Quest Atlantis (QA) was a learning and teaching project that used a 3D multi-user environment to immerse children, ages 9-12, in educational tasks.
Building on strategies from online role-playing games, QA combines strategies used in the commercial gaming environment with lessons from educational research on learning and motivation. It allowed users to travel to virtual places to perform educational activities (known as Quests), talk with other users and mentors, and build virtual personae. Quest Atlantis provided a powerful learning environment that combined academic concepts and meaningful play with disciplinary practices with the goal to create socially committed citizens. More than sugar-coating content to coerce disempowered students into caring about disciplinary knowledge, games can establish worlds where children are transformed into empowered scientists, doctors, reporters, and mathematicians who have to understand disciplinary content to accomplish desired ends. In particular, we drew on the idea of transformational play. Designing for transformational play entails the ability to design meaningful and deep interactivity within a game-based context.
Central to our work in the Quest Atlantis and next generation Atlantis Remixed (ARX) project, was designing a context for learning, which sits at the intersection of education, entertainment, and social action. Designed to support social commitment and real-world action, our designs provided an immersive context with over 100,000 players worldwide. The project was intended to engage children ages 9–16 in a form of transformational play comprising both online and off-line learning activities, with a storyline inspiring a disposition towards social action. The core elements were 1) a 3D multi-user virtual environment, 2) learning Quests and unit plans, 3) a storyline, presented through an introductory video, novel and comic book, that involves mythical characters and a set of social commitments, 4) a globally-distributed community of participants, and (5) a narrative programming toolkit for remixing user-created stories. The narrative helps to establish continuity among the elements and helps to bridge the fictional world of Atlantis with the real world of Earth, an act of interpretation by each individual child.
The activities of the project take place in registered centers, typically schools, under the direction of teachers who have undergone professional development and training. Play opportunities include both curricular and optional projects that unfold both online and away from the computer, as children work alone or together to accomplish tasks within the international AR-X community. See the GameOverview letter to share with administrators, teachers, parents, and other interested parties. Quest Atlantis was structured around seven Social Commitments, represented as a Shard Flower that players built and progressively illuminated through achievements that signified an ability, confidence, and commitment to realize disciplinary ideas in the virtual and real world.
More than 100,000 children on six continents have participated in the project, submitting over 200,000 Quests and completing over 300,000 Missions, some of which were assigned by teachers and others chosen by students to complete in their free time. We were used regularly in 22 states, 18 countries, 1000 classrooms, 6000 teachers, and reviewed over 10M lines of chat to ensure the community and its members were positive digital citizens.We have demonstrated learning gains in science, language arts, and social studies. Equally important have been reported personal experiences, with teachers and students reporting increased levels of engagement and interest in pursuing the curricular issues outside of school. Six dissertations, 2 postdocs, and over a dozen peer-reviewed manuscripts were published about the work, advancing new theories about how people learn.
In a very real way, we attempted to reclaim the story medium in one of its contemporary forms–i.e., videogames–to use it in a socially-responsive way and at the same time undo the problems that are currently associated with the use of this form. The challenge has been to develop an adaptive entity that is not simply about playing yet remains engaging, is not a lesson yet fosters learning, and is not evangelical yet still promotes a social agenda. As a design-based research project, our work involves interacting with the developed play space, in both its material and social forms, to understand and advance specific research questions and particular theoretical claims Specifically, we attempted to …
- rewrite the narrative of videogames as something pro-social and about things that have significance in the real world.
- rewrite the narrative of content such that students appreciate its real-world value.
- rewrite the narrative of schools as something that involves content and stories that are personally engaging.
- rewrite the narrative about what it means to be a person in the world, providing students with pro-social identities and trajectories of participation.
Our research focused on understanding the pedagogical and motivational impact of the medium, differences among genders and from different socio-economic backgrounds, the relationship between play and learning, the challenges in maintaining and participating in a globally-distributed online community, how to best facilitate the meaningful crossing of multiple life worlds, and how different design features of the project impact children’s participation. More generally, our goal was to change a number of problematic narratives that are central to children’s lives. Linked on this page are articles that illuminate some of lessons we are learning and the different ways in which we are supporting children in developing their own sense of purpose as individuals, as members of their communities, and as knowledgeable citizens of the world.
- Transformational Play: Why Educators Should Care about Games
- Transformational Play: Using games to position person, content, and context
- Eat Your Vegetables and Do Your Homework: A Design-Based Investigation of Enjoyment and Meaning in Learning
- Situationally Embodied Curriculum: Formalisms and Contexts
- Games without Guns: Quest Atlantis, Making Learning Fun
- Our Designs and the Social Agendas they Carry
- Relating Narrative, Inquiry, and Inscriptions: Supporting Consequential Play
- Critical Design Ethnography: Designing For Change
About Sasha A. Barab PhD
Sasha Barab is a Professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, where he co-founded and serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Games and Impact.
Dr. Barab is an internationally recognized Learning Scientist who holds the Pinnacle West Chair of Education, and who has researched, designed, and published extensively on the challenges and opportunities of using games for impact.