from the world's big
10 video games to help kids think big
We found 10 video games that kids will love (and they'll secretly be learning, too).
- Educational video games endure a gimcrack reputation for being boring.
- We list 10 games that can help players learn and may improve their cognitive skills.
- The American Psychological Association recognizes other benefits to playing video games, including social and motivational ones.
Video games have shouldered a bad rap. Critics argue they indoctrinate children to violence, reinforce negative stereotypes, and produce cognitively lazy shut-ins. Ironically, educational video games enjoy an even shabbier reputation. Say what you will about DOOM and Grand Theft Auto, at least they aren't boring.
But such reputations are hardly earned. While the relationship between violent media and aggression is complicated by an accumulation of risk factors, the American Psychological Association has found insufficient evidence to link video games with delinquency and criminal violence. The association also acknowledges the many cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social benefits of digital play.
As for educational games, they've come a long way since the days of Castle of Dr. Brain and Wally Bear and the No! Gang. For starters they can be fun—and not in an "it's this or flashcards" kind of way. In fact, some of the best learning video games weren't even developed with education in mind.
The Minecraft phenomenon needs no introduction. Kids will gladly spend hours playing and exploring their blocky, lo-res sandboxes. In that interactive space, a lot of learning can happen.
Mojang's Minecraft promotes agency, investigation, creativity, collaboration, and lateral-thinking skills in its survival mode, while its creative mode offers the tools for outstanding design opportunities. Some industrious players have built entire cities and fantasy worlds.
Educational organizations have utilized Minecraft's popularity and tool set to create entirely new learning opportunities. Code.org, for example, has created computer code tutorials which feature Minecraft characters and settings. And Microsoft Studios has developed an edition of the game specifically for educational purposes.
Squad's Kerbal Space Program tasks players with overseeing their own space administration, building rocket ships, and launching them into space. Gameplay makes children feel like rocket scientists as it touches on many facets of actual space exploration—including design, mathematics, engineering, and aerospace physics.
Like Minecraft, the game also encourages experimentation and a growth mindset. Rocket launches will fail, forcing players to watch them explode spectacularly in the atmosphere. But the Kerbal's enthusiasm and cartoonish whimsey makes failure more than half the fun and success all the sweeter.
When you play a 3D video game, do you feel like a rat in a maze? There's good reason for that; you kind of are. Scientists have long known that environmental enrichment has positive effects on cognition and neural plasticity of rodents, and there are few environments more enriching and rewarding than a Super Mario level.
In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers wanted to test if stimulating virtual environments provided a human correlate for rodent mazes. They had participants play Nintendo's Super Mario 3D World for two weeks alongside two control groups—one played no video games, the another played the 2D game Angry Birds.
The results? Participants who played the 3D game showed improved performance on recognition memory tasks and mnemonic discrimination, suggesting these 3D environments influenced the hippocampus, a brain structure that plays a major role in learning and memory.
Another study, this one published in PLoS One, looked directly at gray matter in adults 55 to 75 years old. The participants were divided into three groups: one group played Super Mario 64, another took self-directed piano lessons, and the third performed no task. After six months, only the gamer group showed a significant increase in the gray matter of the hippocampus (though the music group showed an increase in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and both the musicians and the gamers saw growth in the cerebellum.)
While these studies don't prove Super Mario will make you smarter, that's okay. The games still offer a bounty of problem-solving, spatial navigation, and eye-hand coordination learning tools. Any increase of gray matter is a bonus.
Ubisoft's Rabbids Coding is more straightforward in its educational goals. The game teaches players the basics of coding by requiring them to create simple algorithms. These algorithms then guide the titular Rabbids through mazes of obstacles to an end goal. No prior coding experience is required, and younger children can still enjoy the logic puzzles without comprehending concepts like program, algorithm, or outputs.
The story of guiding the Rabbids off the International Space Station before they destroy everything has a fun, maniacal Looney Tunes vibe. But be warned! The Rabbids act like Minions cross-pollinated with Jerry Lewis's facial expressions. Kids love them; parent mileage will vary.
Rabbids Coding is available for free on Ubisoft's UPlay platform.
Keyboarding is more important than ever. Most jobs require basic keyboarding skills, and as proficiency tests migrate to computers, young adults will need these skills to succeed in their education. Unfortunately, many schools aren't teaching typing under the false belief that children are either already proficient or will learn naturally through computer interaction.
Parents and schools need a fun, engaging way to introduce keyboarding proficiency. Enter Fishing Cactus' Epistory.
Epistory takes players on an adventure alongside a young girl and her fox companion as they explore this fantasy land. Through typing, players battle monsters and solve increasingly difficult puzzles that slowly migrate their fingers beyond home row. It's all wrapped up in a gorgeous origami art style with a story that "literally unfolds" as players progress.
The Portal series takes place in the Aperture Science Lab under the watchful eye of GLaDOS. This sarcastic, genocidally-oriented A.I. pushes players through a series of puzzles that require the mind-bending portal gun to overcome.
It's basically an escape room that's been built inside a Rubix Cube that players solve with the powers of a spacetime-leaping subatomic particle. The scenarios stretch logic, problem-solving, spatial-awareness, and lateral-thinking to the absolute limit. It's also darn funny, sporting a humor that's equal parts wry and absurd.
A study published in Computers & Education found that Portal 2 players showed more improvement in standard cognitive skill tests than players of Lumosity, an online program that markets itself as a "brain workout."
"If entertainment games actually do a better job than games designed for neuroplasticity, what that suggests is that we are clearly missing something important about neuroplasticity," C. Shawn Green, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Popular Science. (Green was not involved in the Computers & Education study.)
Lead your civilization. That's the challenge of this popular strategy series. Starting with a group of prehistoric humans, players must utilize economics, diplomacy, innovation, and military might to secure their civilization's place in history.
While many strategy games focus exclusively on combat, Civilization offers four routes to victory: cultural, religious, martial, and scientific. The game teaches planning, resource management, and basic economics.
The history can get a bit wonky—at least, we don't recall a time when Mahatma Gandhi forced Cleopatra to surrender by threat of nuclear destruction. But the leaders feature gameplay traits that hint at their historic influence, which may prime a self-directed study of history.
Nintendo Labo combines design thinking with learning video games to create an unconventional education experience. Using cardboard kits, players build and personalize peripheral devices as varied as a piano, fishing rod, bug bot, driving wheel, and even a child-sized robot suit. Each peripheral then pairs with a game on the Nintendo Switch.
The concept nurtures an interest in engineering, construction, and creativity. Some of the games also sport programming interactions, allowing the players to see how the physical build affects the digital space and visa versa.
With Labo, players get to understand how their toys function, not simply see what they do. Bill Nye seems to get a kick out of it, too.
The first thing you'll noticed about the Professor Layton series is its gorgeous art style. It's what you would get if Studio Ghibli adapted an Hercule Poirot novel. The aesthetics perfectly match the story, which follows the titular detective as he ekes out clues to solve the day's mystery.
Players must keep track of locations and characters in a point-and-click style adventure. The clues are presented as mind-bending puzzles that test the player's logic, mathematics, spatial orientation, and lateral thinking. These can be mind-busting for even older players, but a generous hint system means most ages are welcome.
Unlike most war games, which serve as adolescent power fantasies, 11 bit studios' This War of Mine tasks players with overseeing the survival of a group of civilians caught between the military and the separatists.
They'll need to gather resources, manage the shelter, and tend to the community's physical and mental wellbeing. The experience forces tough choices on the player, like stealing much needed food from other survivors, while providing no easy solutions.
This War of Mine provides a different type of learning video game. Like a good piece of art or literature, it asks its players to empathize with a part of the human experience that is alien to their everyday life.
For younger players, we'd recommend subbing out This War of Mine with Never Alone. A platform by Upper One Games, the game is based on a traditional tale of the Iñupiat people, a native Alaskan tribe.
By solving the game's puzzles, players are rewarded with "cultural insights," stories of the Iñupiaq people shared by their storytellers. Developed in partnership with the Cook Inlet Tribe Council, the game offers players an entertaining and personal method to engage with a rich culture.
Gaming: Truths & Myths
There are 10 excellent learning video games that entertain and teach in equal proportion. But our list is hardly comprehensive. Mario Maker, Little Big Planet, the Carmen Sandiego series, and The Legend of Zelda series are all equally deserving of a spot.
Of course, just because video games are excellent learning tools doesn't mean children (or adults) should spend hours a day playing them. They offer an engaging complement to other learning tools, like books, parks, museums, and the like. But with these and other games, parents don't have to worry about letting their children enjoy a play session now and again.
- Do most educational games suck? - Big Think ›
- Playing Super Mario 64 Increases Brain Health in Adults - Big Think ›
- Why we play video games to fail - Big Think ›
- Exercise your brain with Bennett Foddy's free online games - Big Think ›
Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.
- Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
- One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
- EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
What's dead may never die, it seems<p>The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called Brain<em>Ex</em>. Brain<em>Ex </em>is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.</p><p>Brain<em>Ex</em> pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.</p><p>The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if Brain<em>Ex</em> can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.</p><p>As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.</p><p>The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.</p><p>"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told <em><a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/04/pig-brains-partially-revived-what-it-means-for-medicine-death-ethics/" target="_blank">National Geographic</a>.</em></p>
An ethical gray matter<p>Before anyone gets an <em>Island of Dr. Moreau</em> vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.</p><p>The Brain<em>Ex</em> solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness. </p><p>Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death. </p><p>Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?</p><p>"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/science/brain-dead-pigs.html" target="_blank">the <em>New York Times</em></a>. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."</p><p>One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.</p><p>The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01216-4#ref-CR2" target="_blank">told <em>Nature</em></a> that if Brain<em>Ex</em> were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.</p><p>"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.</p><p>It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.</p><p>Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? <a href="https://bigthink.com/philip-perry/after-death-youre-aware-that-youve-died-scientists-claim" target="_blank">The distress of a partially alive brain</a>? </p><p>The dilemma is unprecedented.</p>
Setting new boundaries<p>Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, <em>Frankenstein</em>. As Farahany told <em>National Geographic</em>: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have <em>Frankenstein</em>, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."</p><p>She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.</p>
A study published Friday tested how well 14 commonly available face masks blocked the emission of respiratory droplets as people were speaking.
- The study tested the efficacy of popular types of face masks, including N95 respirators, bandanas, cotton-polypropylene masks, gaiters, and others.
- The results showed that N95 respirators were most effective, while wearing a neck fleece (aka gaiter) actually produced more respiratory droplets than wearing no mask at all.
- Certain types of homemade masks seem to be effective at blocking the spread of COVID-19.
Fischer et al.<p>A smartphone camera recorded video of the participants, and a computer algorithm counted the number of droplets they emitted. To establish a control trial, the participants spoke into the box both with and without a mask. And to make sure that the droplets weren't in fact dust from the masks, the team conducted more tests by "repeatedly puffing air from a bulb through the masks."</p>
Fischer et al.<p>The results, published Friday in <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/08/07/sciadv.abd3083" target="_blank">Science Advances</a>, showed that some masks are pretty much useless. In particular, neck fleeces (also called gaiters) actually produced more respiratory droplets compared to the control trial — likely because the fabric breaks down big droplets into smaller ones.</p><p>The top three most effective masks were N95 respirators, surgical masks, and polypropylene-cotton masks. Bandanas performed the worst, but were slightly better than wearing no mask at all.</p>
Fischer et al.<p>Research on mask efficacy is still emerging. But the new results seem to generally align with <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">prior tests</a>. For example, a study from June published in <a href="https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0016018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Physics of Fluid</a> found that bandanas (followed by folded handkerchiefs) were least effective at blocking respiratory droplets. That same study also found, as <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">others have</a>, that masks made from multiple layers of quilter's fabric were especially effective at blocking droplets.</p><p>The researchers hope other institutions will conduct similar experiments so the public can see how well different masks can block the spread of COVID-19.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This is a very powerful visual tool to raise awareness that a very simple masks, like these homemade cotton masks, do really well to stop the majority of these respiratory droplets," Fischer told CNN. "Companies and manufacturers can set this up and test their mask designs before producing them, which would also be very useful."</p>
Sharing QAnon disinformation is harming the children devotees purport to help.
- The conspiracy theory, QAnon, is doing more harm than good in the battle to end child trafficking.
- Foster youth expert, Regan Williams, says there are 25-29k missing children every year, not 800k, as marketed by QAnon.
- Real ways to help abused children include donating to nonprofits, taking educational workshops, and becoming a foster parent.
Real ways you can help stop child trafficking<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="21fc2dc85391501eec28c4bf46d7db15"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/AXL0q9jNZGU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Williams is the founder and CEO of <a href="http://www.seenandheard.org/" target="_blank">Seen and Heard</a>, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps foster youth develop character through the performing arts. She's been involved with foster youth for years; I <a href="https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/child-sex-trafficking" target="_self">wrote about her work</a> in child trafficking just over a year ago. Tragically, since that time, the situation for these children has only gotten worse, in large part because of QAnon.</p><p>Williams says child trafficking is an easy cause to rally people together. Fear is also a powerful unifying force, one that QAnon believers are already primed for via the news they consume. Almost every parent cares about their children, making them the ideal target to solidify groups. </p><p>The real problem, she says, is that the youth she works with are falling for these conspiracy theories. Trauma is a particularly powerful tool for indoctrination. If you're a teenager that's been abducted or abused, your trust level is already extremely low. Then you read about a global cabal of powerful men (and a few women) secretly abusing children, and the narrative seems ready-made for your personal history.</p><p>When Williams tried to "lovingly and kindly correct" the youth she was working with after learning about the Wayfair conspiracy, the girls' response was, "well, who owns the media?" </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"She goes from this small little thing to a QAnon talking point. I've been thinking about why she would believe such a preposterous idea—and there are others; it's not just one student, and they're in in deep. I think that when something horrific happens to you as a child, it's a lot easier to distance yourself from the immediate reality that it was an uncle or a parent or a sibling that hurt you. By detaching from that immediate person, they project it onto Bill Gates or Chrissy Teigen. Then it's not so personal, it's global." </p>
A man wear a shirt with the words Q Anon as he attends a rally for President Donald Trump at the Make America Great Again Rally being held in the Florida State Fair Grounds Expo Hall on July 31, 2018 in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images<p>As Williams mentions, there are over 30,000 kids in foster care in the Los Angeles area alone. It's easy to fall through the cracks. The systems in place aren't perfect; they're certainly underfunded. When you're in a system trying to support you yet isn't capable of doing so, viewing the world as imperfect, and even harmful, becomes the lens through which you see reality. Again, this makes for a perfect indoctrination tool.</p><p>One popular QAnon talking point is that 800,000 children are missing. As Williams says, child trafficking experts "don't buy this for a minute." The number makes for a good meme but a poor representation of the problem. </p><p>To source better data, Williams turns to the <a href="https://www.missingkids.org/" target="_blank">National Center for Missing and Exploited Children</a> (NCMEC) and the <a href="https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/ncic" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">National Crime Information Center</a> (NCIC). An important factor when reading data: if a teacher <em>and</em> a caregiver report a missing child to NCIC, that counts as two children, not one, which accounts for some of the fluctuations in numbers. In total, between 25,000 and 29,000 kids go missing every year. Importantly, 94 percent of those children are recovered within four to six weeks. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"They're not documenting the recovery rate. It's not like these numbers are perpetually hanging out there. So this 800,000 number is just ludicrous." </p><p>Williams compares what's going on to Black Lives Matter. Blacking out your Instagram profile picture is performative. It signals that you actually care, which is great, but if you're not supporting Black-owned businesses, for example, there are no teeth to your activism. </p><p>Of course, blacking out your profile doesn't cause the real-world harm the QAnon virus does. Sharing misinformation is ultimately harmful to the children in need of help. Williams offers the resources below—ranging from donations to nonprofits to educational trainings to becoming a foster parent—for people that actually want to do something to help victims of sexual and physical abuse. They might not make a great Twitter meme, but in the actual world, this support makes all the difference. </p><p><strong>To report abuse/neglect, call the child abuse hotline: 800.540.4000 (LA county) / 800.422.4453 (National)</strong></p><ul><li>Support anti-trafficking organizations by donating to <a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://savinginnocence.org/" target="_blank">Saving Innocence</a>, which runs the continuum of care from rescue to recovery, <a href="http://gozoe.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Zoe</a>, a reputable faith-based organization, and <a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="https://withtwowings.org/" target="_blank">Two Wings</a>, which helps to rehabilitate female survivors</li><li><a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://www.nolabrantleyspeaks.org/" target="_blank">Nola Brantley</a> offers in-person and online trainings to help combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children</li><li><a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://instagram.com/imrebeccabender" target="_blank">Rebecca Bender</a> is a trafficking survivor that runs "Myth Busters," which combats conspiracy theory disinformation</li><li>The <a href="https://www.instagram.com/missingkids/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">National Center</a> of Missing and Exploited Children</li><li>Operation <a href="https://www.instagram.com/ourrescue/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Underground Railroad </a></li><li><a href="https://www.instagram.com/defendinnocence/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Defend Innocence</a> offers tips for parents and caregivers to keep kids safe</li></ul><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>