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Transformational Play Engine

Transformational play involves the use of virtual worlds to help people learn and grow in a context where they can fail safely.


At its core, transformational play is a learning and empowerment philosophy that is grounded in the belief that each one of us is capable of, wants to, and deserves to achieve, great things.

Unlike any other form of curriculum, these games offer entire worlds in which learners are central, important participants; a place where the actions of a ten-year old can have significant impact on the world; and a place in which what you know is directly related to what you are able to do and, ultimately, who you become.

The theory highlights relations among the three interconnected elements of person with intentionality, content with legitimacy, and context with consequentiality. This stands in sharp contrast to the more traditional positioning of content as facts to be memorized, not as meaningful tools that are necessary for transforming a problematic situation.

More than sugar-coating content to coerce disempowered students into caring about disciplinary knowledge, games can establish worlds where even young children are transformed into empowered scientists, doctors, reporters, and mathematicians who have to understand disciplinary content to accomplish desired ends.

Research Manuscript (PDF) Teacher Manuscript (PDF)

Transformational Play


By leveraging the power of games as consequential worlds, we have the opportunity to create rich, interactive experiences where learners can experience using that which is being learned to achieve goals in which they are invested. Toward making this happen, we have built an immersive game engine that leverages commercial technologies (Unity 3D), makes available a set of customized logic blocks that privilege transformational play, and is connected into a facilitator dashboard for supporting implementation.

Key features of the 3D engine include:

Interactive Dialogue Builder, Customized Logic Blocks, In-Game Essays, Character Creator, Player Smart Tools

Key features of the facilitator dashboard include:

Cohort Builds, Account Creation, Progress Management, Essay Review System, Choice Tracker,
Research Analytics

Key Game Mechanics:

Below are some game mechanics that we have used the engine to design, and for which have been implemented with tens of thousands of users showing learning and growth gains. While each mechanic is listed separately and can be segmented accordingly, they are often combined with other mechanics as part of creating a rich player experience.


Ideological Play – one of the key features of the engine involves building out a fictional world to introduce a problematic situation. Then, as players navigate through the world and make choices, they gain insight both into their personal biases and into potential consequences of those biases. Such experiences are quite effective for “playing” with big ideas, failing safely, and building insight into what one believes and potential implications of operating from that perspective.

Interview Mechanic – allows players to practice one-on-one discussion/interview mechanics where they interact with a designed game character and have to select certain choices leading to different outcomes. The system allows for a research phase where the player can examine documents, then select game characters, walk through a sequence of dialogues where player choices change game character responses and differentially feed game meters reflecting the state of game characters.

Character Traits Mechanic – allows players to navigate an avatar around a designed “virtual world” where they have to make choices as they progress through tasks based on previous choices. These choices begin to develop a player profile along certain character traits relevant to the stakeholder. Similar to the interview mechanic, certain choices differentially impact different in-game meters, but these represent the state of the player–not the game character.

Evidence-Based Decisions
– allows players to navigate through a designed “virtual world,” collecting data and drawing inferences for each type of data. These inferences can then be aligned to different claims using an in-game smart tool, where players receive feedback on the quality of their inference choice and aligned claim to address a particular goal. Players can also challenge the AI scoring mechanism, all of which is available for review by facilitators in the facilitator dashboard.


Chain of Reasoning – allows players to navigate through a virtual world collecting various forms of data in support of advancing an argument. Similar to the evidence-based decision mechanic, however instead of the focus being on sorting inferences into possible claims, this tools involves building a causal chain of reasoning to justify a logical chain. Whereas evidence-based decisions focus on more practical claims, the chain of reasoning is aligned to the scientific inquiry process. Similarly, in another game we used a persuasive argument tool, aligning argument to claim to evidence.


The Doctors Cure

The Doctors Cure is a 3D immersive game that positions players as protagonists in a virtual world where they must use their understanding of persuasive writing and how to gain evidence from complex texts in their role of citizen investigator. The game narrative and 3D world were designed for players to explore a world inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. As such, beyond persuasive argumentation, students grapple with issues like medical ethics and contemplate concepts such as the ends justifying the means and the nature of human existence as they experience a town affected by a disastrous plague.

Watch Teaser  Gates Video  Read Manuscript

Mystery of Taiga River

The Mystery of Taiga River takes place in a 3D immersive world where students become environmental scientists who lead a scientific investigation to save a virtual park with ecological problems causing the fish to die out. The game not only teaches students issues of water quality like pH, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, and nutrient run-off, but also presents an innovative way of using a systems thinking approach to decision-making in a complex community. Students use a chain of reasoning to first justify the core scientific principle, and then align evidence from the world that it was the problem.

Watch Teaser  Read Manuscript

Boone’s Meadow

Boone’s meadow is a 3D immersive game where players use proportional reasoning and critical mathematical problem solving to determine the best course of action to save a wounded animal. It teaches middle-school students about Distance/Rate/Time and trip planning through an immersive experience, where they must leverage mathematics to determine the best vehicle and route to save a wounded eagle, and later wolf. Choosing what form of transportation involves balancing many variables, and at the core using their understanding of ratio mathematics to determine the most efficient course of action given the complexity of variables that need to be balanced (speed, distance, payload, etc..).

Video Walkthrough  Annotated Walkthrough

Diving into Data

Diving into Data is designed for pre-service teachers in training to develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to accurately diagnose their own classroom and take purposeful action steps to continually improve their own effectiveness. Players use data driven decision making to uncover the root cause of a classroom gone horribly wrong, and along the way will participate in investigative practices and evidence-based inquiry. Specifically, they explore a school where they find notes, talk with parents, interview students, collaborate with other teachers, and analyze student work to draw inferences that they must align to a particular cause and unlock an appropriate action plan.

Learn more about Quest2Teach: View Project Page  View PDF

Pursuit of Professionalism

Pursuit of Professionalism is designed for pre-service teachers to develop an understanding of professional competencies for teachers. The player is positioned as a student teacher who is trying to navigate a challenging situation with his or her mentor. To navigate this challenge successfully, players must employ four professional competencies in his or her choices and interactions: locus of control, suspending judgment, asset-based thinking, and interpersonal awareness. Players experience the ways professional dispositions and decision-making affect student outcomes and collegial relationships.

Learn more about Quest2Teach: View Project Page  View PDF

On the Write Track

On the Write Track is designed to aid teachers in building student conferencing skills to inspire student revision—especially as they relate to conducting Writers Workshop. In this game, players select students with whom to conduct workshops. Each student is working on a  different topic area and using a different medium, with the player calling up students to her desk where they analyze the work, ranging from essays to emails to blogs, and make choices with respect to various appropriate feedback. The challenge is to ensure that as a teacher, one is providing feedback that not only identifies the current writing weakness, but provides this feedback in a manner that increases ability, confidence, and commitment. The workshops begin with their running conferences, but then overtime they can support students as they conduct a peer workshop.

Learn more about Quest2Teach: View Project Page  View PDF

River of Justice

River of Justice was designed to be an interactive experience offering an opportunity to explore the nuances and complexities of personal injustices and to do so from the perspective of both the victim and perpetrators. Situated in the backdrop of the Ugandan struggle around the atrocities caused by the Lord’s Resistance Army, the player is exposed to multiple motivations and multiple responses to the injustices depicted. The game is intended to support the player in developing a deeper appreciation for notions of restorative justice, and their own internal biases. In order to support players engaging with these larger ideas in their own life, this game will soon be linked into our life-integration platform such that we can leverage curriculum around helping people deal effectively with life challenges, meaning making, and notions of individuation.

See River of Justice Book Chapter –