All Educational Games Don’t Suck, Because All Games are Educational!

Guest Blogger: Steve, the Game Guy


When we think of educational activities, we usually think about books.  What can be more educational then reading books?  Textbooks, biographies, fiction, books are the most common tools of education.   Unfortunately all of those cute cat videos can be so distracting that they keep the internet from being a great educational tool.  Books keep your mind active unlike television; even though there are some educational shows out there they don’t engage your thinking.  Did you know that you burn more calories while you are sleeping then when you are watching television?  Your brain is entirely passive while watching television.

Books also expose you to new information and ideas, and it is what smart people have been doing for centuries to become so.  Reading is a huge portion of any education, but not all learning has to come from books.  So can games be just as educational?  Let’s look at how books and games compare. 

Keeping Your Mind Active

Games do that.  Unless you are playing the most boring game of “Candy Land” ever, you are thinking about what you are doing.  Even “Talisman”, which a lot of people dislike because of the lack of decisions, has decisions in it.  You need to not only be paying attention to what is going on, but processing that information, how it plays into your strategy, what you should do next, etc.  You are thinking about the possible moves, and many games have a story that unfolds as well.  Some games keep you more engaged than books do.  

Expose you to new information and ideas.

Books can take you to a faraway place and time and tell you all about it, and unless it is an abstract game, games do the same thing.  The game “Tales of the Arabian Nights” contains all of the great bits of the stories from the book and more, weaving them into a new story every time that you play. 

Imagine your favorite book and think about how great it would be if every time you read the story it was brand new, but all the best parts are still there.  Think about that boring history textbook that droned on about the Cold War, and replace it with “Twilight Struggle” that has all of the same events and facts, but makes you feel the tension and importance of every decision, just like the people who had to lead each country during that time.  “Civilization” draws you into the importance of each technological advancement or cultural wonder, allowing you to see how each age built upon the last.


Games can immerse you in fact or fiction, teach, and expand the way you think about things.  A good game draws you in just like a good book, but doesn’t necessarily have the baggage that comes with being labeled “educational”.  Just being exposed to a new concept can be enough to peak peoples’ interest to learn more after the game.  I have to admit, playing “Through the Ages” was the first time I had ever heard of Maximillian Robespierre, but seeing how he interacted with everything made me want to find out who he was.

Just like there are some books that don’t increase the width or breadth of your understanding, there are games that don’t either, but what’s important is that there are games that do. 

In addition to the benefits we traditionally associate with books games teach a variety of important life skills.

Games Reward Work!

Think about it.  People read books about chess theory just to get the edge when playing.  I have read those books.  Talk about boring, reading about other people playing a game and not even playing the game yourself.  But through putting in that work, I did in fact improve at chess.  Same thing with lots of games. By spending time thinking and discussing your strategy in a game you are able to refine it and improve it.  The more effort you put into winning a game, the better your chance of winning it.  There are exceptions to every rule, like games that have a lot of luck to them (I am looking at you “Risk”), but effort matters.  Putting in some effort into a game improves your chances of winning. 

Now, winning isn’t everything when it comes to playing games, at least it shouldn’t be, but it is a reward for playing well.  Rewarding hard work is one of those old school virtues, the ones that you envision someone’s grandfather teaching their grandson while fishing on some picturesque lake.  But it is also one of those virtues that can get you places in the work force, and one that can be difficult to teach children.  Why not let them learn it while they play “Agricola”?  There are even games that highlight the importance of people doing work, like “Le Havre” and all the 18XX games.

Gaming Is a Social Activity

It doesn’t matter if it is a cooperative game like “Outfoxed”, or competitive like “Forbidden Stars” you still are participating in a social activity.  You are interacting with other players, working together on conflict resolution such as when rule questions arise, and learning how to accomplish tasks with others. 


Competitive games especially force players to walk the line of looking out for your own self-interest, but still contribute to a larger group activity, such as the administrative tasks of the game, and the social interaction going on outside of the game.  Playing games together helps build bonds and friendships, and teaches the skills to perform these tasks outside of the gaming group.   

What About Solo Games?

Sometimes you just can’t find someone interested in playing when you want to play, so you go it alone.  It is the same with life.  Sometimes you just need to get something done, and the only person to do it is you, so you buckle down and write your term paper, or take out the trash, or whatever important thing it is that you need to get done.  That is called independent work, which is an important character trait.

Solo games help build and refine that skill.  You are performing all the required actions, hopefully honestly, to perform all the steps and actions to play the game.  You are performing complex tasks with no one standing over your shoulder, walking you through it.  

I know what you are thinking, that sounds like a stretch, but it really isn’t.  Being able to work on your own is an important skill for everything from being able to do your homework without someone watching you do it, to moving out and doing your own laundry.  When you have that skill it seems like the simplest thing in the world, but not everyone has the motivation to do all the little tasks required to accomplish larger goals.  Teaching my kids to do their homework on their own, without someone supervising them to make sure they do it is still an ongoing battle.

The Most Important 2: Planning and Attention to Detail


I love strategy games; “Burning Suns”, “Star Wars: Rebellion”, there are tons out there, and they teach planning and attention to detail.  If you go into a game of “Scythe” without a plan, you are planning to fail.  You have to make a plan, adapt it as things change, and pick up the pieces when things go wrong.  You need to build a plan, and the better your plan is, and the better your opponent’s plan is, the better the game is. 

Strategy games force you to look at all of your options, set up priorities, and make your plan adaptable. If you can learn how to do that, and then apply it to your life goals, you will go places.  Everything I have ever seen about how to improve your life talks about setting goals and the stepping stones to achieving them.  That is the same planning you need in strategy games, just applied to something more important.

Moderating risk, learning how much risk is acceptable, these are powerful life skills, and are required skills for games like “Pax Pamir” and “Axis and Allies”.  And you know what they say… practice makes perfect.  Best to practice in an environment where the worst thing that happens is you lose the game, not your house or something else important. 

Looking at the details is also important.  You are playing your opponent just as much as you are the game. Paying attention to what they are doing, what their options are.  How are they acting?  These details give you the edge.   

This is also an important skill out in the real world.  Looking over programming code requires great attention to detail.  Discovering a loophole in a contract because you actually read things before you sign them can save you or your company thousands to millions of dollars.  Having someone who looks at the details for a project is invaluable, and having the ability to be that person is always a good thing. 

Educational Games Vs Games that are Educational

So, while people generally associate playing chess with being very intellectual, the fact of the matter is that time spent playing almost any game can be beneficial.  And, more importantly, they don’t have to be “Scrabble” or “Jeopardy” with facts about European History to be educational.    Lots of good games are based on real world history as well as teaching important life skills. 

Good games like “Brass” and “Timeline” are full of educational information.  You don’t need to seek out educational games to teach real world skills to the people you care about or build them in yourself.  You just need to seek out good games.  When I play “Through the Ages” with my kids, we talk about some of the cards, and how that specific thing was influential and what it consisted off.  When I play “Twilight Struggle”, I read the background information on the event cards, and how that actual event affected the war.  Do I do it for every card?  No.  That would be crazy.  But I do it for some.  And that is the point. 

I am not saying that we should all give up television and spend all our free time playing games.  If you like “Game of Thrones”, then by all means, watch it.  But then go out and get the “Game of Thrones” Game.  Not only will you enjoy all the familiar people and plot twists from the show in the game, but the intrigue and shifting alliances you participate in will sharpen your social skills, and teach you tell-tale signs of when someone is about to push you in front of a bus, a good skill to have in life.

I have to admit, having these skills has helped me out a ton in both the military, as well as the corporate world, but more importantly, these are the skills I want my kids to have when they go out into the world to try to make it on their own.  I want them to succeed.  Don’t you want to be able to build a plan and catch errors before they become problems?  Don’t you want that for your kids?  Good news!  All it takes is playing fun games with them.  Not a heavy price.   


By: Steve, the Game Guy