Kevin Péloquin, a history teacher from Montreal, hoped to take his high school students of Collège Saint-Hilaire on a trip to Greece. His mixed class from grades 10 and 11 would visit historical sites like the Parthenon and record their observations for a project they would later share with their classmates. Then the covid-19 pandemic scrapped their educational itinerary.

By March, the government of Quebec, like many other administrations across the globe, ordered school closures and the cancellation of school trips. Later came travel bans and border shutdowns, all to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus that had infected 2 million people around the world as of Wednesday.

“I called up my students one by one to let them know the news [of the canceled trip],” Péloquin said. “They were very disappointed, but I had an idea to share with them.”

Instead of a physical trip to Greece, Péloquin proposed, what if his students could digitally tour Greece — or even better — explore it as it was thousands of years ago? He first weighed the potential of virtual reality, but soon pivoted toward a video game.

Alongside its action-packed fictional story line, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey includes a robust education mode and a research-based recreation of ancient Greece. Péloquin’s students will play individually in the coming weeks from their homes and use that as the foundation for their reports.

Péloquin isn’t alone in investigating the potential of video games as education during the covid-19 crisis. Teachers are utilizing widely played games like Roblox and Minecraft to demonstrate scientific principles like climate change or cellular biology, and those games’ publishers are making their platforms as accessible as possible to educators during the crisis. As teachers around the world seek creative ways to engage homebound students with coursework, video games are aiding that effort.

A digital history lesson

Throughout its 13-year existence, Assassin’s Creed — which follows the story of a secret brotherhood of assassins — has prided itself on its digital recreations of famous historical periods like the Renaissance and the American Revolution. For every release, Assassin’s Creed developer Ubisoft teams up with historians so that locations, politics, landscapes and more can feel true to their simulated time period. Having already put in all this work, Ubisoft eventually decided to do more on the education front.

We had several teachers who started contacting us after Assassin’s Creed 1 and Assassin’s Creed 2,” said Etienne Allonier, brand director for Assassin’s Creed. “And since then, based on that feedback, we saw there was a potential of using everything we created for the games, to use that for education purposes.”

In 2018, Ubisoft added a new mode to Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which is set in ancient Egypt near the end of the Ptolemaic period, called Discovery Tour. This mode lets players explore Egypt without the interruption of story moments, missions and combat. Instead, players embark on guided tours throughout famous historical sites and cities. This mode returned in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, the newest game of the franchise set in ancient Greece, alongside additional content like quizzes.

“We’ve been contacted by several teachers since the covid-19 situation, who are asking for tips on how to use [the game] with their students,” Allonier said.

Péloquin was one of the many educators to reach out about using Ubisoft’s games for remote learning. He’s known about the franchise for a number of years, and had even used Assassin’s Creed 3 trailers in the classroom to facilitate discussion about the American Revolution. However, this would be the first time Péloquin would ask his students to play a video game as part of the curriculum, and as a substitute for a school trip to Greece.

“My intention is to motivate my students to continue with the course,” Péloquin said, whose course is optional at Collège Saint-Hilaire. “When I spoke about it with my students, they seemed really, really pleased and surprised that we can work on our history course through a video game.”

Ubisoft granted Péloquin and his 23 students free access to Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey for three months through Google Stadia, a cloud-based streaming service. This lets all the students play through the game via an Internet connection, no matter how powerful their home computers are.

Stadia has since offered its pro membership free to anyone with a Gmail account, with nine games included in a bundle at no additional cost. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is not included in that public offer, but Ubisoft made an exception for Péloquin, and is doing so for other educators, too.

Educators embracing games

Ubisoft said it has created “a network for teachers,” a closed forum that allows educators to exchange their experiences with the Discovery Tour for both Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Odyssey. But Ubisoft is hardly the only studio to facilitate these exchanges — and the approach has become particularly useful during the pandemic.

Public schools within Florida’s Broward County, for example, have around 200 educators using Minecraft (a sandbox game popular with younger age groups) as an education tool for classrooms spanning grades 2 to 12.

Their students were already playing it,” Erik Leitner, a STEM and computer science instructional facilitator for Broward County public schools said. “They would come in with Minecraft backpacks on and whatever else. [The teachers] didn’t know much about it. And all of a sudden they had this way to reach their students in a way that was going to be highly engaging.”

When the pandemic closed schools, Leitner said his district did a “phenomenal job” of maintaining access to resources like distributing laptops to students who needed them. Although Minecraft isn’t strictly part of the curriculum, this move still meant teachers could continue using Minecraft as a supplementary tool. The game launched an education mode in 2016, which Microsoft has since made free for educators and students through June 2020 due to the pandemic. The edition comes with a suite of premade lesson plans, as well as the ability for teachers to make some of their own on whatever subject they like.

As we went into remote learning, all of those teachers that were eager about Minecraft immediately saw the potential,” said Leitner, who once used the creation simulation game Spore to teach a fifth-grade class about how different species adapt to environments and ecosystems. “The engagement has been phenomenal.”

With a companion app called Classroom Mode, teachers can have a level of control over the digital world their students explore, such as changing the weather or removing the ability to use combat against one another. The education edition also includes features that don’t exist in the rest of Minecraft, to give teachers tools for assessment, including a space to write journal entries and an in-game camera.

“Students can take pictures of what they’re building, work they’ve done together,” Deirdre Quarnstrom, general manager for Minecraft, said. “It provides a gamified way of capturing evidence that they’re learning and showing the mastery of the subjects that they’re studying.”

Leitner said teachers are using the game to model geometric concepts in math in elementary classrooms, while fifth-graders are creating museums of Florida wildlife with interactive exhibits. Some teachers have used it to explore the effects of climate change and rising sea levels by watching the impact on coastal communities in the game.

“I have also created a series of challenges around covid-19 where students are creating timelines of the pandemic or reimagining hospital design,” Leitner said. “The one thing I love about Minecraft is, when it comes to education, it’s a tool that has almost an endless learning curve from the very simple to the extraordinarily complex.”

The game is proving useful for schools as a virtual meeting ground as well. Leitner is hosting “happy hour” sessions with a handful of teachers brainstorming ideas within the game every week. On a more sentimental note, some are using it as a substitute for events. Students in Japan hosted a graduation ceremony within the game, and University of Georgia students are planning the same for later this year, primed with a full virtual stadium.

Games adapting for education

As the global pandemic shut down schools almost over night, educational establishments faced the challenge of converting curriculum into remote lesson plans, a trial even for those who are technologically adept. As schools grapple with transitioning to all-digital learning, the makers of the game Roblox has stepped up to help guide teachers.

Roblox, a platform with 120 million active users and recently valued at $4 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal, lets players create their own video games from scratch through an accessible platform aimed at young users. Roblox has previously teamed up with over 170 educators from 35 different countries to discuss applications for the game, but those partnerships have become even more focused during the pandemic.

In early April, Roblox kick-started a series of webinars to guide teachers. The first hour-long session is an introduction to the game and how it can be used by educators, whereas future videos will focus on creating lesson plans for varying age groups and discuss online safety protocols. Computer science teachers may find themselves most at home within Roblox, but Genevieve Johnson, a senior instructional designer for Roblox, said she’s also heard from gym teachers and librarians.

We always knew that we wanted to do [webinars], and it was actually already on our road map for this year,” Johnson said. “And then the pandemic came up and we started getting more and more inquiries.”

Ready-made lesson plans from Roblox further aid teachers during the crisis. Johnson said that coordinating a curriculum is a time-consuming process for teachers, so these lessons can help educators avoid “spending time putting one together from scratch.”

Another game designed to foster creativity from its players is Dreams from Media Molecule. Similar to Roblox, Dreams is best described as an accessible game engine. Within this PlayStation 4 game, you can build your own digital worlds or play games made by others. Its creators believe this creative format to be a perfect fit for education and the game’s early tutorial-based framework is well suited for instruction.

Gem Abdeen, outreach manager for Media Molecule, said there is “huge” interest from educators since the pandemic broke out. “We’ve had music teachers get in contact with us, geography teachers,” she said. “It’s such a wide spectrum."

Media Molecule, a smaller developer based in the United Kingdom, has begun working with different educational institutions, like RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and after-school programs locally in the U.K. But incorporating lesson plans and potentially creating a specified education server within Dreams are still within the “research phase” of development.

“We’re hoping to get some of our first lesson plans out ASAP, because I think with everyone struggling with covid-19, we want to be able to help in some way with that,” Abdeen said.

Though his plan to take his class to Greece was foiled, Péloquin notes a kind of silver lining by pushing educators to explore new methods of teaching their students. Péloquin, who first considered games as an educational vehicle after observing promising results from a University of Montreal study that examined knowledge retention from Assassin’s Creed: Origins Discovery Tour, believes video games have a unique quality, letting students “dive into their imagination."

“Some would look at the current situation and say it’s a handicap to not be at school,” Péloquin said. “But me, I see it as an opportunity to go further; to try different techniques within the world of education.”

Read more: