because it offers students opportunities
to engage with curricular content and
appreciate that content’s value.
As part of our Quest Atlantis project
(see www.QuestAtlantis.org), we have
designed hundreds of gaming activities
to teach disciplinary content, which
have been used by thousands of children around the world. Through our
study of students’ practice, we have
developed a new theory about how
students best learn. What we seek to
foster in students is something we call
Each game involves a knowledge
quest and interactive tasks that take
place in one of 15 virtual worlds.
Educators can go to www.Quest
Atlantis.org, download Quest Atlantis
for free, and try a sample unit. The
themes of these worlds align with
academic subject matter—such as statistics or persuasive writing—and each
quest taps into subject knowledge.
For example, we designed an aquatic
park called Taiga World to host a unit
on water quality (see fig. 1). Students
are assigned tasks, such as making the
water in the river safer for aquatic life.
To complete the task, students need to
know about water quality, including pH,
dissolved oxygen, and turbidity. We
view games like these as environments
that make academic content a necessary
tool and that position the learner as a
hero who transforms a virtual world.
FIGURE 1. Screenshot of Taiga World, a Quest to Explore Water Quality
In this activity, a player interacts with an in-game character (Markeda), selecting
dialogue responses that are consistent with his or her perspective on the scenario.
Our virtual quests
expand on strategies
Getting to Transformational Play
Merely playing a game does not ensure
that a student is engaged in transformational play. To play transformationally, a
player must become a protagonist who
uses the knowledge, skills, and concepts
embedded in curricular content to make
sense of a fictional situation and make
choices that transform that situation.
Positioning students in this way sparks
their interest, but equally important,
leads to deeper engagement with
In transformational play, students
become immersed in activities that
engage them intellectually and push
back on their thinking and actions.
Rather than working on problems in
which they must imagine the implications of their decisions (as in most
project-based work), students experience consequentiality.
In Taiga, our game connected to a
unit on water quality, a park ranger asks
students to investigate what is causing
fish decline in the virtual park and to
come up with a solution (Barab, Zuiker,
et al., 2007). Students might choose to
outlaw logging in the park because
logging causes erosion, or they might
forbid farming near the river because a
chemical runoff changes the water’s pH.
They experience the consequences of
these decisions as the simulation takes
them 10 years into the future. They
might discover that the park has gone
bankrupt because no farmers or loggers
were paying taxes. Students can then
reflect on the weaknesses of their initial
solution and consider a solution that
demonstrates a better balance between
the needs of the ecosystem and socioeconomic issues.
Research indicates that such immersive technologies enhance student
learning. In one comparison study, a
teacher used Quest Atlantis games in a
science curriculum with one student
group and taught the identical
curriculum to another group of students
through traditional methods. The
students who used Quest Atlantis
learned significantly more science