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Subject Guide: Social Studies

Recent developments in technology have provided new opportunities for games to enhance the learning process in social studies.

Social studies games are often “richly designed problem spaces” that teachers can use to cultivate a student’s skills in decision making, critical reflection, information retrieval and meaningful comparisons of different perspectives.

They can also be used in a variety of ways; they can “serve as introductions to a larger unit (use Ayiti to teach poverty), enrich the discussion of a time period (Discover Babylon), illuminate debate on a powerful issue (Peace Doves) or a traditionally discussed event (Plymouth Plantation), or conclude a unit (Making History). In short, social studies games can be an experience in and of themselves.”

 

Top Picks

Civilization game series

Civilization

The Civilization series of simulations explore the basic building blocks of human advancement.

Discover Babylon

A 3D adventure game in which students learn about ancient Mesopotamia.

Executive Command

Face the challenges and responsibilities of playing as the President of the United States.

Mummy Maker

Help Ramus, the recently deceased pharaoh, reach the Afterlife by embalming and preserving his body.

Quandary

Engage in ethical decision-making, and practice recognizing and dealing with challenging situations.

People’s Pie

Control the federal government budget, decide how to raise revenues and allocate taxpayer funds, and monitor spending.

Frequently Asked Questions

Social studies covers a broad range of topics and themes. Given the complexity of this subject matter, can games really teach social studies effectively?
Yes. To do so educators must always identify the learning objectives of the game before integrating it into the classroom. It is also good to think about what type of skills students will attain while playing the game. Social studies games oftentimes provide students with opportunities to “assume roles, examine problems, and pose questions while promoting basic problem solving, critical thinking, and social skills.” (Cotton, Ahmadi, and Esselborn, 1997)
I am interested in using games in my social studies classroom, but first I need to know if there are measurable and positive effects on student learning. Can you tell me more about that?
Of course! Research suggests that some games can increase the speed of mental processing, sensitivity to inputs in the environment, and flexibility in allocating cognitive and perceptual resources. Each game, however, has different learning objectives, and thus can have different effects on student learning.
Many good social studies games require a fair amount of time for game play. I already have so much material to cover before my students take the state examinations. How do I use these games without taking up too much classroom time?
We totally understand that time is invaluable to educators and we agree that game play should not take up extensive classroom time. It would be a good idea to think of an educational game like a book with “chapters.” Long games do not have to be played to their entirety. Teachers should identify and ask students to focus on the “teachable moments” from social studies games. Another idea would be to have the students play the game at home and use classroom time for meaningful discussions. Some games can teach many topics, goals, and standards. When teaching using standards, you have more flexibility to use games. Take time to plan and map out the ways a game can help. You might actually save time!
I am very interested in using games in my social studies classroom but I am worried about the historical accuracy of the games. What should I do?
Yes, some social studies games are not 100% historically accurate. However, this is not necessarily bad. In fact, allowing students who have studied the relevant content to play the game can help the class segue into a meaningful debrief activity that requires students to compare what happened in the game and what happened historically. Instructors should also encourage students to look at the game not as a fact-finding tool, but a simulation that could help draw out important 21st century skills, such as critical thinking and information literacy. Instructors could help by distinguishing reality from the virtual world by mentioning potential inaccuracies to students prior to game play.

 

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Help Shape this Guide!

The topics, content and presentation of our guides are crafted by members of the Playful Learning network. We’re open to suggestions for improving this guide and others, ideas for new topics to cover and questions to answer, and tips or testimonials that will help other educators. Whatever your idea, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us with your suggestion and we’ll get right back to you.