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:

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.

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.

Three Awesome Educational Games Hiding in Plain Sight 2 August,2017MindShift

  • Tate

    I was unable to find Elegy. For a Dead World and Never Alone at. The App Store. Are they. Not available yet?

    • Helicase

      I know Never Alone doesn’t have a mobile version yet. Look on Steam if you can.

      • Tate

        Thank you

      • Barbara

        Elegy is also available on Steam.

    • someone who actually reads

      If you actually watch the videos about them they say where they are available. They’re not junky apps, they’re proper games on console and pc.

      • Tate

        Wow, someone who actually reads, that wasn’t very nice. Also, Valiant Heart is available as a “junky” app so I thought the other two might be too.

    • prettyeyesblue

      I think Never Alone just got out to the Wii not too long ago, and has been on Xbox one and playstation 4 since the game released. If I remember hearing correctly, Never Alone is supposed to be free for the month of April on the playstation network. They also have a Facebook page that they regularly post updates on!

  • Imaginemachine

    amazing games and an important subject. Kids learn from everything they do. looking at the world from a gaming perspective allows kids (and adults) to look at life as a challenge and not as a struggle. it gives an opening to new possibilities and not dead ends. We at iMagine Machine™ are developing STEAM related games where we make REAL games and the learning is integrated seamlessly into the gameplay. Our first game is The Land of Venn – Geometric Defense. We took Tower Defense game model and integrated common core aligned geometry. Actually it was awarded and reviewed on Graphite and Commonsense media – http://goo.gl/IHKNtd

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  • Eamon Walsh

    I think an important aspect of game based apps is that how well it improves the hand-eye coordination, multimodal response times and eventually refines your reactive brain aspects. Also, using an app-design platform for prototyping, defining the outputs and testing out multi-edge apps (something like Kony Flex™ dynamic layout with its WYSIWYM app canvas – bit. ly/ 1zOxa3C) could be very handy for developing the overall app as a cross-platform solution which would engage kids across different devices – commenting on behalf of IDG

  • imonetoremember

    These games seem painfully boring. My daughter wasn’t impressed and did not care for the graphics.

  • Maiyli78

    History’s not hard to learn through games at all! Haven’t you ever played a historical RTS?

  • Kelly Ann Marie Jones

    Played never alone on xbox one great educational game for all ages

  • Emily Louise

    Can a five year old play never alone?

    • Andrew_Mc

      Yes. I’m halfway through and I think the content is appropriate. The controls aren’t too complex either.

  • SaveTheGerund

    Final sentence, penultimate paragraph, misused apostrophe. Also, thanks for these games.

    • Sarah

      I’m glad I wasn’t the only one bothered by the grammatical errors in this post. Don’t get me wrong, as a non traditional educator, I love finding these kinds of resources. I just love finding proofreading as well.

    • bufori

      Also “shift out perspectives” in the last paragraph. Should be “our.”

  • thelastrealrepublican

    Wow! Education aimed at impressing the student not the administration, what a progressive thought.Well done.

  • I think you left out a REALLY important point regarding Never Alone: the primary protagonist is a girl. It’s delightful for me to find a game that my 9 year old daughter can play and see more girls in a hero role, rather than just a maiden in distress. Child of Light and Never Alone are both great games for her.

  • Jana

    Excellent article. We’re unschoolers & so appreciate your perspective. Your final statement says it all! ♡

  • Drew

    I’ll need to try these. I’ve been wanting to try never alone for a while. I’d also include Kerbal space program though too. It’s Difficult for sure but sneaks in a ton of advanced physics and the realities of space travel and a real appreciation for the accomplishments of the real life space program. No, you can’t just blast off from the surface of a planet and fly to space, you have to plan a fuel to weight ratio and leverage Gravity to reach escape velocity. You also have to plan with enough fuel for stopping in a frictionless environment. What’s more it gives an excellent sense of the scale and vastness of the solar system- something that kids (and adults) have a really difficult time wrapping their heads around. KSP lets you swing from planet to planet, provided you use the time warp feature. Distances and travel times of months and years are to scale.

  • Julie Lemley

    These all look great. I’m most drawn to Elegy – it looks perfect for MS/lower HS students, especially boys who may be a bit reluctant to write. How do you manage a game that is purchased through Steam for a classroom account? Do any of these have an educational bundle or site license to purchase?

    • Karen MC Dowell

      I was wondering the same thing, thanks! The $15 cost/pp makes it a real challenge to use in the classroom.

  • Keyser Soze

    ALL games teach its players SOMETHING. Its important to notice WHAT they are teaching, and make sure they are teaching good rather than evil. Most teach to kill in war.

  • DM

    It would have been nice if you mentioned where you can find the games in the article…thank you comments section for enlightening me…:)

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    . there aunt started doing this for only twenty months and a short time ago cleard the depts on there mini mansion and bourt a great Dodge . visit the site HERE’S MORE DETAIL

  • jim

    I luved math blaster

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