The Most Fun Video Games That Actually Teach, Ranked
It’s true that video games are a ton of fun, but they can also be highly educational for kids, too. In fact, a study cited by Masala.com says that playing video games can actually boost creativity in young people.
Even anti-screen parents who swear off electronics tend to consider these video games for helping teach kids strategy.
16: Big Brain Academy (Nintendo DS)
Yes, it sounds like the likely college for cartoon supervillains, but “Big Brain Academy” has been challenging kids with its crafty puzzles since 2005.
The game claims to measure the player’s “brain mass” with its skills tests, but that’s likely just a way to keep the gameplay fun — while also teaching a system of rewards for making the right choices. This should serve the young ones well as they develop and mature.
15: Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System (Downloadable App)
If there are two things kids love, it’s animals and outer space. Professor Astro Cat takes players to the far reaches of the cosmos with the interactive app, “Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System.” It teaches kids about the sun, the planets and how celestial bodies revolve around and are attracted to one another — but requires users to make choices to unlock this info.
Popular Science heaped praise on the game as it goes beyond a “mere” educational primer and pushes players to make their own rockets and even explore the inside of the sun beside Astro Cat — without having to pack SPF 1 Trillion sunscreen.
14: Reader Rabbit (Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS, Downloadable App)
Some games are so educational they all but brag about it in their titles. Nevermind that Oryctolagus cuniculus, better known as the bunny, couldn’t read even with the best of spectacles, “Reader Rabbit” has been helping kids learn their letters and numbers since 1983.
The Washington Post even said the game served as a great stepping stone from learning at home to learning in the classroom.
13: Lightbot Jr: Coding Puzzles (Downloadable App)
“Lightbot” is deceptively simple: The player navigates a cute little robot through a maze to turn on a series of lights (just like when Mom and Dad have to stumble through the house during a power outage). The site MakeUsOf.com says that this rather rudimentary repetition actually lays the groundwork for life skills such as sequencing and understanding procedures.
Taken to a wonderful extreme, the strategic skills honed in “Lightbot” can even be used in software coding later on! Cool, eh?
12: Pet Bingo (Downloadable App)
No one — probably not even famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson — enjoyed memorizing those god awful multiplication tables. Enter “Pet Bingo,” which makes building on math skills fun for the youngsters.
As the player wins various challenges that show how his or her adding, subtracting, etc., skills are improving, they win “Pet rewards” such as a name or food for their virtual furry friend. The game has gone over so well that it became a Parents’ Choice Gold Award winner in the media and toys category.
11: Logical Journey of the Zoombinis (PC, Downloadable App)
Yes, its title is certainly a spellcheck-stumper, “logical” or otherwise. But this puzzle game has had an 11-year run with various entries that get the player attempting to conquer challenges to help the friendly Zoombinis reach a new home after they are enslaved by the nasty Bloats.
The challenges are more than just fun, too. USA Today even claimed that it the game teaches young players “the step-by-step process of learning how to create and use a database,” as they are required to sort out various pieces of the game in a primitive form of classification.
10: LEGO Creator Island (Downloadable App)
Building new worlds is one of the staples of childhood, and “LEGO Creators Island” gives kids the chance to, not only be world-builders, but also expand their creativity by putting them into civil engineering mode.
The game gives players the opportunity to use digital “tools” like bricks, off-road trucks and other vehicles to turn an island into a habitable paradise. This will come in handy when the kiddos move into their first apartments someday.
9: Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? (PC, Mac, Downloadable App)
The first Carmen Sandiego adventure hit the digital platforms in 1985, and game players have been chasing the lovable thief ever since. What’s so great about the game is that each time the player is sent to the scene of Carmen’s latest theft, he or she has to look for clues and, basically, build up a case that will lead to an arrest warrant for Carmen’s cronies as the cases get harder and harder.
This is perfect for practicing deductive reasoning and sharpening the powers of observation — all while learning about geography as Carmen evades capture in a globe-trotting pursuit.
8: Minecraft (PC, Mac, Xbox, Downloadable App)
Researchers at Iowa State University divided a group of kids into two: one that played “Minecraft” in a more “creative” way and one that had to play it according to the rules. Paradoxically, the ones who were told to be more experimental in their gameplay scored worse on a subsequent test of creativity, which seems all wrong. However, one scientist said that having players be so creative with their game choices may have, ironically, limited their options when they took the ensuing creativity test.
Should they have just played by the rules? More studies need to be done, it seems, but if a top university says that playing “Minecraft” is good for your brain, who are we to argue?
7: Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64)
If you’re a kid who grew up in the ’80s or ’90s, you’ve been adventuring alongside Mario and Luigi for decades. But who knew that smashing Koopas and chasing stars around the Mushroom Kingdom could actually increase brain mass!
According to a study undertaken by the Institute for Human Development and Charité University Medicine St. Hedwig-Krankenhaus in Berlin, playing 1996’s “Mario 64” was found to increase the gray matter of the right hippocampus, right prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, all of which are responsible for spatial reasoning, memory and motor skills of the hands. Now, that’s a good excuse to keep playing.
6: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch)
Link has been rescuing Princess Zelda from the clutches of Ganon for decades in the fantasy kingdom of Hyrule.
And not only is the 2017 series entry, “Breath of the Wild,” consistently called one of the best video games of all time, its educational potential has also been cited by the website IDTech for its “open-ended adventure that truly encourages discovery, exploration and experimentation.” These are all qualities that you want to foster in the minds of your young ones.
5: Fortnite (Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PS4)
Hours and hours and hours can be lost to the addictive shooter game, “Fortnite,” but some educators are making the case that the popular title can also teach young players about the value of collaboration and strategy rather than merely the you-versus-zombies modality the game typically promotes. “Fortnite” can be played both cooperatively as well as individually.
Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education said that this fosters a greater appreciation for teamwork, according to a report in Education Week. “The working with others, the collaboration — particularly at the middle school and high school level — that’s what kids crave,” said Stanford lecturer Denise Pope about the good lessons that come out of rocking some hot “Fortnite.”
4: SimCity Creator (PC, Nintendo Wii, Downloadable App)
Make highways, power plants, housing developments, shopping malls and railroads. Then, throw hurricanes, earthquakes and space monsters at them. Then rebuild. And repeat.
Entropy and disaster have befallen every civilization since the beginning of our species. That's why “SimCity Creator” is so great because it teaches kids, not only the value of urban planning (even a fictionalized version of it), but also that even the best-laid plans can go astray thanks to a typhoon or space lizard. But assess the damage and rebuild, kids. It’s good for you and good for your creativity.
3: The Oregon Trail (Downloadable App, Nintendo Wii)
It was certainly no easy task to get to the untamed frontier of the Pacific Northwest from Independence, Missouri, in a covered wagon. But the classic late-’80s game, “The Oregon Trail,” attempts to recreate that treacherous journey — while requiring players to make constant, life-changing choices along the way.
These include deciding where to cross dangerous rivers, what to trade with your fellow travelers and when to hunt for food (shooting big game was always exciting). All the while, the trail also threw curveballs at ya, including diseases, broken-down wagons, thieves in the night and other problems that befell those pioneers — but all from the air-conditioned comfort of the school library.
2: Nintendo Labo (Nintendo Switch)
We all dreamed that our toys would come to life, and Nintendo’s “Labo” activity has made that a reality. The game kit includes cardboard cutouts the player assembles using the Nintendo Switch device, which thereby makes the construction project both virtual and practical. This teaches principles of engineering and design, while keeping the interest of those little ADD-addled minds.
If this sounds way more complicated than it really is, take a lesson from Bill Nye the Science Guy, who shows us mere mortals how “Labo” works in this rather amusing YouTube video.
1: Civilization (PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch, Download)
Sure, “SimCity Creator” encourages you to build and then destroy your own cities, but “Civilization” takes things a step further by having players fashion an entire empire from scratch and give it enough strength to last for generations. Players choose from among the world’s most powerful and long-lasting empires — Rome, the Aztecs, the Mongols — and make choices about how to expand their frontiers as well as shore up against invasion and war with neighboring states across the centuries and with evolving technologies.
History in a book can be a bit dry for kids, so “Civilization” essentially brings that history to life, while also providing a learning primer on how and why various empires throughout history rose, fell and/or disappeared. And as they grow into adults, they can take those lessons from the past into business, politics or other projects of daily life.