Transformational Play


Quest Atlantis provides a powerful learning environment that combines 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 draw on the idea of Transformational Play. Merely playing a game does not ensure that one is engaged in transformational play. (See the Educational Leadership article) or the researcher article, published in Educational Researcher.

Instead, the games we design offer something new to learners; 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. Students who play transformationally become protagonists who use the knowledge, skills, and concepts of the educational content to first make sense of a situation and then make choices that actually transform the play space and the player—they are able to see how that space changed because of their own efforts.

(See the Worked Example offering hosted by MIT Press).

Transformative play is a theory meant to communicate the power of games for education, highlighting their potential to situationally embody person, content, and context, attending in particular to the relations among the three. Specifically, transformative play involves positioning students as change agents who must understand and enlist academic content in order to effectively transform problematic scenarios. As we design these spaces, we attend to the relations among person, content, and context by creating experiences that (1) bind content with person by creating legitimate dilemmas that can only be resolved when one accurately applies disciplinary understandings; (2) bind person with context by positioning players as agents-of-change whose intentional actions have impact on the context and storyline; and (3) bind context with content by ensuring the consequentiality of one’s actions is dependent on accurate disciplinary understandings. Thus, games serve to “create a need” for learning, such that learning new disciplinary skills is not a requirement of an external system, but rather a legitimate aspect of one’s activities in successfully playing the game.

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