Making Learning Fun: Quest Atlantis, A Game Without Guns (Barab et al.)

Barab, S., Thomas, M., Dodge, T., Carteaux, R., & Tuzun, H. (2005). Making learning fun: Quest Atlantis, a game without guns. Educational Technology Research and Development, 53(1), 86–107. 

The Quest Atlantis (QA) project is a teaching and learning project that involves a multiuser, virtual environment aimed at children, ages 9–12. Barab et al, describe the evolution of QA via socially-responsive design, design ethnography, and design-based research.

Barab et al.’s overarching design philosophy: “It is our belief that complex goals involving social interaction are inadequately met by one-time analyses or even iterative design models, and instead, require designing for sociability and designs that are flexibly adaptive to local needs (Schwartz, Lin, Brophy, & Bransford, 1999). These types of participatory designs are iterative, distributed, and locally owned, evolving, as does a bazaar, rather than being constructed, like a cathedral” (p.88)

The  flexibly adaptive design process (mentioned above) allows “educational products to be designed in a way that strikes a balance between complete control by designers and easy reconfiguration by teachers and other stakeholders who will use the products” (p. 101). However, this does produce a tension:  “At what point do these adaptations to local contexts become lethal mutations (Brown, 1992) that kill, dilute, or distort the flexibly adaptive innovation? A major struggle in the implementation of QA has been to usefully harness this tension between the need for local customization and maintaining the program’s integrity, finding the strengths in both without endangering either” (p.101).


Socially responsive design:

  • Involves building sociotechnical structures that are explicitly designed in collaboration with, and toward the continual growth of, individuals and those communities in which they are nested.
  • Brings together critical ethnography, instructional design, and social activism with a focus on producing a designed artifact and process that has at its core the goal of facilitating individual and societal transformation (Grills, 1998), creating ties to action research (Eden & Huxham, 1996; McNiff, 1995; Stringer, 1996; Wells, 1999) and critical ethnography (Freire, 1970/2000; Levinson, 1998).
  • This involves utilizing methods of design ethnography (see below).

Design ethnography comprises four components:

  • Developing a “ thick description” of one context (Geertz, 1976)
  • Developing a series of social commitments that have local and global significance
  • Reifying these understandings and commitments into a design; and
  • Supporting scaling up and local customization.

Barab et al. sum up the distinctions: “Whereas the basic ethnographer builds a thick description with the goal of understanding the culture (Geertz, 1976), the critical ethnographer (Levinson, 1998) goes a step further to leverage this understanding to develop a critique with the goal of transforming the context that is being researched. In our work we have gone farther still, reifying this critique into a design (consisting of artifact and process), with the expectation that this design will engage children and their communities at others sites in meaningful issues affecting their local communities” (p.102).

Also, “Where the action researcher and the critical ethnographer stop at the daunting task of supporting change in one particular context, the design ethnographer accepts the added challenge of reifying this critique and associated social commitments into a design that can be taken up and usefully integrated into other contexts” (p.92).

Design-based research:

  • A methodological approach for carrying out research and design work in the context of real-life settings (p.91). Similar to what Brown and Collins call “design experiments.”
  • “Design-based research involves introducing innovations into the booming, buzzing confusion of real-world practice (as opposed to constrained laboratory contexts), and examining the impact of those designs on the learning process. Lessons learned are then cycled back into the next iteration of the design innovation” (p.92).
  • “Because design experiments develop theory in practice, they can lead to interventions that are trustworthy, credible, transferable, and ecologically valid” (p.92).


Quest Atlantis Project:

  • The QA environment promotes agency and play, both essential for development.  “Children today have fewer means for expressing agency, and even fewer opportunities for engaging in play, than they have had in the past. Their physical space for exploration and play has been reduced from several square miles to an electronic screen” (p.86). [Also see: “The Importance of Being Playful“]
  • Design process began with an “18-month ethnographic study at a local Boys and Girls Club, visiting schools, reading teen and pop-culture magazines, and even playing video games in arcades. [They] began with a simple goal: Let’s make learning fun.” Eventually, their interests broadened beyond content learning and “developed into a broader social commitment” (p.87)
  • The QA experience centers around an intersubjective connection or identification with the narrative of Atlantis about a world in trouble.
  • QA leverages a 3-D multiuser environment, educational quests, unit plans, comic books, a novel, a board game, trading cards, a series of social commitments, various characters, ways of behaving, and other participant resources.
  • QA is an example of a distributed, transmedia narrative — the story line does not reside in one location or in one form of medium but is spread across various media that come together and are given meaning as the user participates in the fictional game context and investigates relevant personal issues.
  • Given the authentic nature of participation, identity within QA might best be considered an extension of one’s daily self, rather than a fiction, experiment, or substitute.
  • The QA project is more than a computer program; QA is best viewed as a series of participant structures, activity sets, and social commitments that constitute the QA identity— what is referred to in the business world as a brand.
  • QA is a vehicle for advancing the social agenda of empowering individuals and communities. Collectively, these three features (education, entertainment, social commitment) create an important focus for design and result in a product that is not a game yet remains
    engaging, is not a lesson yet fosters learning, and is not evangelical yet nurtures a social agenda.

Theoretical framework of the QA project:

Five themes in the authors’ work are derived from Vygotsky: (a) human development, (b) social constructivism, (c) social context for thought and activity, (d) the zone of proximal development (ZPD), and (e) children’s play.

This “play” theme merits more discussion: “It is important to clarify that for Vygotsky, play was not simply an imaginary activity somehow distinct from the real world, nor was play an unrestricted, free activity. Rather, play offers a context that is constituted by constraints of all kinds— although different and potentially liberating from many social constraints in which the child’s behavior occurs. An important challenge for designers working to leverage play to support learning and the embracing of particular social commitments is to determine which constraints need to be implemented, and how these are framed so that they are useful and meaningful to the child” (p.89).

A “triadic foundation” comprising education, entertainment, and social commitments underlie the work around QA:

Education: Designing for Understanding

  • QA experience reflects a participatory framework that stresses hands-on action and reflection as components central to the learning process, while treating context as co-determinant of meaning.
  • Authors believe that education and actual experience bear a necessary and intimate relationship.
  • Design work is grounded in three related perspectives toward learning:
    • Experiential learning — learning involves real-world participation, the belief in the intimate relations between experience and education, the certainty that understandings
      are derived from and modified through experience, and the conviction that action and reflection are necessary features of meaningful learning (Dewey, 1938; Kolb, 1984).
    • Inquiry-based learning — students learn best when the learning process involves inquiry, as opposed to the memorization of the facts and principles.
    • Portfolio assessment — evaluating authentic student work (e.g., action plans, interviews,
      scrapbooks, presentations, stories, etc.).

Entertainment: Designing for Engagement

  • Commercial entertainment designs often utilize participatory contexts that have elements of challenge, curiosity, play, and control (Cordova & Lepper, 1996). In contrast, the education and design community seem to have distanced themselves from those who are the most successful in engaging children.
  • QA MUVE is a persistent world. Persistent worlds can be thought of as discourse communities that recruit complex cognitive and communicative practices, much the way participation in scientific communities produces complex cognitive processes (Bartle, 1996; Kollock & Smith, 1996).

Social Commitments: Designing for Change

  • Involves socially responsive design (see above).


The authors identified four core themes of their design work, that they feel would be particularly worth discussing in order to assist other designers consider their own projects:

1. Creating a vision — The QA team ended up collaborating with local sites to “coconstruct a vision of QA. Toward this end, we spent more and more time listening, eventually choosing to build an ethnographic account of one after-school site (Geertz, 1976), and conducting interviews and focus groups with others, all of which were used to guide our future design work. This process uncovered much detail about the various life worlds of the groups with whom we designed QA” (p.96).

2. Participatory Design Process — “…Our design process has involved a collaborative posture in which those who implement the design work also have a hand in its evolution” (p.98) [Reminiscent of Pea’s “New Media Communications Forums for Improving Education Research and Practice”] “…our focus is not simply to design usable technical structures that support human computer interactions, but to develop technical structures that support human-human interactions as mediated through technology.”

3. Developing a Metacontext — The QA story line,  associated structures, and policies constitute what is referred to as a metagame, a genre of play in which there is an overall structure that lends form, meaning, and cohesion to collection of nested activities or games, all of which have their own identifiable rules and challenges. This structure creates a boundary condition that unites the individual actions and outcomes of these otherwise disparate activities. (See p.93 for the key elements of the QA metagame.)

4. Supporting Project Implementation — Many researchers who have studied the implementation of projects in multiple settings have found that local customizability is the key to successful implementation (Randi & Corno, 1997). That is, the program must be flexible enough to adapt to local conditions and provide meaningful ways for local stakeholders to legitimately feel that they are part of the project and that their opinions are not only respected but show tangible manifestations in their local iteration of the project.


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