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Tapping Into The Potential Of Computational Thinking in games in the time of COVID

Notes From A Computer Science Teacher

Computational Thinking In Games should be part of our schools curriculum given its potential for learning. In the time of COVID, it’s a must-have.

I’m a teacher with a background in games and learning – so I really hope that in this awkward time where we need to facilitate students’ learning with low threat, engaging assignments that we might explore what games have to offer.

Specifically, as a computer science teacher, I’d really hope for games that can support computational thinking.

But what is computational thinking? TL;DR Jeanette Wing describes the types of thinking that we can learn working with computers and learning to understand computers. Basically:

  • decomposition – breaking a problem down into parts,

  • abstraction – what are the concepts rather than specific details behind a problem,

  • pattern recognition – ooh, I’ve seen this before, and

  • algorithms – what is it we really want to do in a generalizable sense.

Knowing more than one person who’s ever played a game – I get that the fan bois are very eager to talk about all the excellent problem solving and collaboration that students learn through video games. Well, I have had Billy with his 10,000 real hours in CS GO in my CS class – long story short, whatever students are learning from a bajillion hours in random video games is not readily transferable to an academic setting – or problem solving.

So, I’ve put together a list of games that I have experience with that I think might be nifty fun ways to practice computational thinking and problem solving – some might even translate more readily to computer science and cybersecurity and whatever else. It’s a pandemic – so why not put down the AAA games for a while and get outside of the button mashing comfort zone?

About Love, Hate, and the Other Ones

This game is a perfect, gentle introduction to computational thinking and problem solving in many ways:

  • It is all about solving little puzzles
  • The puzzles are very solvable
  • Gameplay is super simple and entertaining

Basically, in this game you control little figures that “love” or “hate” and either call other figures to them or push them away.

Computational thinking benefits

About love, hate, and the other ones really facilitates students’ practicing ‘decomposition’ i.e. breaking down a problem into its parts.


I should note I supported this game in its Kickstarter phase. I remember the early promo information being something like “would you like to build lots of robots?” It’s basically a survival type game where you have to use resources and program production – programming conveyor belts and robot arms etc. to build even more conveyor belts, weapons, and more. This game has grown a lot in the last few years. I spent 8 hours just playing around with the tutorial level the last time I played.

Computational thinking benefits – Factorio can really help develop proficiency in understanding algorithms – what things need to happen again and again to make other things happen.

Hack ‘n’ Slash

I did mention that I teach computer science and cybersecurity.
I really enjoy this game because it does teach hacking in a ‘natural’ way. Basically, players have a tool that enables them to change the programming of games objects – like a debugging tool – that they do have to use to solve the game’s challenges. So it’s like other 2D hack ‘n’ slash games – but the players do in fact have to pwn the system, at least a little bit.

Computational thinking benefits – this game provides a nice medley of decomposition, pattern recognition, and algorithmic thinking. Given that players need to figure out what’s going on and tweak the system to their whims – while writing little code snippets – it’s a great introduction to programming.

Human Resource Machine

Did I mention that I teach computer science? This is a fun little game from the Tomorrow corporation i.e. the guys who brought you World of Goo.

I love this game because it allows players to basically see assembly instructions (the lowest – closest to machine language level of programming) – carried out by adorable office workers.

Computational thinking benefits

This game can really help players practice algorithmic thinking.  At the end or even level three of this game, if someone is not better and planning instructions (i.e. programming), i’d suspect that they used a walkthrough. And yes, it is cheating and beside the point if you use a walkthrough to get through every level.

…. I had originally planned to have a solid list of ten games – but then this article would be too long. I’m sure I have already stepped on many toes – why didn’t you mention x,y, or z? Well, OK, sure. I’ve already offended myself a little. Obviously, I could include all games with any amount of CT. Just finishing with a quick drive by:

The Great Permutator

A fun little introduction to assembly like programming. It’s quite fun and accessible… especially in the early levels.

Anything by Zachtronics. I have not played everything by Zachtronics – but basically everything they make is on my wishlist if I don’t own it.

Three games really stand out to me from Zachtronics:


This game seems to provide a very nice entry into computational thinking with decomposition and algorithmic thinking.


I imagine there is someone or multiple someones saying “if you teach CS, this is where you should start.” I imagine these are the ‘teach students C first’ crowd of programmers. My question for those people would be “have you met many children?”

Ironclad Tactics

I own and beat this game. I really enjoyed it – but I did not understand that it was from Zachtronics until today. I recommend this game because it’s a deck builder that isn’t pay to win. As far as computational thinking …. It requires as much or more CT than other games.


I will follow this post up in a couple weeks with a closer look at five more games and more specifically how they support computational thinking. Please leave recommendations in the comments – and if they seem especially promising I’ll check it out.





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I am a programmer, researcher, and educator. My goal is to use behavioral and learning sciences approaches to facilitate computer science, cybersecurity, and related learning and identity trajectories. In programming and research, I enjoy working with educational data-mining, learning analytics, data visualization tools, and creating novel learning environments, including AR/VR and other embodied and game based environments.

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