As a 90s kid, my introduction to the world of high stakes negotiation was trying to convince my parents to let me play the latest violent game. While I rarely prevailed in these conflicts, (yes to Star Wars, a resounding no to Grand Theft Auto), my parents were hardly the tyrants I felt them to be at the time. And in a surprising turn of events, some of the games I remember most fondly now were the games my parents were most enthused about: educational computer games that were more about creative thinking and problem solving than the shooting and slashing games my friends wanted me to play.
In this post, I’ll share some of the games that I played, and that I recommend because they are both genuinely fun and actually educational. Of course, we at Demme Learning always encourage you to research any game for yourself before deciding to let your child play it. And we also encourage you to decide with or for your child how best to balance screen time with other activities including outdoor play. Having a conversation with your child about not only the amount of time spent playing computer games, but which games can or cannot be played is a great opportunity to explore your family values together.
History: Oregon Trail
In this award-winning classic for kids of all ages, your student will choose a character who will venture out in a wagon with American pioneers to Oregon. Along the way, your student will need to keep track of how much money they have to spend on needed supplies, while making key decisions like how best to cross a river, and dealing with unexpected catastrophes like a venomous snakebite.
You can play the retro version of the game online for free.
Suggestions for Older Students
Consider games like Civilization, CivCity: Rome, and Crusader Kings II which are all turn-based strategy games that teach a wealth of history. Please note game ratings, and decide what is appropriate for your family.
Geography: Where In The World is Carmen Sandiego
The notorious art thief Carmen Sandiego has just stolen a valuable jewel, and the whole world is looking for her. Your student will need to sharpen their geography skills to track Carmen as she galivants around the globe. Your student will be so caught up in the adventure, they won’t even realize how much geography and history they are learning!
Science: Zoo Tycoon II
It’s time for your student to put on their small business owner cap, and design and run their own zoo. This game is a blast to play, and the learning opportunities are rich. To successfully run the zoo, your student will need to do in-game research about what each of their animals need in terms of living environments and diet, while making sure those tigers can’t escape their cage! This game also functions as a crash course in business, letting your student intuit principles about supply and demand, pricing, and leveraging savings to slowly expand infrastructure.
Civics: Democracy 3 (suggested for older students)
In this turn-based strategy game, your student is the newly elected leader of the nation of their choice. Your student will have a budget to maintain, and will need to use a slider bar of policy outcomes to keep enough voter bases happy to prevent being assassinated and to ensure reelection. In the midst of governing, your student will have to deal with random events like natural disasters and make tough split-second decisions about everything from labor disputes to new trade agreements.
Parental Note: Policy decisions can include controversial social issues. This can provide you with great opportunities for discussion with your older students.
Creative Play: Minecraft (suggested for older students)
Let your student build a world of their own imagination, using blocks as the primary resource. Minecraft is a completely open-ended game that allows for maximal creativity.
Here’s a short trailer that gives you a feel for Minecraft’s unique visuals.
Strategic Thinking: Chess.com
Whether your student is a chess novice or a grandmaster, chess.com will provide plenty of opportunities to grow. You can choose to play against the computer or a live human being (including your friends!). You can also watch tutorials or read articles to help you improve your game.
Chess.com is free, but you do need to sign up using an email address or by linking to a Facebook or Google account, etc. You can also pay for more extensive features, like a comprehensive analysis of your games to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses.
Parental note: Because chess.com lets you play against other humans online, you’ll need to decide whether or not you want your student to disable the optional chat window (our recommendation).
(Disclaimer: Demme learning does not own, benefit, or profit from the links provided in this post. Recommendations are the opinion of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Demme Learning. Linked site owners are responsible for information and content on their webpages. We hope to provide resources to parents but encourage parents to do their own research and have family conversations about online safety as well as finding an appropriate balance with screen time and other activities.)
This is a great list. I played Oregon Trail as a kid, and other “educational games” that my parents bought, too. We didn’t have a game console until years later, and it was just fine. Now that I have my own kids, we have finally gone ahead and bought Minecraft as their first game. Big learning curve for Mom! But it’s been good so far, and this list will be our go-to for any future games!
I love these games, and I couldn’t help but add my own suggestion. For slightly older students who love the business thinking in Zoo Tycoon, I’d suggest Railroad Tycoon 2. It’s older, but I have never in my life seen such a sophisticated business model as this game offers. In fact, I’m planning to build a lesson plan just around the game.
For beginners, you deal with the basics of a balance sheet that most tycoon games have (although also more sophisticated, if I’m honest), but once you really get into the game you can buy businesses as assets and set up their supply chain, start buying your competitor’s stocks to initiate a hostile takeover and earn dividends, or ‘fight off’
Additionally, it offers a historical perspective – real-life events (wars, the introduction of the jumbo jet, the industrial revolution, the opening of the Iron Curtain) play a big part in the strategy of the game, and every detail is historically accurate, down to the businessmen you play with.
I also really love the historical and strategic perspective the Total War games offer, but as you’re commanding an army, it’s not a series I’d blindly recommend to any household (unlike the Railroad Tycoon one).
S Smith says
Great games – I’ve found experiences through VR are a great cross over too between the fun of using technology and providing an educational setting too. A basic headset which incorporates a mobile phone and great free VR software can immerse the kids into new worlds. We love the Natural Earth resources (such as https://www.bbcearth.com/vr/) given my love of trees.