Video games and experiential learning in the COVID-19 era

Experiential learning, or ‘learning by doing’, has become increasingly popular in pedagogical circles and classrooms due to its potential to engage students and its efficacy in achieving learning objectives. This concept, first popularized by American philosopher John Dewey, is based on the idea that we learn better if we actively participate in the learning process or the production of an object in a hands-on way, rather than just reading or hearing about it. This type of learning has been linked to increased motivation to learn, greater personal connection with learning materials, and even expanded connections to the community, as students are encouraged to ask questions and to work with others.

However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 has made it difficult for students to participate in many traditional methods of experiential learning for the last year and a half. Schools closing or moving to online learning, social distancing measures, and reductions in field trips when students do go back to school have all reduced the number of in-person, hands-on learning opportunities for students. Luckily, video games have stepped up to fill this role in the absence of presential activities, and we anticipate they can play an even greater role in experiential learning both during and after the pandemic.

Experiential learning using video games

Examples of using video games to further hands-on learning experiences have been abundant in the news in 2020-2021. Journalists have highlighted the many innovative elements of this pedagogical approach, including giving learners an opportunity to expand their social skills by practicing “how to initiate, build, and maintain social relationships” in an online context (Knorr, 2020); developing new and varied techniques for conflict resolution (Knorr, 2020); and even sidestepping some of the former logistical difficulties of in-person activities before the pandemic, such as budget and time restrictions (Andrews, 2021) and the lack of a practical knowledge base required to carry out certain activities (Open Mic, 2021).

Indeed, using video games can be incredibly helpful for tasks you can learn through real-world experience, but perhaps want to practice in a safer setting first—like flying a plane! In 2020, Microsoft’s Flight Simulator reported its greatest use in the 38 years since it first debuted, with more than two million users signing on worldwide to learn how to fly an airplane from the comfort of their homes (Open Mic, 2021).

If flying isn’t your cup of tea, other games provide an easy method for developing more common practical skills. For instance, the game Minecraft (which also had its most profitable year since its launch in 2009) has been incorporated into online learning curriculums in many mathematics classes, since it can help students practice building complex shapes, working out geometric problems, and manipulating blocks (Open Mic, 2021). The game gives students a chance not only to learn mathematics concepts, but also to bring them to life in a digital world. One teacher also used the game to build skills related to science, critical thinking, and design in the context of the pandemic. While participating in online classes, students were tasked with “creating timelines of the pandemic or reimagining hospital design” within the Minecraft world the teacher had created (Favis, 2020).

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Video games and virtual travel during the pandemic

Given the worldwide lockdowns and travel bans in place for much of the pandemic, video games have also offered fantastic opportunities to travel to new places. From major cities to remote areas of the world, many video games feature environments that immerse players in their specific, real-world geographical contexts. It is also increasingly common to see players and even teachers create their own video games to provide more authenticity for online “tours” or to replace cancelled field excursions.

During the UK’s first lockdown, two professors at Imperial College London used drone footage from their previous visits to Sardinia and the village of Kinlochleven in the Scottish Highlands to create video games that allowed their students to carry out virtual fieldwork. They also quickly realized that video games offered a chance to make lessons even more interesting than their original in-person class sessions. Rather than passing around asteroid samples during live lectures, they created a video game offering students an immersive experiential learning context in which they received their lectures while “on board” spaceships, a tactic which made student participation skyrocket (Andrews, 2021).

Video games make travel possible not only in space, but also in time. As any 1990s kid knows, games like the Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego have long allowed students access to exploring different parts of the world in varied historical moments. These games have trained students’ knowledge in world geography, history, science, and critical thinking, as well as developing skills in cooperation, resource management, and other necessities for successful teamwork. Nowadays, video games continue to expand these skills, albeit in even more realistic historical settings.

The Assassin’s Creed game series and its creator Ubisoft have garnered excellent press for their research done to ensure the games’ authenticity in terms of both experience and environment. Assassin’s Creed has been particularly helpful for history teachers in the pandemic, since the game series is generally well-known and well-liked — many students already played it at home before teachers began incorporating it into their lessons—and can be used to explore specific historical sites and moments in a detailed and engaging manner. Since the Coronavirus has led to scores of cancelled class trips, many teachers are substituting the game for the real-world visits they were not able to make. For example, one teacher from Quebec, Canada played Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey with his students in a series of remote learning sessions so they could not only see the Ancient Agora of Athens, but also experience what it would have been like to be there and to interact with others in their proper historical context (Favis, 2020).

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Why should I use video games for experiential learning?

If the above examples were not enough to convince you that video games can play a compelling role in experiential learning, we have a few more reasons here:

  • Young people are already highly engaged with video games

A recent study carried out by the National Literacy Trust in the UK (interviewing more than 5,000 11-16-year-olds) has shown that “playing video games can support young people when it comes to their literacy skills, creativity and empathy” (BBC, 2020). In addition to playing video games in their spare time, 63% of the young people surveyed said they already write video game content, including scripts, tips for their fellow players, and video game reviews. Fully “58% of participants said they’d be up for writing or designing their very own video games”, and a third of the youth specifically said they “wanted more opportunities to read and write about video games at school” (BBC, 2020). These statistics tell us that students not only play video games, but also actively participate in reading, writing, and thinking about video games in their time outside of the classroom. Furthermore, a significant number of students, actively seek pedagogical content connected to video games.

  • Gamification works well for students in online learning

According to research published in May 2021, gamification is an educational strategy that works well for students, particularly in the context of online teaching (Nieto-Escamez & Roldán-Tapia, 2021). The authors of this study report that students generally found gamification to be “innovative, engaging, and an efficient strategy to deliver curricula[r] material” in a variety of subjects. Although these findings are based on the subjective opinions of students, they are similar across the 11 different research projects surveyed. It is significant that the most recent research on gamification and learning during the pandemic has found gamification to be a positive way of engaging students online. Given the uncertainty of how long the pandemic will last and the certainty that technology is here to stay, it makes sense to explore greater integration of video games and gamification in the classroom.

  • Video games have been proven to contribute to skill development and well-being during the pandemic

Another recent academic study has shown that playing video games has had positive effects on players’ well-being during the pandemic (Barr & Copeland-Stewart, 2021). This study highlights several of the benefits of video games that have already been proven, including stress relief (Reinecke, 2009), cognitive skills development (Barr, 2017), combatting loneliness (Kaye, Kwert & Quinn, 2017), and improving well-being in general, as well as recovering from trauma (Colder Carras et al., 2018). The study goes a step further, examining how video games “have helped players cope with the unprecedented effects of the COVID-19 pandemic”, whether in giving players an outlet for decreasing their anxiety and stress, a coping mechanism for dealing with physical or mental health problems, or a community to connect with in times of worldwide crisis (Barr & Copeland-Stewart, 2021). In addition to these elements of personal well-being, video games also improve social cohesion, contribute to the sense of ‘flow’ (or being pleasantly caught up in an activity without noticing the passage of time) of gamers, and increase personal attention spans through the management of distractions (McCallum, Schofield & Dobson, 2021). These are all tools that are critical in today’s world, given the influence of technology and the ever-changing ways students may learn.


All in all, it is clear that video games have been an extremely helpful tool for putting students front and center in experiential learning settings during the COVID-19 pandemic. From imparting and reinforcing curricular skills to travelling through time and space, video games provide an interesting and enjoyable way for students to ‘learn by doing’ in our ever-more digital world. Thus, we should not only keep using video games in this capacity, but also increase their use in formal learning environments so we can take full advantage of their ability to inspire growth and enrichment in learning.



Andrews, R.G. (2021). Geology Students Did Video Game Fieldwork During Covid. It Rocked. Wired Magazine. Published 15 May 2021. Retrieved from:

Barr, M. (2017). Video games can develop graduate skills in higher education students. A randomized trial. Computers & Education, 113: 86-97. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2017.05.016

Barr, M., Copeland-Stewart A. (2021). Playing Video games During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Effects on Players’ Well-Being. games and Culture, May 2021. doi:10.1177/15554120211017036

BBC. (2020). New research suggests playing video games has lots of benefits. BBC. Published 12 August 2020. Retrieved from:

Colder Carras, M., Kalbarczyk, A., Wells, K., Banks, J., Kowert, R., Gillespie, C., Latkin, C. (2018). Connection, meaning, and distraction: A qualitative study of video game play and mental health recovery in veterans treated for mental and/or behavioral health problems. Social Science & Medicine, (1982) 216: 124-132. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2018.08.044

Favis, E. (2020). With coronavirus closing schools, here’s how video games are helping teachers. Washington Post. Published 15 April 2020. Retrieved from:

Kaye, L.K., Kowert, R., Quinn, S. (2017). The role of social identity and online social capital on psychosocial outcomes in MMO players. Computers in Human Behavior, 74: 215-223. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2017.04.030

Knorr, C. (2020). How video games can help kids socialize during this isolated time. National Geographic. Published 2 December 2020. Retrieved from:

McCallum, S., Schofield, E., Dobson, S. (2021). Gamers know the power of ‘flow’—what if learners could harness it too? The Conversation. Published 2 August 2021. Retrieved from:

Nieto-Escamez, F.A., Roldán-Tapia, M.D. (2021). Gamification as Online Teaching Strategy During COVID-19: A Mini Review. Frontiers in Psychology, 21 May 2021. doi:

Open Mic. (3 June 2021). Show, don’t tell: how gaming contributes to education and science. The Drum. Retrieved from:

Reinecke, L. (2009). games and recovery. Journal of Media Psychology, 21(3): 126-142. doi:10.1027/1864-1105.21.3.126