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Games for Building Critical-Thinking Skills

Students love opportunities to sink their teeth into problems that don't have clear answers, or to tackle tough challenges that test their deduction skills and knowledge. It's often out of this challenging murkiness that new perspectives and ideas emerge. Treat your students to these terrific, fun critical thinking games and watch how they develop thinking skills and more complex understandings of the world. On this list are puzzle games that help students solve problems and think ahead, story-based games that help students understand and unpack local and global issues, and strategy games that get students to manage time and resources.

Minecraft: Education Edition

Stellar collaboration tools, controls make Minecraft classroom-ready

Bottom Line: An excellent tool to engage students in learning, collaboration, and critical thinking is now more accessible than ever to teachers.

Grades: K–12
Price:
Free to try

Kahoot! DragonBox Learn Chess

Gentle chess puzzle game ideal for young newbies

Bottom Line: For kids who are new to chess but want to learn how to play, this fun intro to the game provides a well-done tutorial combined with a light overarching storyline.

Grades: 1–8
Price:
Free to try

Crayon Physics Deluxe

Influential physics game is still a draw

Bottom Line: Instantly engaging and super accessible to learners of many ages and abilities, Crayon Physics Deluxe fuses conceptual science learning with a brand of playful problem solving that demands creativity.

Grades: 2–12
Price:
Paid

Contraption Maker

Solve problems, puzzles, brain teasers while creating wacky machines

Bottom Line: Hands-on problem-solving leads to great fun and independent learning with the right curricular wraparound to connect what kids are doing with what they need to know.

Grades: 3–8
Price:
Free, Paid

Zoombinis

Classic logic puzzler gets a beautiful new look

Bottom Line: Promote powerful thinking skills, resilience, and decision-making through purely fun gameplay that will keep students begging for more.

Grades: 3–8
Price:
Paid

Minecraft

Spiraling sandbox of adventure and creation gets kids to dig deep

Bottom Line: An irresistible and seemingly limitless incubator for 21st-century skills that, with a little guidance, can chart new courses for learning.

Grades: 3–12
Price:
Paid

WordWhile: Casual Literary Fun

Clever fill-in-the-blank game playfully promotes literature

Bottom Line: A different spin on reading the classics can engage students in the short term, but teachers should find ways to extend learning.

Grades: 3–12
Price:
Paid

Little Alchemy 2

Flex alchemical muscles in amusing, discovery-based puzzler

Bottom Line: This amusing puzzle game encourages creativity, perseverance, and systems thinking, and with creative integration it can build interest in math, science, history, and literature.

Grades: 6–12
Price:
Free

Geoguessr

"Just one more turn" gameplay jazzes up geography

Bottom Line: Game-based platform is a great way to get kids interested in world geography, think critically, and expose them to cultures other than their own.

Grades: 4–12
Price:
Free, Free to try, Paid

Quandary

Slick ethics game teaches students to make tough decisions

Bottom Line: This versatile game that can teach ethics, argumentation, and civics is light on interactivity but will come alive through discussion.

Grades: 5–8
Price:
Free

Scribblenauts Remix

Vocab-building word puzzles inspire creative problem-solving

Bottom Line: Wide-open problem solving builds creativity, vocabulary, and spelling skills, but controls can be tricky.

Grades: 5–8
Price:
Paid

Community in Crisis

Game shows real-world uses for literacy and decision-making skills

Bottom Line: A clever, real-world, and civic-minded context to learn and practice ELA skills.

Grades: 5–9
Price:
Free

Tyto Online

Ambitious science role-playing game has bright future

Bottom Line: Diverse characters, immersive experiences, and useful teacher tools make this life science RPG worth checking out.

Grades: 6–8
Price:
Free to try, Paid

Vital Signs

ELA game set in a medical clinic shows the value of literacy skills

Bottom Line: Great ELA lessons that realistically integrate literacy skills into the simulated day-to-day of a medical clinic.

Grades: 6–8
Price:
Free

Beats Empire

Music producing game balances fun with critical thinking and planning

Bottom Line: Students will have a blast with the music production and band-managing theme that carries with it some useful lessons in 21st century skills.

Grades: 6–12
Price:
Free

Humankind

Refinement of strategy game formula supports historical exploration

Bottom Line: Like any consumer-oriented game, this experience will absorb and delight students far more than "educational" games, but it'll require open-minded and creative teaching.

Grades: 6–12
Price:
Paid

KIDS

An avant-garde journey of group dynamics sparks discussion

Bottom Line: An unusual app that will confuse and entertain classrooms, generating discussion on a number of societal and philosophical topics.

Grades: 6–12
Price:
Paid

Mars Horizon

Authentic space agency sim focuses on logistics, planning

Bottom Line: This sim is backed by major space agencies, so it's a neat and trustworthy way to learn about the challenges of past and future space exploration.

Grades: 6–12
Price:
Paid

NewsFeed Defenders

Social media simulation builds news literacy skills

Bottom Line: This is a great tool to kick off critical discussions about news and social media.

Grades: 6–12
Price:
Free

Professor Layton and the Curious Village

Brilliant, charming puzzler challenges kids' ELA and math skills

Bottom Line: It's on Nintendo DS so it's not easy to weave into a classroom, but it's worth it, bridging ELA and math in complex puzzles guaranteed to absorb students.

Grades: 6–12
Price:
Paid

The Pack - NYSCI

Deceptively gentle coding game really packs a problem-solving punch

Bottom Line: This gorgeous, immersive programming game encourages novel solutions.

Grades: 6–12
Price:
Free

Think Like Churchill

Stunning visuals, thoughtful feedback bring critical decision points to life

Bottom Line: An excellent tool for studying the events and ethics that guide pivotal moments in history.

Grades: 6–12
Price:
Paid

7 Billion Humans

Amusing puzzler challenges kids, teaches programming principles

Bottom Line: This high-quality puzzle game is a fun way for students to learn effective and efficient programming skills.

Grades: 7–12
Price:
Paid

BBC iReporter

Spot real stories, dodge fake news in cheeky media literacy sim

Bottom Line: A refreshingly modern way for students to explore how to filter and interpret info and media during breaking news events.

Grades: 7–12
Price:
Free

Bad News

Modern, minimalist fake news game has players be the villains

Bottom Line: Quick, fun, and to the point, this game gets at the social mechanics behind viral falsehoods.

Grades: 7–12
Price:
Free

Radio General

WWII game has layers of learning, novel voice-based controls

Bottom Line: This is a refreshingly new approach to a WWII game that offers students a more accurate simulation of battlefield chaos.

Grades: 7–12
Price:
Paid

Sid Meier’s Civilization VI

Best entry in classic strategy series might not be best for classrooms

Bottom Line: As with all games in this series, Civilization VI is a great learning experience with the right support, but older, cheaper versions may be more practical for classrooms.

Grades: 7–12
Price:
Paid

Spent

Provocative, first-person look at poverty builds empathy

Bottom Line: It'll need some scaffolding, but for students ready for the subject matter it's a great -- if sobering -- way to illustrate to students the daily realities and struggles of poverty in America.

Grades: 7–12
Price:
Free

Surviving Mars

Colonizing Mars is in our future, but why wait?

Bottom Line: Lots of potential and perhaps much better in a year or so of updates; use this in a class about space exploration and the harsh realities of colonization.

Grades: 7–12
Price:
Paid

Political Animals

Charming political campaign sim mixes data analysis and civics

Bottom Line: It's a highly entertaining and surprisingly deep way to help students see the strategy -- as well as ethical choices -- involved in elections.

Grades: 8–12
Price:
Paid

Papers, Please

Mature immigration game forces tough ethical choices

Bottom Line: It's a provocative simulation about ethics and immigration that could spark debate but might be tough to implement.

Grades: 9–12
Price:
Paid

Parable of the Polygons

Dynamic interactive helps classrooms explore topics of bias, diversity

Bottom Line: A fascinating way to address how communities become segregated due to individual bias.

Grades: 9–12
Price:
Free

The Republia Times

Unassuming editorial sim elegantly exposes the business of bias

Bottom Line: What this game lacks in pizzazz it makes up for in smarts, and it's certain to get students thinking and talking about bias and media politics.

Grades: 9–12
Price:
Free

This War of Mine

Strategy game offers superb, mature take on war and civilian survival

Bottom Line: A stark portrayal of civilian life in a war-torn city that requires strategic thinking and invites repeated plays.

Grades: 9–12
Price:
Paid

Fate of the World: Tipping Point

Complex global-influence game in which players’ choices rule the world

Bottom Line: Complex multi-issue game succeeds in teaching world politics and global development while building perspective and decision-making skills.

Grades: 10–12
Price:
Paid

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