“Reading,” a word that brings to mind books, school and beloved series, fosters literacy skills and opens a doorway for an individual to get lost in a story. Books are a common choice for story immersion and learning, but what about the choice of a video game?

The Crystal Island project, which was designed by the NC State University Center for Educational Informatics and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), serves as a platform for conducting research on game-based learning and games as a supplement to classroom instruction. 

NC State’s department of computer science, education and the College of Design worked together to develop the Crystal Island project, which investigates the impact of intelligent game-based learning environments on problem solving, engagement and STEM learning. NC State graduate students help conduct research, and teachers and students who would be using the game also provide feedback on how to design the game.

In the game “Crystal Island: Lost Investigation,” students play as a medical field detective investigating a disease outbreak on a remote island. The player explores the island in first-person view and interacts with other characters, objects, informational texts and more regarding the disease outbreak. 

Crystal Island’s science content aligns with the North Carolina Standard Course of Study Essential Standards for Eighth-Grade Microbiology, and the game activities emphasize the nature and practice of scientific inquiry, according to the website for the Center for Educational Informatics. 

“I collaborate with James Lester on game-based learning, and we’ve had about over $4 million of funding to create games and study the process of game-based learning on student learning outcomes,” said Hiller Spires, a co-principal investigator on a research aspect of the project and professor of literacy and technology at NC State.

According to Spires, recently, the game was geared toward fifth graders in science classes, and the game was designed using input on features from teachers and students. 

“Then we conducted research to see if it affected their content learning and also their problem solving capacities,” Hiller said. “We did some case studies on some of the students, and we looked at low-level readers and high-level readers, and we found that both the low-level readers and high-level readers were able to make games in terms of science content.”

Research data from the game is collected from the save game data stored in the cloud and the online test after the game. Teachers who want to use Crystal Island in the classroom must confirm that the computers can run the game and create a group course. Teachers then move on to the lesson planning associated with the game, which is listed as a four-week curriculum schedule.

“We created our own tests and standardized them — so we created reliability building it with the test items,” Hiller said. “So we were able to test them on the content. It was all online, so after they played the game and they took the test.” 

Currently, North Carolina is the only state using Crystal Island in its classrooms, and according to the Center for Educational Informatics website, the game has been used by more than 4,000 North Carolina students. Research results found from using Crystal Island have appeared in more than 40 publications, and the game was a finalist for Best Serious Game at the 2012 Unite Conference, the annual developer conference for the Unity game platform.

While having a good read is a common way to increase reading comprehension and learning, games may play a growing role not only outside the classroom but also within the classroom as a tool to supplement students’ academics. 

“We are excited about the enormous potential offered by game-based learning environments and are delighted to see the impact that Crystal Island is having on students,” said Lester, the director of the Center for Educational Informatics and principal investigator for the project.