Pick up a game and learn something
If you've played games for any length of time, you've likely heard this at some point from your parents/significant other/teacher/driving instructor: "Put those games down! They'll rot your brain! And watch the road!" Yeah, sometimes that's true. I've collected enough doodads and saved enough worlds that they all start to blend together into a mindless mash of bullets and gruff space marines. But not all games are brainless. Some actually strive to teach you something.
Games aren't just an amazing entertainment medium. They're a powerful tool that can be used to teach countless skills in ways that are way more compelling than sitting through two-hour lectures or filling out a hundred workbook pages. Play these games and you might actually learn something, much to your parents' chagrin. Eat that, mom and dad! I mean, thank you for raising me, and I appreciate the birthday check you sent last month. Yes, I will call more.
Learn an instrument (Rocksmith / Rock Band)
The incessant clacking of plastic guitars may sound like nothing more than a cacophony of noise, but it's the first step down the road to music appreciation and developing actual rhythm. Games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band let you take apart individual sections of songs and focus on them, subtly teaching you how the bassline for, say, 'Reptilia' fits in with the rest of the song. But if you want to graduate to actual rocking, well, you're in luck.
Rock Band's drum controller is actually a pretty reasonable facsimile of the real thing, complete with four drum pads and a foot pedal. While it's missing a few items from a full kit (namely the hi-hat), if you're drumming on expert, you're probably ready to join a band. If you're looking to get good at playing guitar (or bass), Rock Band 3's pro controller will help teach you actual chord structure. Or, hell, just grab a real guitar and hook it up to Rocksmith, a game which actually teaches you how to play guitar by slowly increasing difficulty levels and throwing fun mini-games your way. With enough dedication, you could go from gamer to rock god in a few months.
Circumnavigation (80 Days)
Quick: What's the best way to travel around the globe in 80 days? If your answer has the words 'Travel Channel' anywhere in it, you're doing it wrong. It's 19th-century Steampunk London, and you're following in the footsteps of Jules Verne's classic Around the World in 80 Days, and if you don't know your way around a globe, this brilliant mobile game will teach you real fast.
Do you take a hot air balloon across the Middle East? Or do you hitch a ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway? Where does that train even start? (Answer: it's Moscow) 80 Days' maps may not be entirely up to date (considering how much has changed in the last decade, let alone century), but it'll provide a decent crash course in world geography, culture, and even teach you how to survive on as little money as possible. Who knows? Maybe it'll even inspire a bit of wanderlust of your own.
Literal rocket science (Kerbal Space Program)
You've seen Apollo 13, right? Three people get shoved inside a tin can, shot into space, everything goes horribly wrong, and somehow they get back to Earth relatively unharmed? Yeah, outer space is hard, and it's probably best to get some hands-on rocket-building experience without sacrificing actual people to do it. That's where Kerbal Space Program comes in.
Learn how to send your lovable Kerbals into space, land them on the moon, or get them to orbit their home planet through loads of trial-and-error (mostly error). You'll need to take into account things like trajectory, gravity, weight, propulsion, fuel, rocket shape and more to launch your Kerbals out of the atmosphere (and build a subsequent rocket to rescue those Kerbals once the first mission inevitably goes south). It's a fantastic way to learn actual rocket science. Hell, even NASA has endorsed the game, providing additional add-on missions and digital rocket parts for the realistic space-sim. Just don't think too much about the Kerbals you've sent to their doom. It's all in the name of science.
Electrical Engineering (Minecraft)
Back in my day (God, I'm so old), if you wanted to learn about science or engineering, you got a few wires, some clock pieces, a potato, and you went from there. Now? Well, we've got Minecraft, and it's not just good for punching trees and turning them into swords or whatever you kids do these days. Nope, now you can actually learn electrical engineering, thanks to an in-game mineral known as Redstone.
With Redstone, you can power all sorts of mechanical devices. But it's not as simple as just hooking it up to whatever. No, much like actual electricity, correctly using Redstone means having to wrap your brain around how its current moves, splits, and transforms based on the blocks you use. Throw in some different logic gates and if you're good enough, you can create something as complex as a working calculator. So yeah, if you figure out how to use Redstone, you could probably figure out how to properly wire an actual city block with energy. Or at least how to wire up a clock without using any potatoes.
Programming (Quite a few, actually)
If you're like me, you abandoned all good sense, advice, and market trends to pursue a career in online media. Don't be like me. Take some time to learn a programming language. As our society moves further into the digital age, learning how to code is becoming ever more important. Hell, they're even teaching it to grade schoolers along with reading and arithmetic; it's that big of a deal. And like any skill worth learning, there are a few games you can play that will teach you the basics.
Typing (Typing of the Dead: Overkill)
Along with coding, quick and accurate typing is probably one of the most important skills you'll need in today's workplace. No one wants to wait for a report from the guy who hunts and pecks at keys with his index fingers. But games are all about shooting guns and clicking on bad guys. They can't teach you how to type. Or can they???
Spoilers: They totally can. Check out Typing of the Dead: Overkill, a twisted gem of a game that trades light guns for keyboards. Instead of shooting at zombies with bullets, you'll need to type out the on-screen prompts as quickly and accurately as you can. With randomized word selection and multiple difficulties, Typing of the Dead will put even the most adept keyboardist through the grinder. It's as awesome as it sounds.
Dancing (Dance Central)
If your dance moves have a tendency to clear a floor or put anyone within elbow's reach in the emergency room, you need to do two things. First, quit cribbing from Saturday Night Fever. I know Travolta seems hip, but seriously, no one wants to see that finger pointing move any more. Second, maybe it's time to give Dance Central a shot.
It's a great way to learn some rhythm, get in shape, and master a few professionally choreographed dance moves in the process. And thanks to the Kinect, you'll get instant feedback on how awkward and clumsy you look, which you can use to fuel your own self-loathing and drive for improvement. Sure, you probably wouldn't want to bust a lot of these out on an actual dance floor, but the increased coordination will certainly help.
Fitness (Wii Fit U)
Staying in shape is hard work, especially when fast-food companies continue to concoct unique ways to get me to shove grease and fat down my mouthhole. Thankfully, Nintendo is there to help me not only get in shape, but increase my awareness of how my body operates. Hint: fried Twinkies don't help.
Wii Fit U has something for everyone. Yoga newbies and aficionados alike can work on their poses and breathing exercises. A variety of minigames will get your heart pumping while you have some fun in the process. And Wii Fit U will track your activities as well as your progress with different graphs, giving you perspective on your weight loss over time. It's not perfect, but it'll do more to improve your health than pretty much every other game in existence.
Running a store (Recettear)
Supply and demand. Buy low, sell high. These are things that people spend tens of thousands of dollars on business school to learn. Or, you can skip all that and pick up a copy of Recettear, which gives you your very own item shop. It's up to you to figure out how to make it profitable.
You'll learn valuable skills like customer service, inventory management, and haggling. Keeping your patrons happy is a surefire way to gain repeat customers as well as new ones. Plus, by placing high-value items in the shop window, you'll be able to draw in even more customers as they lust after your rare and unique wares. Now, don't quote me on this, but I'm pretty sure you can list Recettear on an application for a small-business loan. You probably won't need to kill off a bunch of monsters to secure inventory for your actual, real life store, though it doesn't hurt to be prepared.
Learning a new language (My Language Coach series / Influent)
If you want to pick up a new language, get ready to spend a lot of time doing a ton of boring memorization and verb conjugation. You didn't pick up English overnight, so don't expect to be parlez-vous franais-ing without putting the time in. If only there was a way to learn a second language and make it fun, too...
Good thing you're reading this list, because there totally is. Games like Influent and the My Language Coach series break down vocabulary words, verbs, and sentence construction into easily digestible parts, and let you practice to your heart's content. Both games have tons of audio recordings of native speakers of each language, and they're filled with puzzles, minigames and other activities to keep things interesting. Just because you're managing your dangling participles doesn't mean you can't have fun while you do it.
I feel smarter already!
While these games will help teach you some important real life skills, you only get out what you put in. So really, you should just play more games to get really smart. Have you learned how to become a culinary mastermind thanks to Cooking Mama? Let me know in the comments!
Looking for more? Check out the 20 ugliest game protagonist ever, or these 7 video game characters you're totally not interested in saving.