Knowledge built culturally across generations allows humans to learn far more than an individual could glean from their own experience in a lifetime. Cultural knowledge in turn rests on language: language is the richest record of what previous generations believed, valued, and practiced. The power and mechanisms of language as a means of cultural learning, however, are not well understood. We take a first step towards reverse-engineering cultural learning through language. We developed a suite of complex high-stakes tasks in the form of minimalist-style video games, which we deployed in an iterated learning paradigm. Game participants were limited to only two attempts (two lives) to beat each game and were allowed to write a message to a future participant who read the message before playing. Knowledge accumulated gradually across generations, allowing later generations to advance further in the games and perform more efficient actions. Multigenerational learning followed a strikingly similar trajectory to individuals learning alone with an unlimited number of lives. These results suggest that language provides a sufficient medium to express and accumulate the knowledge people acquire in these diverse tasks: the dynamics of the environment, valuable goals, dangerous risks, and strategies for success. The video game paradigm we pioneer here is thus a rich test bed for theories of cultural transmission and learning from language.