I don‘t see a lot of these games today, but a few years ago there was a niche for games whose major feature was the teaching of lore or logic skills. Games such as the Castle of Dr. Brain (Sierra) for example pitted the player against simple logic puzzles and word games in order to advance the plot of the game (finding the missing Dr. Brain and becoming his lab assistant). The very opening puzzle of the game was a memory puzzle similar to “Simon says“ (a popular memory training toy for young children). In the spirit of teaching, the game even offered hints as to how one could improve one‘s prowess with any given puzzle.
Then there were games like Sid Meier‘s colonization, which weren't designed to teach you anything (other than resource management and strategy) but offered the player a chance to read historical information about the events pertaining to the game (the discovery, colonization and the war for independence of the United States of America). The historical information offered by the game is perhaps the main reason why I, an Icelandic citizen, know more about American history than I do about my own country.
The ability of video games to teach even extends to languages, I think I can safely say that most of my ability to speak English comes from my early introduction to video games. I remember a game called “Little Big Adventure“ and how it taught me, as a child, various words and later how the language itself was used in proper context. Mind you, my comprehension of the speech in said game wasn't perfect, but when you find an interesting game and get into that “focus zone“ you tend to pick up information nuggets like they were candy. The same game also featured multiple languages (German, French, and Spanish) so when I returned to the game several years later, I used the game‘s data to bone up on a few things in Spanish, which was an invaluable thing during high school. Not enough games feature multiple languages in my opinion.
Obviously, the purpose of most video games is not to teach you anything. Their goal is to entertain and due to the emphasis placed on entertainment, education takes a back seat. This is evident in recent games such as the Assassin‘s Creed series, where the protagonist interacts with historical characters and locations, though the game takes poetic licenses with a few of them in order to fit them into the game‘s plot. Thankfully games such as AC II have sparked an interest in renaissance Italy among many of its players, despite historical inaccuracies.
Sadly, there are many opportunities to incorporate useful knowledge into games; opportunities most developers don‘t seize. Sid Meier‘s games continue to provide a rather firm historical background (Civilization) whereas others seem to ignore the opportunity completely. I wonder how many, despite playing endless amounts of WWII themed games, actually know when D-Day took place.
It may be naive of me to think this, but I‘d like to see games make (when possible) efforts to impart practical knowledge or skills to their players. Imagine a game where the player must solve a simple chemistry puzzle in order to progress. This could spark an interest, especially in younger players, to further learn chemistry or whatever particular science is being tested. Obviously, we can’t expect this from all games. After all, it‘d be ridiculous for example, to play a Gears of War game that all of a sudden took a time out to inform the player about the particulars of astronomy, wouldn't it?