National Science Foundation Phase I Grant for a Group STEM Challenge

Heredity Module (2)


We have some exciting news today!

Immersed Games is being awarded a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Science Foundation for development of a new innovation to work with Tyto Online.

The official title of the grant is, “A Group Video Game Challenge for Integrated Applied Science Learning.”

This innovation pulls from the experience of dungeons or raids in video games, where groups of players team up to defeat “bosses” in epic battles. Except in our case, student will be able to apply learning in groups to solve challenging applied problems that utilize the learning they accomplished across multiple science modules of science in order to earn group rewards.

Innovation Description

The overall concept of this grant’s research and development work is that after students have learned science content in Tyto Online or at school, they’ll be presented with a challenge that integrates learning across their units or topics. Groups of ~5 students will travel to a location on the alien planet where the drakons, a dragon-like creature, have undergone devastation! Their population is in turmoil due to a variety of potential factors that the students must solve.

The students will use skills from multiple areas of science as they work to solve the problem together. After they are introduced to the problem, they’ll jump into problem exploration: collecting data like blood samples from the drakons, setting population devices out, and sampling water quality. They will be able to generate graphs of their data, propose hypotheses, and together figure out what they think is hurting the drakons.

Then, following an engineering practice model, they’ll move into solutions — generating possible ideas, supporting the best ones, testing them, seeing results, and determining the best possible solution for fixing the problems they identified. Solutions may include selective breeding to reduce the prevalence of the genetic predisposition, creating a vaccine, environmental changes, or other potential solutions.

We are also building this with a scalable framework so that we’ll be able to use this basis to create more challenges, in the future building it into an expansion to our back-end content authoring system to use more regularly in students’ gameplay.


Educational Benefits

Integrated STEM Learning. Students will have already individual learned the content areas utilized (cells, ecology, heredity, and evolution) in silos, with isolated instruction in each content area. One of the goals of the proposed innovation is to focus on integrated STEM learning, addressing the subjects together in a way more similar to real world problem solving (Roberts & Cantu, 2012). Integrated STEM learning has been argued for by educators who argue that it provides contextual, deeper knowledge which will help students be more competitive as they actively engage and connect their learning areas into cross-domain skills (Boy, 2013; Relan & Kimpston, 1991; Sanders, 2012).

Problem Based Learning. The proposed innovation also utilizes a problem based learning approach, which is a form of constructivist learning. In problem based learning, students are introduced to a setting, start a problem, research and set their own hypotheses, and engage in self-reflection as they work to solve problems. The benefits of problem based learning include situating learning in context, encouraging accessing of prior knowledge for high-road transfer, improving metacognitive awareness, and long-term retention (Hmelo & Evensen, 2000; Gavriel & Perkins, 1989). Students who use problem based learning are even more likely to use basic science as a tool for problem solving than students in a traditional curriculum (Hmelo & Evensen, 2000).

Cooperative Learning. Another benefit of the proposed innovation is the focus on cooperative learning. According to Terwel (2003), the general aim of cooperative learning is how to think for oneself. Some researchers, such as Gillies and Ashman (2003), argue that cooperative learning has the broadest set of diverse, positive outcomes for learners. Cooperative learning has been shown to lead to more productivity, better communication, improved motivation, and even feelings of acceptance and inclusion among group members (Gillies & Ashman, 2003).

Using the structure of video game raids for cooperative learning as an extension also encourages more acceptance of failure, as in video game raiding, failure is seem as progress as long as the raid group is able to reflect and improve strategies in their next attempts (Chen, 2009). In terms of developing 21st century skills, raids also require cooperation and communication, not just content or skill areas, which helps develop those skills further (Chen, 2009).

Interested in participating?

We will be conducting a small study towards the end of the project, around April/May, in order to analyze how well the design has worked, the student’s use of tools, etc.  If you’re interested in your child participating, please fill out this form to get on our interest list!

See the Grant Abstract on the NSF Website

Reference List

Boy, G.A. (2013). From STEM to STEAM: Toward a human-centered education. Proceedings of the 31st European Conference on Cognitive Ergonomics; Toulouse, France, August 26-28.

Chen, M. (2009). Communication, coordination, and camaraderie in World of Warcraft. Games and Culture 4, 47-73.

Gavriel, S., & Perkins, D.N. (1989). Rocky roads to transfer: Rethinking mechanics of a neglected phenomenon. Educational Psychologist, 24(2), 113-142.

Gillies, R.M., & Ashman, A.F. (2003). An historical review of the use of groups to promote socialization and learning. In R.M. Gillies and A.F. Ashman (Eds.), The social and intellectual outcomes of learning in groups (1-18). New York, NY: Routledge Falmer.

Hmelo, C.E., & Evensen, D.H. (2000). Problem-based learning: Gaining insights on learning interactions through multiple methods of inquiry. In. D.H. Evensen & C.E. Hmelo (Eds.), Problem-based learning: A research perspective on learning interactions (1-18). New York, NY: Routledge Falmer.

Relan, A., & Kimpston, R. (1991). Curriculum integration: A critical analysis of practical and conceptual issues. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association; Chicago, IL, April 3-7.

Roberts, A., & Cantu, D. (2012). Applying STEM instructional strategies to design and technology curriculum. Proceedings of the Technology Education in the 21st 29 Century (111-118); Stockholm, Sweden.

Sanders, M. (2012). Integrative STEM education as “best practice.” Presented at the 7th Biennial International Technology Education Research Conference; Queensland, Australia, Dec 8.



Choosing an Educational Game

Choosing an Educational Game

If you decide that educational games might be useful for your child, it might seem like there are way too many things to consider. How popular they are, what themes and subjects to focus on, how recommended they are and so on. And while there are a lot of educational games out there, I hope I can help you narrow down your options — not based on what the games seem like on the surface, but on what type of learning your child will experience when they’re playing.

What is your Child Actually Doing while Playing?

One of the most important things to keep in mind is what your child will actually be doing when they play a game. A lot of educational products have rewarding elements like character customization, pets, apartments, etc., but obviously this shouldn’t be where your child is spending all their time in a game. So it’s good to ask: Are they spending their time problem-solving? Are they engaging deeply on educational subjects? Not just memorizing content, but actually participating in it?

The following story illustrates this quite clearly:

“A teacher once told me that for a fourth-grade unit on the Underground Railroad he had his students bake biscuits, because this was a staple food for runaway slaves. He asked what I thought about the assignment. I pointed out that his students probably thought for forty seconds about the relationship of biscuits to the Underground Railroad, and for forty minutes about measuring flour, mixing shortening, and so on. Whatever students think about is what they will remember.” (Willingham)

Of course, if the teacher’s goal is to practice measuring and cooking, that’s great.  But if their goal was learning about the Underground Railroad, they fell short.  This is because of the key concept: “Memory is the residue of thought.”  This is one of the biggest takeaways from Willingham’s book, “Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom,” which I highly recommend!

So with any material, consider what your child is actually going to be thinking about. What are they going to spend time doing? Because that’s what they’re going to get out of it.

Questing in the grasslands biodome

Lower-Order Practice vs. Higher-Order Conceptual

I generally categorize educational games into two groups: Lower-Order Practice and Higher-Order Conceptual Learning. Both have their functions in a child’s learning, so let’s take a closer look:

Lower-Order Practice

Lower-Order Practice is the kind of learning where children answer questions and practice remembering content, but don’t actually learn the concepts or do anything particularly unique with them. For example, a child has to be taught how to do the math problem before they do a math-themed version of this type of game. A Lower-Order Practice game isn’t great for learning the content for the first time or helping them understand the concepts behind it.

And we’ve all seen this type of activity before: glorified worksheets with better-than-average behavioral and motivational science behind them.

I use the term Lower-Order in reference to Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational goals. In Lower-Order Practice games, the activities take place in the lower half of thinking skills:

  • Remember what they’ve learned by recognizing and recalling information;
  • Understand by classifying, comparing, or other activities;
  • Apply by using what they’ve learned on other problems, sometimes in new contexts or slightly harder examples.

I should emphasize that there’s nothing inherently wrong with Lower-Order Practice, because we do need to practice these skills and be able to memorize information. All the hype about how we don’t need to memorize information anymore because we can look everything up on Google is just that — hype.

Math is an easy way to explain why this is important: in general, people can only hold 5-9 items in working memory at a time. Therefore, if you don’t memorize your times tables by the time you get to algebra, it’s hard to have to constantly pause in the middle of solving a problem to do multiplication, as you end up dropping items out of your working memory. In the exact same sense, we can’t perform higher-order thinking skills like creating, connecting points, and being creative unless we already know the basics. So there’s definitely a need for practice and repetition to make sure the basics are mastered.

This form of educational gaming works well across several types of devices: mobile, tablets, and computers, though most Lower-Order Practice games are apps or web-based for quick, in-and-out sessions lasting for a relatively short period of time. For example, the games available at, and are largely simple practice games. I’ve had teachers tell me that these types of games generally retain their students’ interest for about 10 minutes.

Higher-Order Conceptual Learning

Games with Higher-Order Conceptual Learning use systems, problem-solving, and more in-depth types of gameplay to help the player develop a strong conceptual understanding, and they often use a constructivist approach to learning.

These type of games really take advantage of the power of what games can do, with potentially open-ended systems that let players experiment and get a much better, deeper understanding.

So in Bloom’s Taxonomy, Higher-Order Conceptual Learning has children:

  • Analyze by differentiating, organizing, and attributing as players problem-solve;
  • Evaluate by checking and judging to make decisions;
  • Create to generate hypotheses, plan, design, and produce solutions.

For example, in our game, Tyto Online, players engage in an ecosystem-building Sandbox. They use the basics they’ve learned to analyze their ecosystem, evaluate the evidence to decide what’s causing issues (like, “Why are my jackrabbits dying so quickly?!”), generate a hypothesis (“They have too many predators, or not enough food”), and then produce a solution. Players go through an engaging, iterative cycle of problem-solving and the scientific method constantly during gameplay.


Some of my favorite examples of Higher-Order math games include Motion Math’s games where children do conceptual activities like exploring a number line at various scales; and Dragonbox Learning, where players start by developing the concepts of algebra with balancing puzzles, and then work their way into replacing the symbols with letters and numbers until they’re solving full algebraic equations in the game.

There are even educational games that can enable types of learning that are difficult or impossible to do in real life as a child: build a spaceship with Kerbal Space Program, play with the universe’s physical variables with Universe Sandbox, or create an ecosystem from scratch with Tyto Online.

Session times in Higher-Order educational games are often a lot longer, depending on the game and what your child is exploring. Therefore it makes more sense to use computer installed games or tablets, or at least a setup where your child will feel comfortable playing for 30-60 minutes instead of 10.



For the practical side of timing and devices, consider:

Are you going for “instant” or “active” gaming? One of the most helpful workshops I attended divided mobile & tablet gaming into “instant gaming,” and computer & console gaming into “active gaming.”

  • Instant Gaming: on mobile devices, educational games are grab-and-go, and session times often average only 5 minutes. This can be great for quick reinforcement or other activities.
  • Active Gaming: on consoles or computers, the act of getting set up to play the game can take as long as the entire Instant Gaming experience! Therefore, these sessions are usually much longer and made for replayability, sometimes hours, and can be great for deeper and conceptual learning as players experiment, iterate, and create during their gameplay.

And finally, to assess if a game is right for your child, the main thing I would suggest is:

Consider the outcome you want and compare it to what your child will actually spend their time doing in the game. Are you using the game for practice and review? Do you want to help develop conceptual understanding? Do you want to improve their “21st Century skills,” like problem-solving and collaboration? Does the game help them reach that outcome?

There’s no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to knowing if an educational game is right for your child with so many options out there that fill many different potential needs. While we mainly focus on developing Higher-Order thinking with Tyto Online, we’ve also built in repetition and opportunities for children to understand the basic knowledge they need in order to get the full experience of the game.

To read more about the learning mechanics we use in Tyto Online, head over to our blog post outlining our approach.

Learning Mechanics in Tyto Online

Learning Mechanics in Tyto Online

Hello there! I wanted to take some time to outline how we view learning within Tyto Online. The experience we currently have in the game does not have all of this in it, so I’ll be clear on what is currently in-game, what is in progress, or a feature we’re considering for the future.

This is a bit of a long post, but it’ll be a starting point for those people who want to dig in on the learning design with us!

This is the model I’ve designed to explain our learning theory:dKqxks1

First, the Base Game World presents a lot of really compelling elements to go from and each one is important to learning as players begin the game.

Then the user does Quests where they’re taught content more directly. As they complete Quests, they’ll be unlocking more in the Sandbox experience. Many players want to jump into the Sandbox and unlock more of it in the Quests as they play both alongside each other (although some just do all the Quests first). After the Quests are done, they’ll be able to continue playing in the Sandbox, including with Weekly Challenges to accomplish. The more activities the user completes, the more their knowledge — and their autonomy — grows, since the Sandbox is more open and exploratory.

Our first module, Ecology, has a set of ~40 Quests and a create-your-own ecosystem Sandbox for players.

As you continue to read, you may see this as an idealized version of what an edu-MMO can be, and I would agree. I don’t think we’ve successfully pulled it off yet, and our current designs and quests certainly have room for improvement. Limited resources mean we don’t get to make everything we want quite yet! But we want people to see where we’re heading with this and to give us feedback during Early Access to help us reach the potential of what this can really be.

Base Game World

Many game designers already discuss that game design and gameplay are basically a form of learning — learning the rules and systems of the game in order to progress. As I studied learning theory while working on a PhD in education, we talked about ideal learning environments and everything kept linking back to my gaming experiences, especially in social online games.

  • Context — the story of the game and its world provide context to help players understand what’s being learned and make mental connections more fluid. We don’t want people to ask, “Why are we learning this?” because it’s already part of the context — Non-playable characters (called NPCs, which are characters we design into the game) and you, the player, are using the information for a reason during the process of gameplay.
  • Identity — taking on the identity of a scientist and learner is important so children can see themselves as capable learners and part of the gameplay (shown to be very important in successfully learning science).
  • Motivation — reward structures in the game increase motivation to complete more learning activities (such as getting more currency to buy more clothing, leveling up, etc.).
  • Immersion — increases involvement between the player and the content.
  • Affective Involvement — deepens interaction between the player and the content and helps with retention of knowledge, as we remember things better when they’re tied to emotion.
  • Social Learning — communities share knowledge and increase their learning pool together; also presents opportunities for developing important social skills.
  • Goal Setting — goals within the game lend themselves to self-regulated goal setting, an important skill for learners.
  • Collaboration — playing online with others, completing tasks together, is great skill development for what people refer to as “21st Century Skills.”

Unfortunately, when most people think of educational games, they really only thing of motivation, and maybe immersion, but as you can see, there is so much more to it.


Quest to Learn

So the first part of students actually learning the content is based on Quests. We see the Quests as aligned with an “inquiry-based learning” approach, which has been shown to be very effective for learning science. As you can imagine, this basically means that you solve problems in order to be guided through the learning process — gathering needed background information, collecting information about the current situation, and learning as you solve in the context of a problem.

Right now we have a decent number of Quest mechanics that we use to do this, and will continue to build these out as we progress.

Basic Quest Mechanics

We have a lot of the basic Quest mechanics you’d expect: collecting items, talking to NPCs, going to certain locations, etc.

You’ll find a lot of our current Quests are about collecting poop, because that happens a LOT in ecology. Some of these lead you to other Quests, and others are just for helping players understand new contexts for why poop would be needed.

  • An example we like in the game right now: collect poop to start you off on a Food Web Quest.
  • An example we don’t like in the game right now: using poop to get DNA samples, but that’s where the quest ends. The idea for this quest was actually to collect DNA samples for a DNA bank, as that’s something scientists do in real life right now to make sure we have diverse sets of endangered species’ DNA , which is super cool. But we had some limitations with the Quest mechanic toolset, so right now it’s just picking up poop for that purpose. This will be improved in the future.

Categorization Quests

Also pretty simple, but if you think about it, categorization happens a LOT in learning. Is this abiotic or biotic? What type of symbiosis is exhibited? Recycling or Compost?

Here’s an example of it in action:

Screenshot 2017-06-21 13.55.31

Detective Quests

A lot of science standards revolve around using empirical evidence to make arguments and draw conclusions. So we designed a Detective-style Quest where the user finds evidence in the game world. Basically, the student uses their Observation skills to find evidence, or analyze graphs, or use what they learned from previous quests all in their  Evidence Log.


After you’ve collected the evidence, you make an argument: and try to convince the Quest-giving NPC of whatever conclusion you’ve come to.

 AB_After3-900x505 (1)

 AB_After2-900x506 (1)


Analyzer > Food Web Quests

In these quests, you first collect animal poop, then figure out what bone, fur, etc. fragments were in the poop of carnivores using the “Tranquil-icer” on animals and taking a DNA sample. After you’ve figured out what animals were eaten, you’re able to make a food web to represent this.


We’re going to be updating this UI soon as we know it’s not our most polished, by far!

This was designed to be more open, so we’ll be able to re-use the Analyzer and Flow Chart Mechanics when we do more types of Quests — anything a model needs to be designed for!

“Item Action” and Spawning/Unique Tasks

This was just implemented recently, so we’re going to start using it in more quests! Basically, this mechanic lets people use items for quests that do various things.

For example, when you release flittermice for a quest where you’re testing to see if they pollinate plants, you now see them spawn and fly off!  We even have a quest where we used an item to let you turn into a jackrabbit for a detective quest (you get to keep the item afterwards, of course).


Specific Heredity Quest Mechanics

Now that we’re building Heredity, there are a few new mechanics we’ve been adding, like doing a Punnet Square puzzle!  There will be more information available about these soon as they go live.  

Learning Sandbox

Each of our Modules also has a learning Sandbox.  As we mentioned, as students level up through their Questing, they will unlock more in their Sandbox. It’s an important element of the game, for learning and especially re-playability.

For Ecology, this is a create-your-own ecosystem we call the H.E.L.O., or Holographic Environmental Life Observatory.  The purpose of this is to learn more about the ecosystems so that Tyto Academy may be able to better help these species. Students receive Research Points as they progress, which they use to unlock new species across the five ecosystems they can build right now.

This follows a more experimental learning model where students are learning through trial and error, and also provides opportunity for depth and self-directed problem solving.  One of the powerful elements of games is that we can recreate systems and let students explore those, manipulate variables, and see the outcomes. They can do this for a nearly infinite amount of time depending on how interesting they find it. It’s creative, learning, and a reward in many ways as the act of creation is rewarding.

We first released this as a stand-alone game called Tyto Ecology, and here’s some video responses of YouTube streamers playing it:

For Heredity, the Sandbox we are building is a Drakon Breeding!  Drakons are dragon-like creatures that the players are helping to repopulate and increase their genetic diversity… but of course, they also get to create a lot of awesome looking dragon-type pets in the process!  This is also a full set of complex systems, including dominant/recessive genes, but also codominance, incomplete dominance, mutations, environmentally unlocked aspects, and more!

Heredity Module (1)

Read more about that on the Tyto Online blog, at this link.


We have a LOT of work to do, and this is just the beginning. What you’re playing now is the Ecology and first Heredity Quests, with the Ecology Sandbox as well, but we have a lot of improvements to make. (We’ve also added a feature to clear quest progress so you can replay them with the updates as we go).

The first attempts for everything were slower, because instead of directly coding them in, we’ve been building back-end tools that are more scalable for us to add and build from. So expect things to continue to speed up in the next few months as we make improvements on our base mechanics and toolsets and get new content in even faster!

Gamification vs. Game-Based Learning

Gamification vs. Game-Based Learning

With the growth in popularity of video games among K-12 students over the last few years, many teachers have worked to incorporate gaming into their classroom. By adding something fun and relatable to the learning process, students can become more engaged and retain more knowledge. However, there has been some confusion, with people often mixing up gamification and game-based learning.

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Tyto Ecology Steam and an EDU Version Now Available!

[UPDATE: Tyto Ecology is no longer available on iPads, and is only available on PC/Mac via Steam.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough visibility on iPad to have sales to continue to support that platform.]
Due to user request, we have released two new versions of Tyto Ecology! Our first game was released in January on the iPad, and now we have come out with a version for Steam, as well as an all-inclusive EDU version for the iPad.

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Learning from: Fire Emblem Fates

Learning from: Fire Emblem Fates

I have recently been obsessed with the newest Fire Emblem game, Fire Emblem Fates. If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s essentially glorified chess; you control an army of characters and rage war with other troops. The catch is that you grow attached to the characters you control and if they die in a battle, they are dead for the rest of the game. So, being sentimental, I attempt to go through the game without having any of them die, and it pushes me to my mental limits.

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Tyto Ecology Launches for iPad on the App Store!

Tyto Ecology Launches for iPad on the App Store!

[UPDATE: Tyto Ecology is no longer available on iPads, and is only available on PC/Mac via Steam.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough visibility on iPad to have sales to continue to support that platform.]

We are excited to announce that our first game, Tyto Ecology, is now available to download on the iOS App store! We have been working hard for over a year to create this game and we’re thrilled to share it with the world. In Tyto Ecology, you are given the power to build your own ecosystem while learning about life sciences along the way. You must think critically and solve problems in order to balance a beautifully simulated biome, where your decisions determine if life succeeds or fails.

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The History of Educational Video Gaming

The History of Educational Video Gaming

If you’ve been a kid in the past thirty years, chances are you’ve played some semblance of an educational video game, whether it was required in school or you wanted to have fun at home. Since the boom of educational video games in the mid-80s, a lot has changed. With new technology comes innovation, and every year we have newer and better educational games for kids to play!

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The Growth and Healing Powers of Video Games

The Growth and Healing Powers of Video Games

Many people have preconceptions that portray video gamers as being lazy and asocial. However, they don’t seem to understand the potential healing and growth powers of video games.  In Jane McGonigal’s new book, SuperBetter, she looks exactly at these areas of potential. McGonigal suffered a brain injury a couple of years ago, and instead of wallowing in her recovery process, she made a game out of it. She tried to find “allies” to help her healing and gave herself “power-ups” when she achieved her goals, all while putting on a secret persona in order to fight her monsters and work towards self-betterment.
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