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Video Games as Historical Content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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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?”).

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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

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