Time wasters or brain makers, computer games have always been tagged as something with a whiff of the naughty and anti-social. They can teach useful skills, one of the “justifications” for playing Solitaire on office computers in the 90s was that it taught mousing skills. Although many think of computer games as first person shooters or massive online multiplayer communities or variations on solitaire and bubble shooting, or flying and driving games, there are some interesting alternatives to try.
Braid-game.com has you manipulate how time flows to navigate and solve puzzles. It is a single player game, demoed online or downloadable to your computer.
Lemmings, and a variety of spinoffs, from the 1990s, taught people how to assign limited skills to different in-game participants to let them affect the outcome of all the other autonomous entities, in this case green-haired, blue-robed lemmings.
A new point-and-click game, Botanicula, has you maneuvering five little tree creatures to save an infected seed, the last one of their tree. It won a 2012 indie game award in a casual game category.
A Slower Speed of Light, although still a prototype, is fun for those wanting to really see what approaching the speed of light would look like. You might want to explore more of the MIT Game Lab site. An aside for game programming, the Scratch programming language is designed for young people to develop games (and programming concepts in general) and freely distributed by the MIT Media Lab. Of course, an adult can use it too, to make stories and such.
People often believe that computer games don’t really teach anything. However, there are serious games like Democracy, which simulates running a democratic nation, making alliances, deciding and arranging spending, and reacting to crises. The ultimate goal is to get re-elected. This game is part of the simulation genre popularized by games like SimCity and The Sims.
Even puzzle games have been co-opted for serious scientific work, with Foldit serving as an example of an online game you can play to fold proteins into shapes that scientists can analyze for real-world uses. Humans seem to have this desire and ability to recognize and manipulate 2 and 3D shapes and the Foldit project helps you play for science.