This is your brain on Oregon Trail: Lessons learned from a childhood of gaming


I have a long history with educational games. In the earliest of my last 29 years, I can recall hours pleasantly spent with MECC’s Number Munchers and The Learning Company’s Where in Time is Carmen San Diego, amongst others. But games don’t have to be specifically educational in order to teach. Many are imparting valuable learning at the same time they’re entertaining. Here are a few surprising lessons that video games have taught me.


In my day, we didn’t have fancy headset mics with which to hurl curses and racial epithets at each other. I taunted using the keyboard, like a man. But “LeetNinjaGangsta” wasn’t going to wait for the end of my turn before gibbing me with his railgun, so I had to type quickly. Hence, epic-fast typing skills, especially in profanity-laced descriptions of others’ Quake 2 skills — highly-useful, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Computer literacy

shutterstock_nerdAfter I was shown the locations of “gorilla” and “snake” within the recesses of the family computer’s file system, I learned my first real lesson about computers: .exe and .bat files were games, sometimes. Soon after, I began learning my second lesson: how to locate those files using the command prompt and DOS Shell. Just seven years old, I had already started on the path of nerdery that finds me writing for Digital Trends today.

Web literacy

Blizzard’s original Diablo provided my friends and I our first opportunity to play online. It also provided the first opportunity to cheat while doing so. During this time, our Web skills were honed by searches through atrocious Geocities and Angelfire pages for the newest hacks. Those early days spent weathering awful fonts and animated gifs make today’s web — yes, even MySpace — infinitely more tolerable, and instilled an appreciation of quality Web design that has persisted to this day.


The open-ended environment of EVE Online boasts an incredibly deep player-run economy. Some of the game’s most powerful players are its super-industrialists: characters with in-game economic interests of hundreds of billions of ISK (the in game currency) — equivalent to thousands of real-world dollars. With its thrilling space combat and numerous opportunities to spend time in spreadsheets, it’s easy to see why EVE remains a popular choice MMO choice amongst uber-nerds.

Physical education

While physical fitness is important to a healthy life, in many cases it doesn’t directly improve job performance. My keyboard doesn’t care how fit I am. On the other hand, video games train muscle groups and reflexes that translate directly over to your desk job. Professional Starcraft players move with lightning speed, executing more than 300 actions per minute. That fervent pace corresponds to incredible deftness with mouse and keyboard. The result: the most talented data-entry technicians of our generation are being lost to a world of intense competition and cheering crowds. It’s tragic.


Sports education

I’m a big football fan, but my knowledge of the game is fairly limited. I pick up a bit each year, but I’ll always be surpassed by two groups of people: those who played football at some level, and those who play EA’s Madden games. A few virtual seasons coaching and managing a team can impart a surprisingly deep understanding of the sport. They won’t improve your marketability, but video games can increase your enjoyment of your favorite sports. That’s still pretty good.


CounterStrike and World of Warcraft can provide excellent studies in leadership and teamwork, especially when played at their highest levels. Far more often, though, they demonstrate the effects when those qualities are lacking: see “No, idiot, we’re on your team, quit flash-banging us,” and the humorous, if fictional, “Leeroy Jenkins,” respectively.


Sid Meier’s Pirates has taught me far more about the Spanish Main than I would have ever learned elsewhere, all while offering a gaming experience with addictiveness on par with the most serious street drugs. The simulation genre has long been a friend of educational gaming. Consider the ubiquitous Oregon Trail: acquainting children with the dangers of fording the river for more than 35 years.


Butts has died of dysentery.

Criminal justice

A week-long seventh-grade mock trial taught me one thing, memorably: Objecting to things is the most fun one can have in the court room. Phoenix Wright taught me the same thing in the first fifteen minutes of gameplay. Winner: video games.


Minecraft’s sandbox mode provides a set of virtual building blocks so robust that actual working computers have been constructed within the game world. The dedication of the player community indicates that the sophistication of these projects will only increase. It can’t be too long before you’ll be able to play a game on a virtual computer in a computer game on a computer. Did I just blow your mind?



The Mass Effect games (and other Bioware properties) are well known for their morality-based dialogue system, where good and bad choices carry over from game to game. This culminates in the climax of the franchise’s third installment, where your character’s ethical history decides the fate of you, your crew, and the galaxy.

But, seriously: You’re learning

Writing this article was fun, but humor can obscure the real-life benefits of gaming. For example: Experience with the variety of game designs begets a facility with interfaces that can be helpful when learning new systems. All games are computer programs, after all, and using any computer program improves our ability to use others in the future. Each system trains us in its own way. Over time, we become more receptive to that training — whether it’s from the newest first-person shooter or the latest edition of Pro Tools.

The massive casual and mobile markets mean that there remains huge untapped potential for educational gaming. If we’re lucky, a company like Zynga will enter the edutainment space. If America attacked education with the same fervor with which we do the latest Facebook game, we’d be the most educated nation in the world. Maybe someday.

[Image credit: NinaMalyna/wavebreakmedia ltd/Shutterstock]

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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