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Video Games as Historical Content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 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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