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Transformational Play

Transformational Play

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Published by: guanajuato_chri1977 on Jun 23, 2010
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07/22/2014

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Why
Educators
Should
Care
About
In virtual games, students
act
as
investigative reportevs,environmental scientists,and historians who resolvemeaningful dilemmas.
Sasha A. Barab, MelissaGresalfi, and Anna Arici
w
ere can a 10-year-old have an impacton the world?Answer: In a virtualworld.Video games, recently surpassingHollywood films in annual sales, havebecome one of the most popular formsof entertainment. Yes, they are fun, butthey also offer players a chance to takeon new roles and experience worlds inwhich they learn and problem solve.Recognizing the power of this medium,designers are now creating games specif-ically for education. Vastly differentfrom brightly packaged drill-and-
Games
practice software of the past, thesegames offer something new tostudents-entire worlds in whichlearners are central, important partici-pants-worlds where what they know isdirectly related to what they are able todo and, ultimately, who they become(Gee, 2003; Gee
Q
Levine, 2009).In the games we design, children canbecome environmental scientists, inves-tlgatlve reporters, statistical consultants,and historians By adopting a persona,or "avatar," they make choices thatdetermine how events transpire andwhat characters In the game wdl donext. For example, in one of ourscenarios, a student playng the gametakes on the role of statistician, andin-game characters ask the studentplayer to analyze data to determinewhether surveillance cameras or anincreased police presence will make thevirtual town safer. The next time thestudent returns to this virtual town, heor she may encounter cameras on everybuilding or a police oEficer on everycomer. Accountability is not based onan external test, but on the conse-quences of one's choices.In this context, students learn how toinvestigate and pose solutions-andthey learn what it means to
be
histo-rians, scientists, or mathematicians.Students often find a passion for curric-ular content and begin to see themselvesas capable of solving interesting prob-lems. We believe this kind of approachtruly ensures that no child
IS
left behind
 
oecause it offers students opportunitiesto engage wth curricular content andappreciate that content's value.As part of our Quest Atlantis project(see www.QuestAtlantis.org),we havedesigned hundreds of gaming activitiesto teach disciplinary content, whichhave been used by thousands of chil-dren around the world. Through ourstudy of students' practice, we havedeveloped a new theory about howstudents best learn. What we seek tofoster in students is something we call
transfomatlonal
play.Each game involves a knowledgequest and interactive tasks that takeplace in one of
15
virtual worlds.Educators can go to www.QuestAtlantis.org, download Quest Atlantisfor free, and try a sample unit. Thethemes of these worlds align wthacademic subject matter-such as statis-tics or persuasive writing-and eachquest taps into subject knowledge.For example, we designed an aquaticpark called Taiga World to host a uniton water quality (see fig.
1).
Studentsare assigned tasks, such as making thewater in the river safer for aquatic life.To complete the task, students need toknow about water quality, including pH,dissolved oxygen, and turbidity Wevlew games like these as
environments
that make academic content a necessarytool and that position the learner as
a
hero who transforms a virtual world.
Getting toTransformationa1 Play
Merely playng a game does not ensurethat
a
student is engaged in transforma-tional play To play transformationally, aplayer must become a protagonist whouses the knowledge, skills, and conceptsembedded in curricular content to makesense of a fictional situation and makechoices that transform that situation.Positioning students in this way sparkstheir interest, but equally important,leads to deeper engagement wthcontent.
1
FIGURE
1.
Screenshot ofTaiga World, a Quest to ExploreWater Quality
1
Markeda
In this activity,
a
player interacts with an in-game character (Markeda), selectingdialogue responses that are consistent with his or her perspective on the scenario.
I
Our virtual questsexpand on strategiesassociated withtraditional project-based curriculums.
In
transformational play, studentsbecome immersed in activities thatengage them intellectually and pushback on their thinking and actions.Rather than working on problems inwhich they must imagine the implica-tions of their decisions (as in mostproject-based work), students experi-ence consequentialityIn Taiga, our game connected to aunlt on water quality, a park ranger asksstudents to investigate what
is
causingfish decline in the virtual park and tocome upwth a solution (Barab, Zuiker,et a1
,
2007).
Students might choose tooutlaw logging in the park becauselogging causes erosion, or they mightforbid farming near the river because achemical runolf changes the water's pH.They experience the consequences ofthese decisions as the simulation takesthem
10
years into the future. Theymight discover that the park has gonebankrupt because no farmers or loggerswere paymg taxes. Students can thenreflect on the weaknesses of their initialsolution and consider a solution thatdemonstrates a better balance betweenthe needs of the ecosystem and socio-economic issues.Research indicates that such immer-sive technologies enhance studentlearning. In one comparison study, ateacher used Quest Atlantis games in ascience curriculum with one studentgroup and taught the identicalcurriculum to another group of studentsthrough traditional methods. Thestudents who used Quest Atlantislearned significantly more science
ASCD
/
www.asco.o~c
77
 
concepts than the traditional classroomstudents, showed higher engagement,and demonstrated increased intrinsic
motivation
(Arici, 2008; Hickey et al., inpress). When these groups were testedtwo months later, the students wholearned through the virtual gameremembered more science content thanthe traditionally taught students did(Arici, 2008).As one teacher who used the fractionsunit in Quest Atlantis's math worldnoted:
The kids [were]not [acting as] 5thgraders. They had a task. They had amission, and anytime you
. .
.
invite thekids to be something other than astudent, you're going to automatically seemotivational gains. There's a lot moreperseverance. There was a lot of readingto be done, but kids were sticking with it.
If I
handed them a textbook,
I
would notsee the same endurance.
Our virtual quests expand on strate-gies associated with project-basedcurriculums. We focus on buildinggame-based learning environments inwhich students play an important role,using academic knowledge to makedecisions that influence, for better orworse, the designed storyline. Thus,these virtual spaces transform learnersin three ways:
(1)
they transform aperson from a passive recipient to anempowered actor, (2) they transformcontent from information that thelearner has to remember to a tool thatthe learner can use to accomplishdesired ends, and
(3)
hey transformcontext from an assurance that "thisknowledge will be relevant in thefuture" to a present reality that respondsto the learner's actions.
A
Promethean Task
We can best illustrate our approachthrough an example of how studentsinteract within one of our virtualworlds, Digital Prometheus.Our instructional goal in this unitwas to foster persuasive writing byimmersing students in ethical dilemmasinspired by Mary Shelley's
Frankenstein.
Once teachers assign the unit to theirclass, students can travel to a villagenamed Ingolstadt. As they interact withlocal villagers, they develop a positionabout whether the local doctor
(Dr.
Frank) should be allowed to create anartificial life form in the hopes of findinga cure for the plague afflicting the town.Let's look at how playlng Dig~talPrometheus engages students in inter-travel through town. As playersencounter characters, each player caninterview them about what has beenhappening. Each character respondswith a programmed script describingthat person's experiences with theplague and givlng an opinion about Dr.Frank's effort to stop the epidemic.The core tension is that
he
doclorhas created a living creature; he is exper-imenting on that creature with the
I
IGURE 2. Screenshots from the Digital Prometheus Game
I
esting problems, makes curriculumcontent relevant, and teaches studentsthat their content-influenced actionshave consequences.
Establishing a Meaningful Role
Transformational play begins with ascenario that sets a goal. This motivatesplayers and demands a deep under-standing of content. In DigitalPrometheus, each player first reads aletter sent to his in-game e-mail from hisor her mother, pleading with the playerto visit Ingolstadt, which is beingdestroyed by a plague. The message asksthe player to talk to Dr. Frank and thelocal newspaper editor.Using onscreen menus, players enterIngolstadt and directtheir avatars to
The top scenes represent what the virtual village looks like if
a
player frees the crea-ture; the bottom scenes, the outcome if the creature remains captive.
hopes oEfinding a cure. The player's roleas a persuasive writer is establishedwhen the editor of the paper asks himor her to build an argument aboutwhether or not the doctor's behavior isethical. Succeeding in this role requiresthat the player understand and applypersuasive-writing skills to collectappropriate evidence and compose apersuasive piece of writing.
Seeing That Content Matters
Knowledge connected to disciplines-such as investigative research andwriting-serves as one of the mostfundamental tools for making sense ofthe world and acting effectively in it.In Digital Prometheus, as playersinterview citizens, they can store any 10

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