Serious Games for Education Throughout History

I talk to people every day about what we are doing here at Skyless Games. Frequently people tell me how new and unique our idea is. And while we definitely do a lot of new things, the core idea of Skyless – using serious games as a medium to educate people – is hardly new. In fact humans have been using this idea for thousands of years. Here are a few examples that you undoubtedly already know of, but may not have thought had anything to do with the type of serious games we’re developing at Skyless.


15th Century Polo GameOne of the oldest serious games that is still played today is polo. What today we think of as a classy, gentleman’s sport for the super-wealthy, actually started in Persia as a training game for cavalry. Some sources put the origin of the game as early as the 5th century BC. Interestingly the game has not changed enormously in its play in all this time; for the most part it has just become more formalized – and quite a bit safer! If you pay attention to the motions used in polo, such as swinging a mallet at a ball on the ground, and using one’s horse to block and push other riders, the origins in combat training are quite clear. And polo is by no means the only sport to have its origins in training nearly all athletics take some actions from combat.


Image by Alan Light. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Another classic serious game that started as a training tool is chess. The earliest direct predecessors to chess emerged in India around the 3rd century AD; and the modern form of the game came into existence in Europe around 1475 AD. Chess is essentially a strategy game, intended to teach young lords and princes how to employ strategy and out-think their opponent on the battlefield. Although it is an over simplification of battle, Chess is all about planning ahead, thinking on your feet, and knowing how to use your available assets.

Oregon Trail

Even within the scope of video games, serious gaming has been around for decades. One of my personal favorites being the classic educational game, Oregon Trail. Which provides a fun, engaging experience to teach you about the old west – as well as a way to make your friends die of dysentery. For the sake of those unfamiliar with Oregon Trail, it is a game in which you embark from the eastern United States and head towards Oregon in a wagon. Along the way you will have to deal with issues such as hunger, illness, and hostile natives. While it is an entertaining game, and sometimes a little ridiculous, it does provide a lot of historical context about the trials faces by early pioneers heading toward the west coast.

So there you have it, serious gaming is an idea as old as time. The major change that has occurred is that we’re not more capable of building effective serious games. Both our tools and our ability to design games have improved tremendously in the past 10 years, let alone the past 2000 years. Because of this we are able to push the boundaries of serious gaming to deliver truly effective educational experience – all while building on the concepts pioneered by polo, chess, and even Oregon Trail.