Opportunities in Video Games Kids and Teens Love

Resources to help you unlock the learning potential in popular games.

Tanner Higgin | May 26, 2022

Every game has learning potential, from small games made for classrooms to big blockbusters made to be enjoyed at home. Sure, the games made for in-school learning are the easiest to implement (and to convince administrators to buy!); however, they're not always the games that students find the most fun, rewarding, or even educational. Take Minecraft, for instance. It's an absorbing game that's tough for some to put down. It was never designed for classrooms, and yet it just so happens to be, in my opinion, the greatest educational game ever made. 

There are tons of games your students already play at home that are packed full of learning potential.

Minecraft isn't alone, either. There are tons of games your students already play at home that are packed full of learning potential. Using these games for learning just requires a slight rethinking of what an "educational game" looks like. This means games that feature less gamification and content drills, and instead have absorbing stories and settings, or compelling simulations and systems. Of course, not all games are school-appropriate, and some are better suited to classroom adaptation than others. That's why we've also hand-picked some games below that lend themselves well to learning. Pair these with our Game Journal worksheet to help connect students' at-home play back to your curriculum.

Using Games in the Classroom

Three key tips for game-based learning

Use the games your students already play.

  • Start with the games your students (or you!) already like playing. Use after-school play as a litmus test for engagement.
  • Consider titles with the potential to drive deep, critical thinking.

Treat games like experiences, not instruction.

  • Prep just like you would for a field trip or a film screening. Set some context, then explore with your students.
  • Resist the urge to offer instruction too soon; help students reflect and unpack the experience afterward. 
  • Even if students stray off course, that's bound to bring opportunities for great learning. Also, don't forget about board games! Find what works best for you.

Use inaccuracies to drive inquiry.

  • Many games come with inaccuracies, as well as exaggerations or metaphors. Use these to your advantage.
  • As students play, help them see any inaccuracy as a learning opportunity. Have students keep track of what doesn't seem right, then follow up with research comparing the game's point of view with reality.

Student handout for connecting at-home play to the classroom

To help capture the learning that happens during play, get students to play more thoughtfully and to jot down their thinking and observations during or after a game. This can work with in-class or after-school play, but it'll also work for at-home play. These notes can then be used as a starting point for discussions and assessments that connect gameplay to classroom content.

One of the most straightforward ways to connect gameplay to content is to have students analyze the characters, plot, mood, settings, and themes of story-based games they're playing at home -- just like they would with a novel. We've put together a Game Journal handout to help, inspired by the work of Edmond Chang.

 

Screenshot of the top half of the game journal worksheet.

 

Popular video games with learning potential for kids

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure

A charming game with an environmental message, Alba is a good option for civics, social and emotional learning (SEL), and a little bit of science learning. Students will learn about the power of community, advocacy, and responsibility when it comes to tackling big issues like climate change.

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure screenshot

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

This sprawling, gorgeous adventure is full of action and discovery that'll test students' problem-solving skills. While the game has a story, it'll pale in comparison to the tales students can tell of spontaneous, non-scripted moments that emerge during play.

Breath of the Wild screenshot

Lost Words: Beyond the Page

This moving adventure game about a girl and her grandmother is anchored by a magical journal. The game's puzzles build critical thinking skills, while the story offers valuable lessons about loss and perseverance.

Lost words screenshot

Popular video games with learning potential for teens

Kentucky Route Zero

One of the few games written and realized so well that it stands up with literary fiction, Kentucky Route Zero offers a rich text for students to explore. For teens especially, the moody tone will resonate deeply and invite comparisons with some of their favorite TV shows, movies, and music.

Kentucky Route Zero screenshot

Unpacking

This is one of the most inventive -- and impactful -- narratives of recent years: an entire story told through unpacking and putting things away after a move. It's a great opportunity to discuss with students how games communicate meaning and explore identity in unique ways.

What Remains of Edith Finch

This first-person story is like a magical realist novel come to life. It tells the tale of an eccentric family and their history through a series of dazzling game-based sequences. Each sequence offers a rich opportunity to discuss metaphor and symbolism.

What Remains of Edith Finch screenshot

More games to consider

Learning Games That Put Play First

The games on this list -- most of which weren't designed for schools -- offer playful, informal learning experiences that kids and teens find irresistible.

The Most Engaging Games for the Classroom

Great games that'll hook students, plus promote critical thinking and offer opportunities for deep learning.

Games for Building Critical-Thinking Skills

Games that create reflective, independent thinkers.