Why You Should Stuff The (Virtual) Stocking This Season With Video Games

It’s the holiday season, and the deadline for Christmas shopping is rapidly approaching.

Luckily for the gamers among us, direct-to-customer download services have obviated the need to buy any sort of physical media at all. For instance, Steam is an entertainment platform that offers more than 3,000 diverse games available for download on any computer. Players can challenge or chat with other gamers in the Steam community.

As a lifelong gamer, I’m well aware that gaming can often be a form of crass escapism. But it can also be a vehicle for exploration, sensitive storytelling, and self-improvement. Earnest, serious gaming needn’t be any more a waste of time than reading literature or watching films. Like literature and film, game titles can be both entertaining and instructive.

But why do we play video games at all? And why might we benefit from them?

What is it about video games that keeps us clicking the mouse, thumbing the directional pad, and frantically hammering buttons?

One answer lies in self-determination theory, which posits that humans have three basic psychological needs:

  1. Competence: the sense that one is on a path to mastery and improvement.
  2. Autonomy: the sense that one can independently exercise important choices and decisions.
  3. Relatedness: the sense that one is meaningfully connected to the lives of other human beings.

These are the qualities that set games apart from media that are more passively consumed, such as movies or literature, and that make video games uniquely engaging and sometimes addictive. The “gamification” of education is all about harnessing these tendencies to spur curiosity, creativity, and mastery.

Games with educational value run the gamut from basic math and literacy games to mature and deeply immersive renderings of government, commerce, warfare, and space exploration — and sometimes all of the above. In fact, “EVE Online,” so closely resembles a natural economic ecosystem that economists have been studying it extensively.

A game can be explicitly or implicitly (even accidentally) educational, and the titles listed below include a comfortable variety of games with instructional as well as entertainment value. The following are highly-regarded games with educational value, grouped by theme:

Business, Commerce, and Economics

“Restaurant Bigwig” (iPad)

This game covers the nuts and bolts of the restaurant business and, using real-world data, emulates the underlying competition and other dynamics of the market. The game’s developer, Bigwig, ultimately intends to create an entire series covering a variety of different industries.

“Capitalism 2” (PC)

The “Capitalism” game series covers the major facets of business in such depth that it is reputedly the gold standard in business simulation. As such, it is used as a learning aid by the faculty of several top MBA programs. Its latest iteration, “Capitalism Lab” reportedly undergoes ongoing development and refinement.

History, Politics, and Warfare

“Democracy 3” (PC, Mac, Linux)

Think you can do a better job than the president? How many campaign promises can you keep and get re-elected? This game provides a good overview of political factions and salient contemporary issues and, as a mostly text-based game, also serves as a tool to aid in reading comprehension. A number of expansion packs provide additional depth to the gameplay.

“Europa Universalis IV” (PC, Mac, Linux)

Guide a European power of your choice through four centuries of dynastic politics, exploration, colonization, world wars, and other geopolitical travails spanning from the Renaissance to Napoleon’s rise.

“This War of Mine” (PC, Mac, Linux)

Forget “Call of Battlefield” and other generic shooting-gallery war games, and instead opt for “The Sims” in the midst of a besieged Eastern European town. “This War of Mine” is heavily influenced by the 1992 Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War; it is a bleak but sensitive portrayal of the plight of citizens trying to survive the crossfire. Note: This game is for mature audiences.

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Design

“Kerbal Space Program” (PC, Mac, Linux)

In this head-to-toe space program simulator, the mission is to design and build rocket ships, break out of orbit, and take a race of hapless green humanoids to their moon — and beyond (maybe Kerbal Centauri? Who knows!). The game has a large and active modding community that continually adds unique user-generated content.

Video courtesy of Scott Manley

“Simple Planes” (iOS, Android, PC, Mac)

Like “Kerbal Space Program” but stripped-down, ”Simple Planes” is a little less fantastical, and a little more focused on the nuts and bolts of aeronautics. Build and fly aircraft to meet challenges that include speed, maneuverability, and endurance.

“Spore” (iOS, PC, Mac)

An open-ended “god” simulator of sorts, in which the player tampers with the building blocks of life, trying to bring forth a space-faring race from its ancestral origins as single-celled organisms.

Sports, Music, and Entertainment

“Rocksmith” 2014 Edition (PS4, PS3, XBox One, XBox 360, PC, Mac)

The cognitive benefits of learning an instrument are well known in both science and the popular imagination. Many gamers (and parents) wonder what could have happened if the hours spent achieving virtuosity in the make-believe guitar-playing of “Guitar Hero” or “Rock Band” had instead been applied toward the mastery of actual guitar. Wonder no more!

Video courtesy of Riff Repeater

“MLB ‘14: The Show” (PS3, PS Vita)

Why would a sports simulation game (that just happens to track real-world player stats) have any educational value whatsoever? Well, the statistician who correctly predicted the outcome of the 2008 election — and who is now the world’s foremost data journalist — first cut his teeth in sabermetrics, the statistical analysis of baseball. You never know when deep nerdery may turn into something quite useful.

For further information on the educational benefits of video games, check out "5 Children’s Video Games That Teach Positive Life Skills".

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