How to Choose a Video Game for Learning in HS English Classrooms

Ninety percent of teens play video games, cementing them as culturally relevant avenues for high school students’ holistic learning. Wondering how we choose games for iThrive Curriculum’s game-based learning units? Here’s what we look for.

By iThrive Games
July 8, 2020

iThrive Curriculum is a set of units for high school English Language Arts (ELA) and humanities courses that use video game narratives as core texts. It's one way that we support teachers in connecting meaningfully with their students where they are—playing games—to build social, emotional, and academic knowledge and skills. 

Video games are a defining narrative form of this era. Their complex characters, compelling settings, and unique storytelling strategies are more sophisticated than ever and deserve the level of analysis teachers regularly apply to literature.

Of course, there are many types of video games and some are generally better suited for this curricular approach than others. When we partner with educators and teens to design transformational game-based learning units for ELA and related courses, here's what we look for in a game: 

  • Emotionally impactful and appealing to teens. We keep an eye on what teens are playing. Games that are already popular with teens can be a fantastic opportunity to meet them where they are and take learning deeper. On the other hand, some games are epic and award-winning but don't yet have a huge following. So we also look for opportunities to design around powerful indie games that are relevant to teens, like Accidental Queens' A Normal Lost Phone, featured in our unit Sam's Journey.
  • A strong tie-in with social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies. We look for games with narratives and themes that naturally prompt discussion and reflection around social and emotional skills including self-awareness, identity, empathy, relationships, perspective-taking, purpose, decision-making, and more, because we know social and emotional skills are critical for teens' learning, well-being, and achievement now and throughout adulthood.
  • A strong academic tie-in. To be a candidate for iThrive Curriculum, a video game narrative has to be relevant to specific learning objectives that teachers already need and want to teach. Our units highlight aspects of games, like narrative structure and literary devices, that support students' core literacy skills and also provide ample opportunities for them to listen, read, discuss, write, and create to express themselves and their learning. 
  • Attention to diversity of learners. We look for games that can engage all students in narrative analysis, even those who haven't always experienced success with reading. Games generally do this well because they offer visual context and immersion, making the narrative easier to engage with and understand. Some games do this exceptionally well; in What Remains of Edith Finch, used in our Museum of Me unit, the text of the narrative appears on screen in response to players' movements via the controller, and every word is narrated through a voiceover so students are interacting with the story through sight, sound, and movement. 
  • Mindfulness about diversity of experiences. We seek games that convey a wide range of experiences to ensure that diverse and often marginalized backgrounds, experiences, and characteristics aren't ignored and absent from the classroom. We strive for our units to support empathy around stories that depict diversity of race, language, culture, gender and sexual identity, ability, and more. 
  • A low-stress addition to the existing curriculum. Using a game instead of a text is much more likely to happen if implementation is made easy. We like to ask ourselves: 
    • What equipment will be required to play the game in or outside of class? Games that work on mobile, PC, or in web browsers usually are a lighter lift for implementation than those that require a gaming console. But students' and schools' varying access to the internet also needs to be taken into account.
    • How long does the game take to play? Games that are relatively short (1-3 hours) tend to keep the scope of the unit manageable, although longer games used in part or in whole can certainly work.
    • Does the game's narrative branch a lot? In narrative games with little or no branching (fewer choices for students to make while they play), it will arguably be easier for the class to have a shared experience even if they don't or can't play together at the same time. It will also be simpler for a teacher to figure out where students are in the experience and what's coming next.
    • How many copies of the game are needed and how much does the game cost? Sometimes only one game license is necessary, like in the "hot seat" model, where one student at a time plays and the rest of the class observes. This works really well for games without much player choice. For games where individual player choice is a key feature, multiple licenses might be best but could get costly. 

Ninety percent of teens play video games, and they're a culturally relevant way to engage students in their holistic learning. We hope the criteria here can guide you in considering how game-based approaches might work to support literacy and engagement in your ELA or humanities classroom. Ready to try game-based learning? Museum of Me and Sam's Journey are classroom-ready units with opportunities for social and emotional learning baked in, so be sure to check them out. 

Do you have a great idea for a game-based social and emotional learning unit for high school humanities courses? Tell us about it at