Using Video Games to Effectively Teach Social Studies

Oregon Trail Video Game Graphic (1974)

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

With the advancement of science in the twenty-first century there is an increasing push for the integration of technology in school curriculum and instruction. One area of technology that has seen much growth is the video game industry; it is a multi-billion dollar industry. Home gaming entertainment systems have evolved and changed since their debut in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Systems like the Atari 2600 and ColecoVision had graphics that were so primitive that they are considered laughable in comparison to modern systems such as PlayStation, X-Box and Nintendo Switch.

Video games have other uses besides mere entertainment. For example, the military has long used gaming for combat training and simulation and for flight simulation. Another growing use of video games is in the realm of education. Using video games for educational purposes is nothing new, many people of a certain generation remember Oregon Trail and early math video games of the late twentieth century. However, many teachers do not realize the incredible role video games can play in the classroom today, especially in the area of social studies. This article will offer resources, lesson ideas and how video games may be used effectively and creatively in the classroom. There are also a few links to social studies themed video games that can be played online. At the end of the article are questions for discussion and reflection surrounding effective uses of video games in the classroom.

Lesson Ideas and Resources- Using Video Games to Teach Social Studies

Exactly How To Teach With Video Games In The Classroom
Six Video Games You Can Teach With Tomorrow
Teacher Makes Classes Seem More Like Video Games
How to Incorporate Popular Video Games into a Lesson Plan
Video Games as Historical Content

Videos showing Sample Social Studies Themed Games and How Games can be used In the Classroom

Video Games in the Social Studies
Assassin’s Creed Origins Cinematic Trailer (Julius Caesar & Cleopatra)
Total War: Three Kingdoms Announcement Cinematic Trailer
Assassin’s Creed III: E3 Cinematic Trailer
Assassin’s Creed 3 Gameplay Walkthrough Part 3 – Welcome to Boston
Valiant Hearts E3 Trailer [US]
Valiant Hearts: The Great War Walkthrough PART 1
King’s Quest

Social Studies Themed Video Games to Play

Airman’s Challenge- US Air force Game
Mission US
Arcane The Stone Circle – Episode 7
On the Trail of Captain John Smith
The Following Games Are Published By the History Channel
Meet the President
Social Studies Video Games
Oregon Trail


What are the world’s Top 5 video game markets? A Foolish Take
Global Games Market Value Rising to $134.9bn in 2018
History of Video Games- National Geographic
History of Video Games
Video Game: The Ralph Baer Prototypes and Electronic Games
How Video Game Systems Work
How the US military is using ‘violent, chaotic, beautiful’ video games to train soldiers
Uncle Sam Wants You — To Play Video Games for the US Army
Exceptional Military Video Games Worth Binging This Holiday Season Gaming: The Air Force’s Newest Recruitment Tool
Let the Games Begin: Entertainment Meets Education Video games, once confiscated in class, are now a key teaching tool — if they’re done right.
Teaching History With Digital Historical Games: An Introduction to the Field and Best Practice

Discussion Questions:
1. What are your immediate reactions to the resources and articles?
2. What resources above stand out to you the most? What surprises you? What do you find interesting?
3. What resources or lessons might you like to see in a classroom? What would you implement/try out in your teaching?
4. What technology, gaming tools or media have you used in your classroom?
5. What kinds of technological resources do you find most helpful in your classroom?
6. What are some factors that make a video game an effective tool in teaching social studies?


  1. The advancement of technology is gaining popularity in every aspect of a persons life. Even ones personal health can be monitored and managed on a smart phone or smart phone app. Children and teens are using youtube and other apps for education at home. A study performed in 2018 amongst teen boys and girls show that 83% of girls and 97% of boys play video games (Pew Research, 2018). Bringing the video games into the classroom could possibly intrigue students views on social studies education.

    Anderson, M., Jiang, J., (2018, May 31) Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018. Pew Research Center. Retrieved on May 19, 2019 from

  2. Technology is rapidly expanding and becoming more and more advanced. Although technology is used all throughout the classroom, I’m not sure I agree that having students play video games in class is a great idea. There is always so much controversy about children playing video games at home and how children gain weight because they don’t get outside to play. Now were incorporating them in the classroom? Isn’t this showing students that video games are okay and you don’t need outside to have fun? There are many other ways to incorporate social studies in the classroom. At my school we have smart boards and there are interactive games on there that students can do and they can be done as a class to also incorporate class discussions. I’d rather use an interactive game on the smart board than put them in from of a video game to learn.

  3. These resources are incredible. I have never thought of video games being beneficial to students. I think now, a lot of students are already addicted to video games and these lessons wouldn’t help those students. But if teachers already use these ways to incorporate video games, then more power to them. In some instances it could help and hurt students. As a nanny, I have a horrible bias against video games in my life but this could be beneficial to some students.

  4. People are getting more and more involved in technology. Playing video games helps kids with learning because they remember the story line in order to complete the game. They play games with story lines that actually happen then they are learning things that teachers could teach them. I remember when I was in middle school, every time i walked into my history class, he would teach us something and one kid in specific always was one chapter ahead because of a video game he played. He would always know all the answers, and yet he was always asleep in class. He got good grades on every test, but he never payed attention in class. Thank you video games, you have created a way of learning outside the classroom.

  5. Nearly every kid has played a video game at some point in their childhood, and many play them on a near-daily basis. Video games aren’t likely going to replace textbooks in a classroom setting any time soon, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be useful educational tools for the children outside of class. Some video games, such as the Assassin’s Creed franchise, introduce children to various historical time periods, and can help them become more interested in learning about them in the classroom. While these games aren’t often the most historically accurate when it comes to the story, they do create a painstakingly realistic portrayal of their respective time period – players can freely explore Renaissance-era Rome, traverse a sizable chunk of New England during the Revolutionary War, and scramble across the rooftops of Paris during the French Revolution.

    While most mainstream video games aren’t focused on educating children, many of them can still be beneficial. Puzzle games, such as Portal, can help train children’s problem-solving skills. Many games also have in-game monetary systems in place, which can help children learn how to properly manage their spending habits (“should I buy this item now, or wait until I have more money to spare?”).

  6. I enjoyed reading this article because I would very much consider myself a gamer. Since I was a kid I have always enjoyed coming home from a hard day of school and playing video games in the living room. I had never considered that the platform could be used to teach kids in a classroom setting. I never played the original Oregon trail, but several remakes have been made since its original release and has been somewhat of a cult classic to certain groups of gamers. It only recently occurred to me that the game taught me something. As a future educator I look forward to trying to incorporate similar styles of games into my lesson plans.

  7. I am not on the bandwagon here (pardon the Oregon Trail pun). Technology has advanced yes and, as some have mentioned, there are a lot of benefits to the interactive nature of these advancements. However, as if it isn’t bad enough that we let tech take the place of parents actually engaging children with actual interpersonal activity, are we going to let tech take the place of teachers too? Considering Dr. Childs remarks about the military using simulators, as a veteran I have used many expensive simulators and have found there is no exception for good old-fashioned training. These games and simulators lack a very important component of education (which I eluded to before): human interaction. This, which we all learned in PSY 101, is very important in human development.

  8. My initial reaction was that it is just someone a boy would say. But after reading this and looking at the resources I think this could be used in class. This could help students tremendously and could be something they could do at home. But I could see where these games could become more of a distraction if not used correctly.

  9. The integration of video games in educational settings could be extremely beneficial for all students. This could especially benefit those who may have attention difficulties, who need more stimuli to stay engaged in their work. I used video games for math in school and used video games on a CD-ROM that taught me vocabulary words at home. Using the same technology to incorporate social studies into fun, interactive games could really help more complex ideas resonate with younger children.

  10. Just like everything in our world today, there are Pros and Cons to the use of technology, specifically video games, being incorporated into our educational curriculum. One of the pros is that technology can serve as a good resource and medium for those who are drawn to learning by such methods. I know for me, sometimes seeing something (video) helps me learn and retain better than just hearing something (lecture). Video games for the most part are interactive which too could possibly increase the brain function and increase learning. Now some of the cons could include the potential for a student to have less interaction with others; when gaming, it’s typically a student and the video game. Also, one could argue that if a student is using video games during class time as well as home time, this may be a little too much time in front of the tv/monitor. I think a balance of video games/technology and human interaction would continue to provide a good balance for our educational/learning requirements.

  11. Just as with the podcasts, using games to reach your students is an exceptional way to get them involved in a way that is on their level. So many kids play games for fun, why not give them something that will help them learn what they are supposed to? Technology is growing at a rapid pace and just as with other professions, teaching is one that needs to integrate the latest technology, when at all possible, into their lesson plans. When I was in elementary school, computers weren’t even something that every teacher had in their room. Now, not only every teacher but every student has a laptop in their possession. Keeping up is not only beneficial for the teacher to reach their students, but in the eyes of the student, they’re not actually doing any work, just playing a game. However, the teacher knows the students are getting their content. Seems like a win-win to me.

  12. As a huge video game nerd myself and a visual learner, I definitely would have been more enticed to learn while playing games. This could help so many children focus more on what they are learning. I have yet to see this concept cross into social studies, however as a kid they did use this technique quite a bit for math at my school. A lot of social studies is about memorization and the stimulation of the games might help with that, and be more fun overall

  13. I’ll start out by saying that I have never really been into video games. However, I do think that using video games in the classroom will be helpful for some students who have difficulty making connections. I know the some therapists use video game like programs to help retrain the human brain. Honestly, I am kind of surprised that it took this long to bring into the classroom. When Chromebooks exploded, everyone had them in their classrooms within a month. I don’t think that the video games should be used in classrooms, but I do think that they will help with different learning styles.

  14. I also believe video games are a good tool for teaching. I believe it should be used as enrichment in an area of study. As a child, I used a leap frog version of a gameboy for math enrichment. I was efficient in multiplication by 2nd grade. Kahoot is also an engaging game for students to retaining information. There are even websites where students could make their own video games and trivias.

  15. The best way to teach students is to keep them interested and participating in the lesson. technology grows everyday so it only natural to use it to our advantage. students don’t consider video games and will learn with out even realizing it. i fell that doing these things will help them learn better because when students are interested they will remember the information more. this is one of many things that i would love to teach about because as they are playing the game of the organ trail you can give them facts about the organ trail and how difficult it was.

  16. The integration of technology into modern learning environments can be extremely beneficial. Kids use visual association as their main form of learning so creating games that interact and appear similar to the popular games of the time could be a great idea. That kind of interaction leads to associations toward fun and enjoyment. Kids need to be entertained but it is still possible to do both.

  17. It is almost every kids dream to get to learn through video games. I think it is super important to implement video game learning resources into the curriculum because it would help get kids excited about learning and make it more fun for them.I found the article about how to teach with video games to be interesting. It can be hard to implement such things because the important part is making sure the students are actually learning from it and this article has good ideas on how to properly do it. I would definitely like to use video games as a teacher when teaching social studies because when I was a student that was a subject that I found hard to be interested in and I think video games would help for students like me.

  18. My immediate reaction to this article is how cool that teacher would be to their students. I love how Assassins Creed is in there. I know Assassins creed is historically based but it has a lot of killing in it though but the again so did our history. I am not a teacher nor getting a degree in teaching but i would use that to explain the time and the historical references behind the game. If you can teach from it why can’t people use it? In a lot of my classes growing up we used so many different gaming websites like braingames.come or cool math, stuff like that to make learning appeal to us. My ruling on video games in the classroom is you have to be able to teach and give valuable lessons. If you can’t do that you should be allowed to use it.

  19. The advancement of technology is something that we, as a society, should be proud of and keep pushing forward with STEAM programs. This being said, technology can be an incredible tool in the classroom, but it is also important not to use it in excess. It is important to remember that, as teachers, we cannot control or keep track of how much screen time students get outside of the classroom. Because of this, we should limit the extraneous addition of close up screen time within the classroom.

  20. Whenever I think of video games I think of the negative aspects of them, for example violence. They have a negative connotation to them for violence and for the amount of time that kids spend playing them. I never realized how many good video games there are out there and how they could be positive things for kids. The idea that some are educational and they are very useful in the classrooms is awesome. From reading this, I do think that they should be used in the classrooms as educational tools for the students.

  21. I think video games are not the best way to help students learn. Students shouldn’t learn to always have video games wherever they go. I think video games at school would not be such a great idea. I think it is good that kids can get away from the video games for a couple hours while at school mot give their brains a rest. It would also teach them in a way that will not always be there. In college you would not learn by playing video games or even in high school so why would we teach them these bad habits now? I know that technology is advancing more and more every year but playing video ngajmes in the classroom as a way of learning is not a good idea.

  22. technology is rapidly growing, and whether teachers like it or not, students have grown to use it in their everyday lives. I think that technology is an important tool in the classroom. Students now have so much more access to things with technology available to them. I think that using video games int he classroom to teach social studies is a brilliant idea. So many students play video games in their everyday lives, why not incorporate it into the classroom.

  23. I am all for the progression of non-traditional mediums being used in the classroom, and I think video games are a huge resource that haven’t been tapped into much in that regard. I vividly remember playing The Oregon Trail on a school computer in middle school. Not only was it a fun escape from lectures and PowerPoints, but I took a lot from that day. Students need non-traditional media to give them a breath of fresh air.

  24. As a Millennial it has been a mind boggling process to watch as video games became more and more prominent in our culture. What was once considered childish or nerdy has become a staple of modern society. AT this point most children will have spent most of their lives being exposed to and playing video games, and so it only seems logical to try and include them into the educational experience. It seems natural that including video games in education would help several students in ways that were not possible before, and so I am excited to try these resources and others in my classroom.

  25. Because there is such a large advancement in technology and it continues to grow, I too believe that video games could be an excellent way to implement social studies into young students lives. However, it has to be done in a very careful way. Children tend to get easily addicted to “gaming” and so there has to be a very delicate balance when encouraging them to play video games for learning.

  26. I was really drawn to this article because I know that when you try to relate content to a student’s interests they will be more interested in learning the content. I really like the idea of using video games because they are a common pastime for the modern student. While many of the games used as examples in this article are games that are more geared toward older students I am interested in finding games that are more suitable to an elementary setting. This article also brings me some concerns though because even video games that are based on actual history are full of inaccuracies that would need to be combated. It also concerns me because many students already spend too much time playing video games and some time away could be a good thing.

  27. The advancements in technology have truly opened new doors for teachers. Using technology and video games for classroom instruction is a great way to increase student engagement and get students excited about learning. I remember using video games similar to the Oregon Trail when I was in school and it made me more excited to learn and helped me remember the information better. I have also seen video games used in my placements for instruction and practice. This is a great way for teachers to keep up with new resources that are being developed and help students stay interested in their education.

  28. I agree that video games are a good educational tool to be used in a classroom. However, I think that it is important to use video games just as a tool, not a crutch. Video games should not be used alone to teach material, but can be very helpful as a supplemental activity to deepen student engagement with the material. Students should see the value in playing the video games and know what material it is trying to help them learn. I think that video games could be especially helpful in a classroom to review information or to study for a test. Many students don’t have great study skills in middle school, so an activity like this may make them more inclined to study. The use of a video games to learn social studies material could also allow students who receive special education services engage with the material in the same way that their peers do, with little to no modifications. Regardless of how video games are used in the classroom, it is important that even when using video games in a classroom setting, that the teacher still takes care to intersperse other activities that encourage student-teacher and student-student interactions.

  29. From a personal standpoint, I find it very hard to pay attention in the classroom when it’s all lecture. Using video games – in addition to other key elements in the lesson – would be a great way to keep students attention in a way that they could have fun too! I know that if my History teachers would’ve used tools like these, I would have retained more information from the lessons. I’m all for the video games in the classroom, in moderation of course.

  30. While most teachers may be against using video games to help guide student understanding of subject matters, I think that it is a great addition in learning. We are always looking for new ways to help our students learn the necessary material to be successful in school. Why not focus on what students like to do? Most students play video games at home and enjoy doing so. If we can connect to them for even just 30 minutes a day through this method, its hard telling how many students you can reach. This article offered a great variety of resources that I look forward to using one day!

  31. I greatly enjoyed this article, and I believe it would be extremely beneficial for teachers to take time to read it. I completely agree that technology, mainly video games, are widely popular nowadays than they were in the past. Due to this information, I do agree that pairing up video games with education can be useful in the classroom. This adds a unique component to learning that can help the students become more engaged in various topics not only in social studies. This can show students that learning can also be fun.

  32. I think using video games to supplement instruction can be a great resource. Video games are something that all students can relate to. Many students play video games at home and being able to play them in school and learn from them is engaging. I know in middle school we had a few days throughout the year where we go to play online games and it was always a hit in our classes. I think this could be used in as early as elementary school to supplement instruction.

  33. Technology has become so advanced lately and it is absolutely everywhere. Though I think it may captivate the minds of children and lead to beneficial results, I do not think it should be brought into the classroom. So many kids nowadays are so obsessed with video games, they don’t enjoy the simple things such as playing outside or even interacting with other people, such as family. That engagement has already disappeared outside of the classroom, why bring it into the classroom? In my opinion, it will do more harm than good. However, as an interesting review type game every once in a while, I think a whole group activity, for instance an interactive game projected onto a white board, could help reinforce content already taught.

  34. Teaching has changed so much in the past years. Teachers no longer teach based on one type of learning, they have to teach things in so many different ways so that students learn it the best way for them. I think that using video games is a great new way that teachers can really get their students involved and learn the topics. I know when I was in school I learned a lot of things for math and science from computer games. Each student learns differently and this is another way for teachers to really connect to the topics and subjects.

  35. I think the use of video games in education would be beneficial. I think that children would be more willing to learn about social studies by playing a game that also informs them of the materials. Technology is growing everyday and children use technology at younger and younger ages now, so why not take advantage and use these new technologies and interests to teach our students?

  36. Technology has come so far and it has definitely improved education. Almost everyone you meet has some kind of phone, computer, or television they use daily. This is one of the many benefits of technology advances and electronics. Children will definitely be more interested in these games and it’s one way to get them to learn about a subject. I remember in my eighth grade year, we played Oregon Trail in my history class and it’s one of the most memorable experiences I had in the eighth grade. Using technology to help children’s education can make their experiences more memorable and often times more fun. Children will feel more motivated to do their work. It seems like technology will just advance in the future and hopefully these games will still be prevalent.

  37. Using video games to teach a lesson of any kind is weird to think about. But as our generations get more advanced it seems more and more right to do so. Children learn many different ways; hands on, visually, verbally aural and so forth. Having children play with video games just allows another way for children to completely grasp the ideas that after being taught. I believe this will also keep children’s attention as it may seem/be more fun than listening to a lecture or reading information out of a book. I believe integrating video games into classrooms is a pro as showing children different formats of the information will help them succeed because it wasn’t until middle that I finally fingered out which learning method works best for me.

  38. I think that, aside the obvious drawbacks of having all of this advanced technology at our fingertips, we can really benefit from having this much access to technology nowadays. I remember when I was in elementary school and we would play “Oregon Trail” on the desktop computers that were in our class. Playing that game was a great way for us to learn about what it was like during that time in history. I also remember playing math based video games, not only did they help me and my classmates to practice and improve our math skills, but they also kept us engaged with the lesson. I don’t think that we, as teachers, should rely on videogames to teach our lessons, but I do believe that they are a good way to switch up our lessons, and use as a reward for our students.

  39. Video games are a phenomenon that continues to grow in popularity. Boys and girls alike enjoy them! I remember when I was younger I absolutely loved playing them, and used to watch my older sisters play the Oregon Trail. I would love to integrate video games into my classroom one day, and plan on doing so. I think it is a fun way to get students excited to learn the content, and would be a neat way to kick-start a unit or lesson. Something comparable to video games could be virtual reality or simulation games, which I know are bountiful. Especially in Social Studies, it is a great way for students to experience other perspectives.

  40. While I do agree that video games serve a purpose in the classroom, I think the topic falls into the case of picking the right tool for the job. As shown in some of the links, games like Assassin’s Creed and GTA, no matter how well modified or intended, are not the right tool for the Social Studies classroom. They are not intended to be historically or culturally adequate even though they do get close in some instances. I think the game companies need to focus on this niche in the market and create new content, not just re-purpose older content as Sega did with The Typing of the Dead (a typing game based around The House of the Dead shooter). We also need to examine why we use them in the class; is the game the best way to accomplish our instruction or assessment? Although Oregon Trail was fun, many teachers used it when the themes and knowledge didn’t apply to their class. The Carmen Sandiego games however are a great example of games with multiple uses that also adapted to different lessons and grade levels. Even better then playing games is to have the students create their own games. An easy way to do this at the elementary level is to have the students use Google Slides to create a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game. A game like this could be used as a product assessment, but then the students could play each their classmate’s games as a review for a more formal assessment.

  41. I think that this is the way that teaching is headed with how fast technology keeps on changing. The more teachers can incorporate technology in engaging ways it will encourage students to make connections with the material being taught. A lot of students enjoy video games, regardless of gender or age. While I think that the can be a great tool to help teach about certain things, like using the game The Oregon Trail, teachers need to be wary of what games are being used. The ones that are geared towards teaching would be fine to use, but games like Assassins Creed, while it shows historical events, would not be appropriate due to the graphic violence and overall theme of the game. Overall, I think that video games could be a great and exciting tool of it is used in the correct and an appropriate way.

  42. I think in this day and age, it is important to integrate use of technology and video games in the classroom. Students are very fimilar with technology and video games so why not add something in the classroom that they already know. It brings an engaging aspect into their daily routine at school. I think its important to bring an aspect of learning that is exciting for them and that they look forward to using. When they are excited to learn that is when they will actually engage in the learning and they will retain the information that they have learned. I also think if resources that are out there will help the students learn, then why not just use them?

  43. Using gaming to develop student’s interest in history allows them to experience it instead of just memorizing facts. Mr. Harms, History Teacher and developer of History Simulations, Please consider adding my site to your page-Thanks, Dave

  44. By incorporating any form of technology into the learning process students are automatically more excited. However, reaching their learning target through something most of them do every day is ideal. Our goal as educators is to make lifelong learners and foster a love for learning, these are both achieved when meeting the student’s wants and needs. Students want to be engaged and this is a great tool for that!!

  45. My first reaction was, “why not”. Since most students these days have playing at least i]one video game in their life, why not use this medium to reach students educationally? But then we have the other side to the coin. What if it’s just a platform to another more unsavory aspect of gaming, the start of the student taking it too far?
    For me I have gone back and forth as to if I think that this is a good thing or not. And as a whole, if you can use something students find entertaining and play without realizing that they are learning by osmosis, then surely that has to be beneficial. I would say that I am 80% sold on the idea.

  46. As the world keeps progressing with technology being one of it’s most popular progressions, bringing technology into the classroom will not only keep students engaged but will help aid in retaining information instead of just memorizing facts. Obviously using graphic games such as Assassin’s Creed would be inappropriate for a younger child, but incorporating video games in the classroom will keep their attention on the topic itself.

  47. I have never really thought about using video games to help teach social studies, however it could be incredibly useful. This could be a great way to meet students where they are at and get them engaged in the material.

  48. I really liked reading about using video games to effectively teach social studies. Growing up I remember getting so excited to play Oregon Trail. I didn’t know it then, but I was learning about how the early settlers lived and the choices they had to make to survive. For children who struggle learning social studies, this is a great way to get them involved and learning at the same time. I also loved the resources and different games Dr. Childs posted. When I was growing up, I only had Oregon trail to play but with the different games that are available today it makes learning even more accessible and fun for all students.

  49. I decided to read this article because my brothers and I grew up playing video games and still play when we all hang out together. I personally did not know that video games were used in military combat training and simulation for flight simulation. This shows how advanced out technology has become since the days of the Atari and the older Nintendo systems. As for technology in education, I used to play on and other educational sites that targeted math and reading skills. From this article I have gotten resources for social studies’ video games in the classroom. If virtual learning stays in the forefront of education, I will have to utilize resources such as these video games.

Comments are closed.