How to Turn Computer Games into Lesson Plans

I was a child of the ‘80s. I started kindergarten in ’77, and proceeded to have the typical educational experience throughout the entire decade to follow before finally heading off to college in ’91. This means that, like pretty much every other American child of my day one of the pinnacle, memorable experiences of my childhood was playing computer games in school.

I’m sure that a number of you reading this are now scrunching your eyebrows together in confusion. Computer games? In school? In the ‘80s? What?

If you’re my age you probably aren’t one of those people who are confused at this point. Instead you’re nodding your head up and down, smiling a bit wistfully, and muttering, “You have died of dysentery.” That’s because you, like nearly every other child of the ‘80s, experienced one of the first attempts at edutainment to hit the classroom, The Oregon Trail.


A History of Edutainment

Doubtless most of you are already familiar with the concept, but for the sake of being thorough let me touch on it quickly. Edutainment is the process of educating through the use of popular forms of entertainment. Arguably parables and fairy tales with their moral of the story format are a form of edutainment that has existed for thousands of years. Probably the first example of using modern media methods for edutainment would be the WWII army training films featuring Private Snafu. (Warning, these films are a product of their time and as such reflect many attitudes considered offensive today.) TV shows such as Sesame Street and Schoolhouse Rock moved edutainment into the children’s education demographic in the ‘70s by making subjects like reading, math, civics, and grammar fun for the whole family.

The Oregon Trail brought this concept to the computer. It was written by a then high school student specifically to help teach an 8th grade history class. Though initially written in 1971 it didn’t become popular until the end of that decade, becoming the classic classroom icon it is now through its near universal adoption during the ‘80s.

Edutainment is now a very popular tool in the classroom. Current students tend to be computer savvy gamers with a hefty appetite for active learning. A wide variety of edutainment has been created for the classroom to meet this need. But sometimes purpose built software doesn’t meet the specific needs of a given classroom. When that occurs a teacher may have to get a little creative and find ways to adapt commercially available games meant for private gamers.

At the university level various professors have engaged in novel solutions. For example, Boise State uses Second Life as an interactive classroom. I myself found Empires III surprisingly helpful in learning how the Tokugawa Shogunate came to power during my military history studies. But what about at the highschool level? Have highschool teachers been able to similarly adapt?

Today I’d like to share three real world examples where teachers did precisely this. Hopefully by looking at how they adapted popular games to their classrooms you’ll find inspiration that will help you in your own classrooms. Our three examples are Jeremiah McCall, Dan Bloom, and Don LaBonte.

Civilization IV

Jeremiah McCall had a problem. In his Ancient World History class he wanted to help make the big picture view of how agriculture essentially created civilization stick with his students. To do so he turned to Civilization IV, one of the immensely popular 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) empire building games created by Sid Meier.

In Civ IV players have significant power over the development of their societies. They can select the location where cities are built. Using workers they can determine the ways the surrounding land is being used through development of infrastructure such as farms, mines, fortifications, etc. When the cities grow large enough players can reassign them into specialized roles. Larger, more efficient cities can sustain larger, more professional militaries useful for protecting less built up cities, while roads connecting them allow for greater distribution of exploitable resources. Players can use more powerful economies to build wonders and structures that support and expand cultural and religious power and select specific governing and civic policies. And all of this leads to an increasingly strong growth of learning and technological development. All of these in turn add up to the player having a variety of ways to influence or even outright absorb neighboring civilizations.


These processes all closely model historian David Christian’s core factors of ancient civilizations: agrarian communities, cities and towns, complex division of labor, hierarchies, armies, literate bureaucracies, networks of exchange, systems of religion and ideology, and wider hinterlands. Studying and understanding them both individually and as a collective whole is fundamental to an understanding of how our current civilization came to be. However doing so through selected readings from standard textbooks and writing a few essays about the Natufians, Dadiwans, or Tehuacans tends to be a very static process that does not fully engage the students, resulting in only a shallow degree of learning.

By incorporating Civ IV into the study process, McCall can now fully engage the students. As he instructs on each individual subsection of Christian’s core factors students can go into the game, assume the role of a late Neolithic leader, and specifically manipulate that factor, studying how increases or decreases impact the development of their civilization. This is internalized by the students as they are able to watch the results of their own decisions about how to develop their early farming society unfold before their eyes, and point out to what factors led to the results.

McCall is not the first to use Civ IV in this fashion. While he is putting a much more specific spin on it with his approach (focusing on Christian’s model), Nordahl Grieg Upper Secondary School in Norway has been using Civ in this fashion as well. Teachers Aleksander Husoy and Vegard Relling have been collecting some of the essays and lessons learned presented by their students and publishing them in English. To get a feel for the student view of this learning tool I recommend reading these essays here. It makes for an excellent read.


Dan Bloom teaches biology at the 9th grade level. For him the challenge was to help his students visualize the process of DNA extraction. His students were preparing to do this in an actual science lab experiment, but he wanted to be certain they understood what they were doing and why before ever stepping into the lab.

His novel solution, as is well-detailed in this excellent Edutopia article, was to turn to Minecraft. With the help of a more Minecraft-savvy assistant, he built gigantic biological cells. Students then had to utilize the correct tools (chemicals) in order to properly get into the correct parts of the cell to be able to reach the DNA. Use of the incorrect tool (such as attempting to use salt to break through the cell’s outer membrane) won’t get them anywhere, while the correct tool rapidly moves them forward towards their goal. Through this process students not only learn the how and why of DNA extraction, they are also able to visualize the structures and parts of basic cells in a 3D, interactive environment, further solidifying earlier lessons.


According to the Edutopia article, Bloom’s results have been singularly effective. During the experiment students were able to really talk about what they were doing, and even able to extend the knowledge. He reported that some post lab reports even went on to point out that the soaps used to break down cell walls were attacking the fats, and that soap breaks down fats on dirty dishes, thus making the leap between a biology experiment and modern, everyday experiences.

Bloom was interviewed for the Minecraft Minechat channel on YouTube. It’s a fun and excellent breakdown of his use of this very popular game.

Portal 2

Don LaBonte is a teacher and curriculum designer for Chicago’s Convergence Academies. Like Dan Bloom, his goal was to provide students the opportunity to fully engage with the scientific process in a way keyed to their personal sense of fun. As is detailed in this Edutopia article, during an after-school video gaming club meeting he noticed how thoughtful the students were while engaging with the problem solving process involved in Valve’s Portal 2.


LaBonte realized that Portal 2’s Puzzle Maker feature was able to meet the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices standards. As such students could use a directed framework to follow the scientific method: Come up with a question, design an experiment, get feedback from the experiment, make sense of their results. Given the task to test game players by designing levels, students were able to come up with questions about how players might react to specific puzzles, how quickly they might overcome them, what means they might use, and so on. They then were able to design specific puzzles to test these questions while controlling for factors such as gaming experience, gender, age, and etc. They then ran their experiments, interpreted their results, and presented their findings to the class.

The students were enraptured by this method of learning how to conduct science. “I saw these kids display more joy and pride after passing a level than I ever did when they tried to see if Train A arrived before Train B if they both left Kansas City an hour apart.” Post project discussions were lively and engaging as they discussed problem solving methods, technical issues and solutions, and the fun of creating a successful design.

The Students weren’t the only ones thrilled. Valve was as well. Portal 2’s Puzzle Maker developers from Valve collaborated with Edutopia and several teachers to create a video about using Puzzle Maker in the classroom.

In Short

These are just three examples of the ways teachers have used commercial games as tools in the classroom. Hundreds of games exist with the potential to enhance the learning environment for today’s Nintendo generation. Regardless of the subject you teach there are probably opportunities out there for you just waiting for a little creative application.

James Hinton is a life-long learner who is perpetually a thesis away from his Master’s. He currently hangs his hat in Idaho with his four teenage daughters, fretting over paying for their impending college bills. You can read more of his writing at My twitter is @JamieMHinton


  1. Betsy D.

    January 1, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    This is no big surprise – educators have used games for many many years – how about Racko, and Scrabble, and plain old card games – all have educational value. We are just continuing this tradition by including computer games now, but games and gaming have always been interesting – and have always had value for learning.

    • James Hinton

      January 5, 2015 at 8:37 am

      Very true, Betsy. Games have been a part of education for as long as there has been education. It’s just interesting to see how changing technologies are adapted to by formal education these days.

  2. Chris

    January 6, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    I’ve heard a similar example. A teacher used Age of Empires and made a custom map. The map was a middle-sized island with several ‘tribes’ on it. All the tribes were set to ‘allies’ so they couldn’t attack each other. The students played as one tribe each and set about developing the best cities they could. After about an hour, they realised the trees were running out, mines were depleted etc. They had to develop new solutions as they realised their resources were finite. It was a great way to illustrate the importance of sustainable practices!

    • James Hinton

      January 7, 2015 at 8:30 am

      That sounds excellent, Chris. I’d love to read more on it. Do you have a link to any further discussion about that use? I am actually looking at writing further articles on edutainment for Edudemic and might be able to make use of this.

  3. Lucas Gillispie

    January 12, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    And, don’t discount the powerful, social learning opportunities that massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft offer! We have tons of lesson ideas and resources (even a full curriculum) at our WoWinSchool Wiki –

    Thanks for a great article!


    • James Hinton

      January 13, 2015 at 9:52 am

      Thank you, Lucas.

      MMOs can be a complete article by itself. In fact, as your link proves, it can be a complete website. Thank you for sharing that resource for educators looking for ways to meet students halfway through using their favorite platforms for edutainment.

  4. Stephen Reid

    January 13, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    Great article, I’ve been using digital gaming in classrooms around the weld now for almost 10 years, with the most speedy and significant uptake in the last three. Minecraft and Little Big Planet have proven most popular and diverse but there literally dozens of off-the-shelf games to suit all curriculum subjects as well as skills for life, work and social mobility. Ico, The Unfinished Swan, the original Tomb Raider, Journey, The Plan, Age of Empires and Mythology and many more.

    Always great to see examples of the spread of Games-Based Learning. Thanks!


    • Stephen Reid

      January 13, 2015 at 6:00 pm

      world…not weld

    • James Hinton

      January 14, 2015 at 7:27 am

      My pleasure! I plan to explore this topic further in the future. As you point out, there is an entire world of options out there.