Three Awesome Educational Games Hiding in Plain Sight

A screen grab from the Never Alone trailer.

By Tanner Higgin, Common Sense Education

When I was in school, game-based learning was a novelty. This was the era of Math Blaster!, Lemonade Stand and Oregon Trail, when game-based learning meant digitized practice problems or clunky, paper-thin simulations. Still, my classmates and I liked these games. For many of us, this was the only exposure we got to video games outside of arcades. Even as consoles increasingly took up residence in living rooms, computer games still felt special--just a bit more advanced and interesting.

But when my family got a computer, something changed. The edutainment we'd play in computer labs were still a nice spark in a typical school day, but the games felt different. What we were playing at school felt out of touch and out of step, not just in style and polish, but also in what they asked the player to do. While Oregon Trail might offer the appearance of a history lesson, it's hard to convince a kid of that when she's going home and designing a metropolis in SimCity, or adding another page to her notebook full of hand-drawn Metroid maps.

Game-based learning, and the developers who identify with it today, have come a long way since then and gotten much closer to closing the gap. And there's still a need to communicate core content through games, a need that the consumer market just doesn't have incentive to fill. Yet at Common Sense Education, when we evaluate games for learning, what we find is that many of the highest scoring 'learning' games aren't aimed at the educational market. They're more at-home, consumer-oriented games. Because these games are free from the constraints of school standards and traditional curriculum, they flourish, featuring rich cross-disciplinary and truly 21st century learning experiences.

Here are just a few favorites that reviewed well on Common Sense Education this year:

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Elegy for a Dead World

Writing can feel like a chore in school when it's only ever going to be read by a teacher and maybe a classmate. Elegy for a Dead World gives kids an audience and an absorbing premise: the player visits alien planets (each inspired by a Romantic poet) with long lost civilizations and must act as the storyteller of that world, drafting poetry and prose that brings to light possible pasts. This writing can then be shared with others. As a former slacker student who would sleep in English class but then go home and write pages and pages of fan faction, this is an experience that speaks to me and I know I would've loved.

Never Alone

There's little debate that games have not represented indigenous cultures well. As a result, it's been best for students to learn about topics like Native America via traditional means. Never Alone, however, sets a precedent for respectful representation of indigenous people. It was co-developed with native Alaskans, and it illuminates Inupiat stories, themes and values, weaving into play important concepts like interconnectedness and valuable skills like cooperation. Best of all, it features documentary-style videos of the Inupiat people who provide first person context for the conceptual and cultural learning embedded in the game.

Valiant Hearts

Look no further than the aforementioned Oregon Trail for an example of how tough it's been to teach history well through games. That's because it's next to impossible to beat a good book or primary source material when digging into the details of the past. Valiant Hearts doesn't try to simulate World War I or overwhelm the player with facts; instead, it tells a deeply affecting story that builds empathy, contextualizes the war, and, most importantly, offers a thought-provoking critique of war itself. And when it does offer facts and primary materials, they're extensions--collectibles, really--that end up being far more palatable to players given the story-first approach that invests players in finding out more.

My intention here isn't to argue that games have learning value. Educators don't need convincing of this. Rather, what these three ostensibly 'non-educational' games show us is that there are many more options out there than we realize; we just need to shift our perspectives on what learning looks like. Our students already have, we just need to catch up.

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Tanner Higgin is director, education editorial strategy at Common Sense Education, which helps educators find the best edtech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology thoughtfully, critically, and creatively. Go to Common Sense Education for free resources, including full reviews of digital tools.

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