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educational video games

I sometimes wonder what educators and video-game developers might come up with if they ever sat down together and decided to make mainstream commercial games more educational.

Video games are a huge business. When the latest installment of the Call of Duty series came out in November, it racked up more than $1 billion in sales in just 16 days. In 2010, U.S. video-game sales exceeded $25 billion, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

That’s a huge audience, and it’s ripe for education.

And we’re not just talking about teenage boys here. The average age of gamers is 37, and some 42 percent are women, the statistics show.

Video games are in a perfect position to help educate people. Developers already have to construct their games so people can learn how to play them without consulting bulky manuals or boring tutorials.

Think about all the other lessons they could sneak in.

To be clear, I’m not talking about games whose main purpose is education. Educational games certainly exist. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, for example, is working with a nonprofit called iCivics to make video games that teach civics lessons.

They’re fun, but I can’t imagine anyone playing them over, say, Angry Birds—the fantastically popular game from Finnish developer Rovio Mobile. (Since its launch in December 2009, Angry Birds has been downloaded more than 500 million times by users worldwide.)

There are some obvious hurdles to overcome in getting educators and game-makers together. Someone would have to convince game developers to cooperate with educators. And there would have to be a balance between “fun” and “learning” that didn’t negatively affect the bottom line.

Disclaimer: I’m definitely not suggesting that popular video games become classroom tools. Rather, I’m just suggesting that we subtly try to beef up their educational value, as millions of people are going to be playing them.

Some game-makers are already interested in the idea. Gabe Newell, who co-founded the ridiculously successful game company Valve, has gone on record saying that popular games can still be educational.

“There tends to be this distinction between games that are going to be good for education and games that are going to be commercially successful. I’m not sure I buy into that,” Newell said at the Games for Change Festival in New York City this past June. “We can make educational, commercially successful games.”

Valve has received high praise for the educational aspects of its Portal series—games that incorporate realistic physics and puzzles.

Leslie Redd, Valve’s director of educational programs, says she hasn’t heard of companies working directly with educators on mainstream games, but she believes it could happen in the future. More and more former game developers are working with nonprofits to ground games in educational research, she said.

“It’s starting. I’m hearing it,” Redd said.

So how could we make a mainstream commercial game more educational?

Like many, I have been immersed in the new video game Skyrim for the past month or so. A roleplaying fantasy game set in a largely frozen landscape, Skyrim is a “sandbox” game, meaning you can roam the massive world freely and explore and adventure however you’d like.

Here are a few ideas I came up with while playing:


The world of Skyrim is littered with hundreds of books—and you can actually read each one. Most are only a few pages long and there’s almost never a reason to read them other than to immerse yourself more deeply in a world’s lore. But what if you gave players a better reason to read the books? There is at least one quest in Skyrim where you have to read a particular book and follow up on its contents. What if 100 books in the game required that same level of attention? And what if you sprinkled in some tougher vocabulary words to get players thinking more?


One of the best parts of Skyrim is a player’s ability to gather up materials and make personal swords, armor, potions, etc. Each item requires players to combine different ingredients in different ratios. There’s a great opportunity here, with a little work, to make an interface that requires players to do some multiplication (or even algebra) to make large batches of items, which is a common practice in games.

Also, like many roleplaying games, players have to manage their money by selling off items and looting things from around the world. With some tweaks to the interface, the game could easily make money management more mathematically rigorous by having players crunch some of the numbers in their heads.


About the same time I started playing Skyrim, I also started reading a book on the history of Prussia. So as I roamed the world of Skyrim and talked to people about current political battles, I kept thinking, “What if this game were about the history of Prussia?”

What if instead of having players interact with the leaders of the Nord rebels or Imperial forces, they were interacting with Frederick the Great and Maria Theresa, learning all about the War of the Austrian Succession?

Now, I’m not sure Skyrim could survive a Prussian conversion, especially since it would require removing magic and dragons, but there are lots of other games that could benefit from some tweaks that would add more historical content.

One great example is Assassin’s Creed II, which is set in a virtual version of Renaissance Italy. There’s actually a lot of good historical information, but like the books in Skyrim, it is easily bypassed or ignored. By adding more texts that need to be read in detail, the game’s developers could make the experience considerably more educational.

These are just a few ideas from one gamer. What kind of ideas can you come up with, gamers? How else can we make our video games more educational?

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