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Tip of the Week: Teaching geography, mental maps, and video games

My daughter readily admits to being a fan of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, both the book and movie formats.

Me? Not so much. I do appreciate parts of the movie series but I struggle with how Tolkien seems to enjoy stringing things along, especially in the books.

The good news for both of us is that there is a new Lego Lord of the Rings Wii game available. She gets her LOTR fix and I get to play video games. And so last night we spent a considerable amount of time saving Middle Earth from a variety of evil creatures, editing characters, navigating all sorts of levels, collecting Lego pieces, and using maps.

Yup. Maps.

The Lego Lord of the Rings Wii has a navigation system that uses a very cool map of Middle Earth. It got me thinking of something I wrote a few years ago. So . . . I’ve re-posted it below as a Tip of the Week.


Back in the dark ages of video games, I got hooked on a couple of games. The first was Colossal Cave Adventure, theAdventureMap grand-daddy of all text-based games. I, along with others, spent hours in the Tabor College computer lab typing stuff like:

open grate
go south
take axe
fight dwarf
grab bird

This addiction led to Zork, still text-based but a much more difficult game. As a visual learner, it became difficult for me to wrap my head around the many rooms, levels and hallways. Being a geography nerd, I created a series of maps like this one to assist in getting around. The maps also were a great way to add new information gleaned from conversation with others.

Okay. We get it. You were a video game nerd in college. So what?

Pretty simple. What was going on, even though I didn’t know it, was that I was creating detailed mental maps of a specific place. Granted, the place was fictional but I was still able to visualize a geographic place in my head and create two-dimensional maps to represent that visualization.

I was already practicing one of the required social studies standards/indicators in many states:

The student uses mental maps to answer questions about the location of physical and human features.

The problem is getting kids to practice creating mental and actual maps with our traditional content. It’s hard to suck kids into geography.

But I recently ran across a fun website that would have been incredibly useful several decades ago:

Mapstalgia – Video Game Maps Drawn from Memory

Map of New Monkey Island

The site has a ton of maps based on a variety of video games. Think about this for a minute. How might you use video game maps to help kids develop their ability to create mental maps?

These types of maps provide a nice way to teach mental mapping skills – relationships between places, geographic tools, location, scale, cause and effect. Use Mapstalgia to hook your students into thinking about maps and geography.

Have them create the own game maps. Have them compare and contrast maps of the same game. Ask them to think about what a good map must have on it to be a good map. Ask them how maps can be used to “lie” about reality. Ask groups of kids to compare game maps with actual maps.

Have fun!

12 Comments Post a comment
    Deborah Smith Johnston reference, with link, here: I learned mental mapping from her.

    January 25, 2013
  2. It really is interesting to see how much of an impression maps make on us and our memory. Being able to fully sketch out a level or a dungeon is incredibly cool. I want to try it out with some of my favorite games later for fun.

    January 25, 2013
    • glennw #

      The fun thing about the Mapstalgia site is that it depends on readers to post their maps online. If I only had my old Zork map!


      January 25, 2013
  3. Andrew #

    There are so many things I love of this post. Firstly, considering all the maps Bilbo/Tolkien created, I find it almost comical (in a positive way) that you make your own maps for a LoTR game. Also, as an “old-school” video game nerd myself, I take enjoyment in reading about other people making maps for their games. I still remember diligently helping my father draft and redraft maps for the original Metroid and Legend of Zelda games for the NES.

    It’s wonderful that you tie a topic many students take great enjoyment in (video games) with one that they may roll their eyes at (cartography). Tying the two together will bridge the gap and help students take interest in an important social studies skill.

    One point I would make is that many maps for games are already available both online and in official strategy guides. Teachers assigning their students to draft their own maps should be aware that some students may try to lift these sources as an easy way to a good grade. That said, these official maps may be used to compare and contrast against student maps to assess how accurate they are.

    May 7, 2014
    • glennw #

      Your father and I probably have a lot in common! And I agree, it seems like a no-brainer to link video games and maps. I still find a lot of resistance with using games in the classroom unfortunately.

      Thanks for the tip on already created maps in strategy guides. But I do like your idea of comparing/contrasting those with student maps.

      Thanks for the comment! Have a great week!


      May 8, 2014

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