Ok, let's be honest. The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer since the majority of these games didn't debut in 2014. Still, these 10 titles represent the best of what came across our desks at Common Sense during 2014. It's an eclectic group that I feel represents well what games can do for learning. So, while some do teach traditional school subjects, most go beyond these boundaries -- they build skills, challenge players' capabilities and thinking, and cultivate creativity.
Making games is an increasingly popular activity in classrooms, and GameMaker is a best-in-class tool that offers a great experience for both amateurs and experts. The robust community offers students valuable means to drive their skills forward. Best of all: GameMaker is used by professionals, so students who master it are gaining proficiency with a tool they can use beyond school.
My favorite on this list, and a must-play experience. While not a game many would consider traditionally "educational," Journey is a profound learning experience. It encourages deep reflection on some of the most important questions: life, love, death, and companionship. Students will no doubt be both intrigued and affected, and teachers can harness that interest to explore important topics like metaphor and narrative.
While it's not the latest release in the series, we reviewed LittleBigPlanet 2 this year, and teachers and students can get this title for cheap. It's charming and fun just as a platformer, but where it yields the best learning is via its level creation tool. Players can build levels just like those they play in the game, using critical-thinking and creativity skills to design puzzles and construct engaging environments.
Looking for a way to motivate students in a classroom that loves games? Classcraft might be just the tool for you. Designed to run alongside learning, Classcraft is a fantasy-themed meta-game that students play in teams and is orchestrated by the teacher. Together, these teams earn points and level up their characters by exhibiting good behaviors -- e.g., turning work in on time, helping others, or whatever the teacher deems positive behavior. Just the same, students can take "damage" if they behave poorly. Far from encouraging the worst of negative reinforcement, the team-based, cooperative, and game-based context turns what was formerly de-motivating and makes it motivating, fun, and more challenging than punitive.
A game with a great pedigree, Contraption Maker is the product of the same people who brought us The Incredible Machine in the '90s. Just like that computer lab classic, Contraption Maker has students solving or creating Rube Goldberg puzzles that build physics knowledge and problem-solving skills in equal measure. It's a premise that students will find irresistible and that's easy to jump into yet with tons of complexity.
Like Journey, Papo & Yo tackles tough subjects -- specifically, alcoholism and abuse. It's a subject that hits all too close to home for some students, and for others builds valuable empathy and understanding. While tough to wedge into a traditional curriculum, Papo & Yo is part of a growing number of "serious games" teachers can use as texts for kids to experience and analyze just like literature. Papo & Yo is a perfect candidate because it uses symbolism and metaphor in inventive ways that students will enjoy teasing out.
This isn't the easiest game to implement on this list, but it's worth the effort. Portal 2 Puzzle Maker is a level builder included with the smash hit Portal 2. It allows players to build mind-bending levels just like players experience in the game. The drag-and-drop style of creation makes it easy to build levels students will marvel at, empowering students and giving them mental space to focus on design instead of wrangling with code. It'll be a hit in science or tech/computer skills classrooms.
Possible Worlds has a lot of utility. The games are free, easy to use, and available on the Web. Even better: They're designed to tackle some of the most misunderstood concepts in science -- from heredity to electricity -- and give teachers tons of plug-and-play lesson support. Teachers can also trust that these games employ sound pedagogy, as they've been developed by experts in learning design.
Sometimes, learning math just takes good old-fashioned practice. Prodigy eases the pain, merging math practice sets with the sword-and-sorcery adventure of games like World of Warcraft. Everything students will expect is here, from killing monsters to leveling up characters -- the difference is that success depends on mathematical acumen. Prodigy also gets the little things right: It's aligned to Common Core, adapts to student performance, and can be accessed at home or school. It's also got a free option that'll satisfy a lot of teachers' and students' needs.
Though it's not quite a game, what 3D Game Lab offers teachers is a learning management platform with game-based hooks for students. With 3D Game Lab, teachers can transform their teaching, making it more personalized and interest-driven. Students don't do assignments but rather go on (and often choose for themselves) quests that get them badges, experience, and levels. It's a wonderful framework that requires a lot of up-front work (with help of the teacher camp tutorials) but can change the way students experience content, and hopefully motivate them to drive their own learning.