Feeling Lost? Geographic Ignorance and 12 Games That Can Help


Do you know your way around without the aid of Google Maps and GPS? Do you thank the heavens when a park or shopping center map provides a “you are here” arrow to help you get your bearings?  When newscasters show animated maps does that immediately confuse you, or deepen your understanding? In this post, teacher and game designer Joe Ballou explores how these 12 games and web apps can help overcome geographic ignorance.

Geography — the study of space, land, resources, and human interactions with those properties — defines so many of the daily occurrences and experiences we take for granted. Unfortunately, students are instructed in geography mostly as an afterthought: while geography is embedded in history classes, the study of maps takes a back seat to reading texts, writing essays, watching videos, and debating issues.

We see the consequences of this negligence borne out in the 2010 NAEP test showing that fewer than 1 in 3 American students are proficient in geography. In addition, of all AP tests given nationally, the two lowest scoring AP tests  are consistently Human Geography and World History (median scores were 2.67 and 2.65, respectively, in 2012).

Geography is Urgently Relevant

There’s no question that humanity has a lot of geographic concerns to deal with in the 21st century. With climate change and its consequences, urbanization, food and water scarcity, and a global population above seven billion and growing, we have to prepare students with the skills, knowledge and perspectives necessary to interpret and apply geography to solving the problems of our day. While we could push for more traditional study of maps, field trips, and reading about geography, games merit close attention, as they may offer more compelling options for teaching geography.

What Do We Really Need to Know?

The first question for teaching geography is not how, but what?  While geographers have, in The Myth of Continents by Martin Lewis and Karen Wigens, solved the problem of continents (we need to frame our conception of the global through regions), this is just step one. A full evaluation of what we need to teach as content and skills in geography requires looking at political and physical features of the planet, identifying the key relationships between humans and the environment (agriculture, industry, urbanization, migration, pollution, transportation, fishing, conservation, etc), and finally, looking at the skills the next generation will need to navigate the world.


How Can Games Help Us Achieve This Goal?

Because geography is a highly visual subject, quiz games provide an effective tool to increase exposure and encourage practice with geography. My two favorite online geography quiz games are Free Rice and Travel Pod’s IQ Challenge, both of which have game mechanics that offer choice, adaptive responsiveness, solid feedback, and an addictive flow state. In fact, it’s only thanks to the IQ Challenge that I’ve ever in fact mastered basic political geography of Central Asia, the Pacific Islands, Central and West Africa. As a teacher, I’ve provided some class time for my students to play these trivia games and it has had a measurable impact on basic knowledge and critical thinking ability.

Long form commercial games open up a much wider realm of possibility for teaching geography and some of these have been acknowledged for their educational value. Sid Meier’s Civilization allow players the chance to interact with natural resources in a way that models real systems. In the educational version of Sim City, students have to design an urban landscape and have to take into consideration challenges of how space serves people and communities, and how to work with limited resources. Both of these games give meaningful simulations of the interaction between politics, economics, and geography. A game that has recently gained popularity in schools is Minecraft Edu, in which students have unlimited power to construct a world that has limitless boundaries. carmenAnd no survey of games for teaching geography should overlook Where in the World is Carmen Santiago which arguably pioneered the genre.

Even in games very focused on entertainment, there are increasing numbers of opportunities to learn about geography. Historical and military games like Making History frequently have very realistic representations of space and real places. Open world, non-linear games, “sandbox” games such as the Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scroll series give players vast exploration possibilities. The world presented in the Elder Scroll’s Skyrim, for instance, has an expansive, meticulously rendered fantasy world where players can interact with nearly every object, incorporated these objects into the evolving storyline and often unlocking new puzzles to solve and quests to complete.

Game Maps

A common feature across games that incorporate elements of adventure is the game map. Players can press pause and view their position on a map of the game world, evaluate their position in relation to goals or obstacles, and make strategic positions. Sometimes these maps can be rotated or zoomed in or out. Game maps vary from 3D to birds eye view, and generally play a central role to a player’s ability to advance to their goals.


Similarly to game maps, the HUD (heads up display) common in shooter and stealth games features a radar display to show player positioning vis-a-vis enemies, friendlies, and (sometimes) boundaries. Players must quickly learn to incorporate feedback from the radar display into their real-time strategy and response, if they hope to survive the challenges of the game.

Commercial and entertainment games currently provide all of these geographically oriented features, that develop spatial awareness and critical thinking abilities, concrete knowledge about relationships between geography and other elements of human civilization, and real information about the real world. These games could be incorporated into our educational programs given these advantages, and they also might model for new education game developers ways to offer more features in their games to enhance the geographic training opportunities. However, there are more more possibilities for games in the teaching of geography.

garminOther Technologies That Enable Geography Education

An emergent trend with the increasing ubiquity of GPS-enabled mobile device is the use of geocaching.  Geocaching supports getting students outside of the school building into the real world to go on treasure hunts, guided by GPS toward tagged. Geocaching has been used before in education, but we’ve really only scratched the surface. Museums are beginning to think of new ways to incorporate games and mobile devices into the recommended visitor activities. Teachers and schools that get students outside of the building, of course, will do a great service in helping students acquire stronger geographic foundations, and technology provides a powerful way to support students undertaking these journeys independently.

epalsoneverestSocial media is also connecting people across the globe, as we’ve seen with the “twitter revolution” in the Middle East. Educational sites with a social bent, like ePals and Pen Pal News, are connecting students from across the world to interact and write to each other about current events. 

It’s only a matter of time before global social networking, communication, and travel begin to incorporate more educational and game features. Given the geographic dispersion of the participants, it make sense for features that enhanced geographic understanding to be central to these developing platforms.

Where It All Leads

We’re living in an age when so much of our experience of space is virtual, digital, and abstract. The reality of our physical world may not be our only reality, but it will always remain an important one. We may not have a map for where games will lead us in terms of our geographic understanding,  but we have reason for optimism provided we can recognize the richness that games offer today’s learners.

12 13 Games, Apps and Sites for Teaching and Learning About Geography

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