• Zack

Teaching With Video Games - The Beginner's Guide

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

Teaching with video games can be intimidating. Consider the list of games below as good starting points for anyone who is interested in teaching with a video game, but doesn't know where to start. This will be a list of some easy to play games that you can assign to some of your students. I plan to have my students complete some of these lessons myself. They are either free or have a low price of entry.

Free to Play Games

1) The Bad News Game - Lesson Plan Here

  • Can be played on any web browser

  • Rated: 14+

People on average spend over two hours each day on social media. Our students are no exception. An unintended consequence of social media is that people tend to place themselves in a bubble of information. We see, like, share, or upvote posts that are in agreement with our own biases or perspectives. Over time we tend to see less and less of ideas that can potentially challenge these biases. This gradually pushes people more and more to the fringes of some, often political, ideology. Disinformation plays a large role in this. People are less likely to fact check something that lines up with their own beliefs. The Bad News Game can help get students thinking critically about the “news” and information they come in contact with on social media. It sheds light on some of the tactics utilized by people who engage in misinformation and disinformation campaigns.

2) Papers, Please - Lesson Plan Here

  • A free demo is available but it needs to be downloaded to a computer

  • Rated: 16+

Immigration and border security are often at the front of political discussions in the United States and around the world. In Papers, Please you take on the role of a border security agent who controls the flow of migration into your country Arstotzka. You must observe numerous documents of incomers and determine whether or not they are allowed to enter. You can follow the law and deny entry to most migrants, or you can choose to let people through even though they would not be there legally.

Papers, Please is a game of choices and facing the consequences of those choices. It is a great way to get students to interact with many different types of restrictions placed on immigrants and migration. It is an easy, non threatening, lesson to get students thinking critically about issues in immigration that actually exist in our world.

3) The Republia Times - Lesson Plan Here

  • Can be played on any web browser

  • Rated: Everyone 10+

Many people today get caught in "bubbles" when it comes to the news. Most people have one place for the news without consulting other sources. While it is great to be in any way informed, it is important to remember that every newspaper, or channel, has motives. There is always a bias and always a slant. We need to utilize various sources of news before we make conscious decisions about a number of different topics.

The Republia Times puts us in the shoes of a man in charge of the country's newspaper and propaganda machine. It teaches us that there can be ulterior motives for the stories that are published. What would you publish if your family's life was at stake?

4) Half - Lesson Plan Here

  • Can be played on any web browser

  • Rated: 13+

As teachers, we always want to be culturally responsive when we teach. This involves, especially in English and Social Studies classes, many conversations around race, ethnicity, religion, and so on. Interracial people, however, often float under the radar. Teaching about interracial people can be tricky because they are not just one group of people. Someone who is interracial can be any combination of different races, or ethnicities. The experiences and identity of one person can be completely different from that of another. Each of them, however, experience the push and pull of two, or more identities.

Half is a series of vignettes detailing the experience of being split between two identities and the invisible toll it takes. Pulled from memories both good and bad. Created by Emma Kidwell, it tells the story of a half White, half Japanese girl going through the motions of life. It offers an insight into what it means to have a multicultural identity and the challenges that may come with it. How do Emma’s peers treat and speak to her because of her race? What box would someone like Emma check when asked for her race? We need to be aware of these cases because, as shown in the game, humans are not something that can easily be sorted into different categories. Video games like Half can help get students thinking more critically about race. It can also help teach students about a group of people who have a very unique perspective of the world since they are, as Emma Kidwell puts it, “on the fringe of two identities.”

5) Emily is Away - Lesson Plan Here

  • Can be played for free, but needs to be downloaded to your computer from here.

  • Rated: High School

“Emily is Away is an interactive story set in a retro chat-client. Create a screen-name and choose your path through the branching narrative.”

AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) radically changed how people communicate with each other. It was really the first time that people communicated in real time over the internet. Email existed, but that was a much slower form of communication. You actually had to check to see if you received any emails. With AIM, your friends could actually see if you were online and a chat would automatically open if someone started a conversation with you. We no longer needed to be face-to-face with people in order to have conversations. It laid the foundation for texting which is currently the most prevalent form of communication between adults in many countries.

Emily is Away takes this medium and turns it into a short story. It’s a visual novel where the player can interact with the story. While the plot of the game is mostly linear, the player does get to choose various dialogue options that will directly affect the relationship between the player and their friend Emily. Emily is Away is a very poignant game that exemplifies just how we as a people, especially teenagers, have learned to communicate differently than the generations that came before us. It is also a story that cannot be told as a traditional text. It is the perfect game to teach students how even the simplest of visual cues can help strengthen the connection between the “reader” and the characters.

6) Pandemic II - Lesson Plan Here

  • Can be played on any web browser

  • Rated: E for Everyone

Before you assign this game, do know that it is now highly relevant due to the Coronavirus pandemic. So make sure you play it first and responsibly decide whether or not it may be suitable for some of your students. The last thing you want to do is trigger some past/current trauma among your students.

Vaccines and the anti-vax movement are becoming a major concern in many parts of the United States/world. Despite extensive research and clear evidence that vaccines are not only effective, but necessary, many people still refuse to vaccinate themselves, or their children. According to the Center for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) “Diseases that used to be common in this country and around the world, including polio, measles, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), rubella (German measles), mumps, tetanus, rotavirus and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) can now be prevented by vaccination. Thanks to a vaccine, one of the most terrible diseases in history – smallpox – no longer exists outside the laboratory. Over the years vaccines have prevented countless cases of disease and saved millions of lives.” If enough people begin refusing to take vaccines, more people will get sick and a pandemic becomes a possibility.

Pandemic II is an online game where your goal is to create a disease that kills as many people as possible. You choose between a Virus, Bacteria, or Parasite and do your best to make sure the disease spreads as far and wide as it can. You want to create a pandemic. This game will get students thinking about different types of diseases, various symptoms of diseases, how diseases can spread, and how we can go about preventing, or stopping, the spread of the diseases. It allows students to interact with possible consequences if communities are not properly vaccinated, or prepared to fend off a pandemic.

7) Who Wants to Live a Million Years - Lesson Plan Here

  • Can be played on any web browser

  • Rated: E for Everyone

Who Wants to Live a Million Years? serves as an introduction to natural selection and to Charles Darwin's life and career. It allows students to practice important concepts by having them adapt a fictional species to it’s ever changing environment. This can lead to further lessons on evolution, genetics, and other biology topics. Teachers will want to follow up with a clarification of what students experience to reinforce the core concepts of natural selection.

“Who Wants to Live a Million Years? is a hands-on introduction to the concept of natural selection that allows students to make choices to guide the process. Cute not-seen-in-the-real-world creatures with specific features -- such as long or short legs, long or short necks, fur or no fur, and stripes or no stripes -- make up the potential gene pool. Guided by naturalist Charles Darwin, students choose three creatures with which to begin the natural selection process, in the hope their population will have enough variation to withstand climate change and predators for a million years, establishing a viable lineage over time. During the game, environmental and other disasters occur that guide the evolution of the population and decrease their number. At two points in the game, students can, if they wish, introduce a mutation into the population that will help guide their creatures' evolution during crisis. The game also includes information on Darwin's life, a quiz, and a glossary of useful terms.” - Common Sense Education

8) 3rd World Farmer - Lesson Plan Here

  • Can be played on any web browser

  • Rated: Everyone 10+

3rd World Farmer simulates some of the real-world mechanisms that cause and sustain poverty in 3rd World countries. In the game, the player gets to manage an African farm and is soon confronted with the difficult choices that poverty and conflict can cause. As a farm and family management game it has an emotional impact on many players because usually these types of games play out in much easier settings, where it’s always possible to prosper by playing cleverly and making the right game choices. It’s not always like that in 3rd World Farmer.

3rd World Farmer is a great little game to help students understand the hardships of farming as most students today have barely set a foot on a farm. It is free and can take anywhere from ten to 45 minutes. In this lesson we make connections to the Dust Bowl in 1930s United States, although it could easily be modified to fit a number of different subjects. It helps students interact with some of the challenges faced by those farmers and the consequences that followed.

Paid, but Cheap and Easy to Access

  • All of these games are available on mobile phones. They may be playable other places as well, but they can at least be played on phones, which many students have access to. Obviously you can't require students buy these games, but if they have the means then it may be worth it.

1) Bury Me, My Love - Lesson Plan Here

  • Available on iPhone, Android, PC, and Nintendo Switch.

  • Rated: Everyone 10+

This game is a heartbreaker. You will never feel as helpless as playing as Majd trying to guide his wife Nour to safety through text messages. Whenever we learn about war, there is always talk about what to do with refugees from these conflicts. It can often be hard to empathize with refugees because most teachers have not experienced war first hand.

Bury Me, My Love tells the story of Nour, a Syrian refugee, as she makes her way to safety in Europe. It is unique in that the entire story is told through text messages. You can do you best to guide her and give advice, but at the end of the day it is very likely that Nour will stop responding and you will be left to wonder why. With 19 different endings this game will provide students with actual consequences for the choices they make.

2) Gone Home - Lesson Plan Here

  • Available on iOS, PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Apple, and Linux

  • Rated: Everyone 10+

Gone Home is an interactive story simulator. You arrive home only to find no one to greet you and a letter from your sister saying don't not try to find her. As you work your way through your house looking for clues about everyone's whereabouts, you begin to discover a much more personal story about your sister Sam. There is no fighting, no violence, no puzzles; only story and self discovery.

This is a game about coming out and some of the many challenges faced by the LGBTQ community. These themes are largely absent from video games and Gone Home would be a perfect introductory lesson in a classroom about discrimination and homophobia. It is not just a great game. It is one of the most important pieces of media made in the past decade.

3) Never Alone - Lesson Plan Here

  • Available on iOS, Mac, Playstation Vita, PS3, PS4, Wii U, Windows, Xbox One, Xbox360

  • Rated: Everyone 13+

Never Alone is a puzzle platformer that explores the cultural folklore of the Iñupiat Native Alaskan people. It is the first game developed in collaboration with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, an Alaskan Native people. Upper One Games, E-Line Media paired world class game makers with Alaska Native storytellers and elders to create a game which delves deeply into the traditional lore of the Iñupiat people to present an experience like no other.

Never Alone is based on the traditional Iñupiat tale, "Kunuuksaayuka", which was first recorded by master storyteller Robert Nasruk Cleveland in his collection Stories of the Black River People. Play as a young Iñupiat girl and an arctic fox as they set out to find the source of the eternal blizzard which threatens the survival of everything they have ever known. Guide both characters in single-player mode or play cooperatively with a friend or family member as you trek through frozen tundra, leap across treacherous ice floes, swim through underwater ice caverns, and face numerous enemies both strange and familiar in the journey to save the girl’s village. Never Alone leverages the power of video games to share, celebrate and extend culture. These World Games will empower indigenous communities around the world to share their stories in an authentic, engaging, and entertaining way.

4) Valiant Hearts: The Great War - Lesson Plan Here

  • Available on Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

  • T for Teen

If you ever wanted to find an engaging way to teach about World War I, from a non American perspective, Valiant Hearts is it. It is a comic book brought to life that portrays the horrors of The Great War, while still remaining accessible to kids. You play as four strangers, accompanied by one dog, whose lives intertwine as they make their way through the trenches of war. The story may be fiction, but the locations and events are all based on fact.

Unlike many games set in war, this is a game about war. Instead of combat, it is about exploration, adventure, and puzzles. As you play, you will come across artifacts, facts, and diary entries that all add to a greater portrait of the World War I. These were included with the help of Mission Centenaire, a commemorative organization of the war, and Apocalypse World War I, a documentary mini series about the war. So much love and history was poured into this game and it would be a shame if it never gets utilized in the classroom.

5) Florence - Lesson Plan Here

  • Available on iOS and Android.

  • E for Everyone

Breaking up isn't easy. Especially when it is with someone you believed you could spend the rest of your life with. Florence teaches us that while breaking up is a difficult process, we can use that life experience to better our future selves. Plus it beautifully depicts an interracial relationship which is often missing from a lot of entertainment.

Guide your students through the ups and downs of a relationship and all the lessons that come with it. This unique narrative uses puzzles to tell a full story of love and heartbreak in about 30-45 minutes.

6) Flower - Lesson Plan Here

  • Available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, iOS, Microsoft Windows

  • E for Everyone

Many English Language Arts classes start the year learning about the different parts of a story and theme. Theme is the subject of a talk, a piece of writing, a person's thoughts, or an exhibition; a topic. It is also an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature. Theme can be a difficult topic to teach. Sometimes the main idea of a story may seem obvious, but it can be difficult to put into words. Flower is a game without without words. There is no writing, speaking, or dialogue. It is simply about a petal of a flower flowing in the wind bringing life back to wherever it touches.

The theme of balance between nature and humanity is easy to pick up on. It gets students thinking about whether or not nature and humanity can coexist. Every piece of important information is shown to the player since you do not need to focus on dialogue. At just under an hour of playtime, Flower is the perfect introduction to theme.

7) Journey - Lesson Plan Here

  • Available on iOS, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows

  • 10+

A trope that we come across in many different mediums of literature is the monomyth, or The Hero’s Journey. A character embarks, often reluctantly, on a journey. The character overcomes a conflict and eventually returns home with a better understanding of the world they live in. The Hero’s Journey may no longer be original, but the story beats remain incredibly popular.

One game that is subtle in its depiction of The Hero’s Journey is the aptly named Journey. Developed by thatgamecompany, Journey is a very simple story. A robed figure departs on an adventure to reach the top of a mountain. The journey will not be an easy one, but in the end the robed figure returns with more knowledge of the world. The game communicates through its visuals as there is zero dialogue. Journey is a great game to teach The Hero’s Journey. Not everyone will agree whether or not the robed figure is a hero, but it will force the students to focus more on the character’s literal actions since the robed figure never really speaks with another character.

8) Gris - Lesson Plan Here

  • Available on iOS, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, macOS

  • 10+

The phrase "video games are art" gets thrown around a lot in the video game community. Never have I played a game where that idea seemed so true. Gris is not just a game. It is literally art. A beautiful watercolor painting that we have the privilege of interacting with. Take a screenshot of literally any scene and it would look like a painting.

Beyond the aesthetics is a story of grief, something everyone will experience at one point or another. The experience of losing a loved one and all the emotions and baggage that comes with it. The story of a girl going through the stages of bringing color back to her life. I really cannot recommend this game enough for an art class. If an art teacher ever wanted to show their students how video games can be a future outlet for their art, Gris is that game.

I will keep adding to this guide as I come across other games that I feel would be good for beginners. I will eventually add games that are not free to play, but do act as a good next step in your practice of teaching with video games.

Thanks for reading,


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