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Video Games as Historical Content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. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.