Serious Games for the Classroom

Greetings and welcome to another edition of the TESOL games and learning blog!

When searching for video games to incorporate into the classroom, choices often fall into two broad categories: educational games and commercial off-the-shelf (CotS) games.

Serious games is a lesser known category that overlaps with both educational and CotS games. Serious games are digital or analogue games designed to educate, train, or inform players on a particular topic. The term gained traction is the early 2000s and solidified as a movement to use the interactive nature of games to engage students in challenging topics or foster empathy in students through interactive storytelling.

Serious games have a range of topics that seek to place players into the experiences of others, from the challenges faced by sustenance farmers to literacy development for refugees to living as the working poor in the United States. Other serious games seek to explain complex systems such as the branches of government or as pointed critiques of the fast food industry.

Finding Games

Games for Change is a nonprofit organization that supports the development of games created to inform and educate players on issues through interactive media. Games for Change does not create games, but catalogs them and presents them in a searchable database. This database can be filtered by age range, platform, or educational theme. Besides cataloging serious games, the organization hosts a yearly festival and a student design challenge for students interested in game design.

The Games for Change website is a portal to a wide variety of serious games.

Incorporating Serious Games Into the Classroom


The nature of serious games  and the topics these games cover benefit from teaching preparation to maximize their potential. This means sitting down and playing a few rounds of the game before introducing it to the class. Get to know the controls and the variety of options available in the game. With this preparation, you’ll be able to step in and help students who get stuck on their first attempt at the game.

Possibility Space

In game parlance, possibility space is all the options a player has within a game. When students play a game for the first time, they often play to uncover all the game’s options. Exploring these options can often look like goofing off as students will engage in deliberate failure or make questionable choices in the game. For the first playthrough in class, it is best to step back and let students play. Keep that first playthrough low stakes. Before long, students will lock into the puzzle the game presents and begin playing to complete the game rather than just explore it.

Connect to the Real World

Serious games are full of facts and real-world situations for students to experience, but are often limited in connecting this information to broader contexts. As the instructor, find ancillary materials, such as films, readings, or infographics, that can be used after gameplay to help students more fully understand the context presented in the game. Many serious games, such as Stop Disasters by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reductions, offer teacher resources and lesson plans to accompany the game.

Final Considerations

When incorporating serious games into the classroom, it is always important to be mindful of the experiences of your own students. Some may have lived experiences similar to those presented in the game which should always be a factor to consider when deciding what games to play in class. Conversely, students who have had similar experiences may be more open to discussing such experience when reflected through a game, because the game provides an opportunity to discuss such experiences in a more abstract way—they no longer have to talk about themselves, but can instead talk about the game.

Have you played serious games with your students? How did it go? What games might you recommend?

Until next month, play more games!

About Jeff Kuhn

Jeff Kuhn is the director of esports at Ohio University. He frequently delivers talks and keynote addresses on games and learning, game design, and the need for games literacy in educators. He is one of the founding moderators of the Electronic Village Online’s Minecraft MOOC, a community of practice for teachers learning to use Minecraft in the classroom. He has served on the TESOL CALL-IS steering committee, as the Gaming Special Interest Group chair for CALICO, and in the U.S. Department of State’s English Language Specialist program. His research interests include game-based learning, second language writing, and computer-assisted language learning.
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