I look forward to the day when video games occupy the same stratum of culture as film and TV shows, the one that accepts them as entertainment but also allows them to reach for and occasionally achieve high art. That said, the medium still has a long way to go before it gets there. The majority of games out there have little value as tools of thought provocation or education, though there are a few that can serve as unique springboards for both. The following three games would fit perfectly into a social studies class at many levels of education.
Sid Meier's award-winning Civilization series has been the end-all strategy franchise for nearly two solid decades. Each iteration gets more complex and more exacting. Players start with a single, fledgling city in an era before recorded history and slowly nurture it until it blossoms into a full-blown empire. Along the way the player encounters challenges in the form of geographical limitations, resource scarcity, marauding barbarians and the looming threat of competing empires. While not exactly useful as a detailed description of actual history (unless the books are all wrong and the Qing Dynasty built Stonehenge in Mexico), Civ games are excellent depictions of the broad themes of cultural development. In any game in the series, many events echo their counterparts in real history. The invention of gunpowder changes the balance of power, railroads cause economic explosions, oil precipitates wars. Most chillingly, the most recent Civ games make the invention and monitoring of nuclear weapons a precarious issue that can end whole countries. These things can definitely function as interactive springboards for larger political discussions in the classroom.
Assassin's Creed Series
More so the second two console/PC releases than the shaky original, the games in the Assassin's Creed franchise have been stunning in their attention to architectural and geopolitical detail. Sure, it would be best if students ignored the parts about Rodrigo Borgia being a secret Templar in search of alien technology, but it would be easy enough to use the game's smooth climbing engine to give students a guided tour of some of the most important landmarks of Renaissance era Italy. No other game (or textbook for that matter) gives players the chance to appreciate the splendor and scale of one of the most powerful places in the world during the 16th century.
An oldie but a goodie, this 16-bit maritime trading RPG is a simple and engrossing depiction of the age of exploration and exploitation that characterized the 1400's. Students would be able to experience the reasons why European traders so longed for an alternate route to India and why certain parties braved the danger and uncertainty of the Atlantic Ocean to acquire valuable commodities like gold and cocoa. It would be best if teachers skipped the rather shaky naval combat sections, though.