Multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) are a popular form of multimedia-based entertainment. However, recently attention has turned to exploring their use to support learning, and several research groups have been creating MUVEs and investigating their effectiveness. This Research in Brief provides background and examples of educational MUVEs and related game formats, discusses early research findings, and provides links to online resources where you can learn more. Although many of these programs are not available for general use, the research findings are promising, and we anticipate that they will play a part in the future of education.

Educational MUVEs

MUVEs designed for the educational community embed tasks or problems within a virtual environment or context. Users can explore the environment and examine digital objects. Typically, there is also a means to communicate with other users and online agents. Users may select an avatar to represent them in the environment, thus providing the opportunity to try out a persona in a nonthreatening environment (Dieterle & Clarke, in press) (see the topic paper on Learning with Multimedia Agents).

Educational MUVEs are designed to support inquiry-based learning and conceptual understanding. Usually there is no one “right” way to perform the task or solve the problem. Instead, several solutions are justified, although, as in real life, some solutions may be better than others. Importance is placed on the logic of students’ reasoning. Unlike MUVEs designed purely for entertainment, students using educational MUVEs often must gather information offline, and usually there is a final product that they must submit, such as a report or a video diary of their experience.

One example of an educational MUVE is the River City Project, described as “a multi-user virtual environment for learning scientific inquiry and 21st century skills” (River City Project, header). The virtual environment is a nineteenth century American town that is plagued by disease. Students work in teams to develop a hypothesis regarding the disease’s cause. They can interview citizens of River City, read relevant documents, visit the hospital, and review photographs. Agents are available to provide guidance, but the students determine the approach they will take. The focus is on learning both science concepts and inquiry. In one study of nearly 700 students, those who used River City showed greater improvement in their inquiry skills than did control students who used a paper-based curriculum. Additionally, qualitative measures indicated that they had a better understanding of the science content (Ketelhut, Dede, Clarke, & Nelson, 2006). The grade levels for the study were not specified, but River City is designed for students in grades 5 through 12. According to an exploratory study, programs such as River City might also support student development of self-efficacy (Ketelhut, 2007).

Another educational MUVE currently being evaluated is Quest Atlantis, a virtual environment for students aged 9 to 12 that immerses them in educational “quests.” The virtual scenario is that Atlantis is on the verge of disaster due to poor leadership. In order to save it, the Atlantan Council has created a series of quests for students. These involve activities such as environmental study, interviewing members of the community, studying other cultures, and developing action plans. When students complete the quest, their findings are submitted to the Council (represented by their teacher). Although the tasks are varied, Quest Atlantis has a strong focus on social commitment.

Research suggests that educational MUVEs should not solely focus on the virtual environment; support from the teacher and time for self-reflection are also important. For example, in Revolution, a virtual community in which students can experience the American Revolution, students take on the roles of seven different characters living in the community. They also participate in teacher-led discussions that encourage reflection and sharing of ideas. Such teacher guidance is an important part of the learning process when using MUVEs (Francis, 2006).

Related educational multi-user game formats

Epistemic Games

Epistemic games are a variation of the educational MUVE format. Their focus is helping students learn to think like professionals, such as engineers or journalists. Epistemic games are anchored in an apprenticeship model in which students are confronted with a real-world issue. The purpose is not necessarily to steer them toward a certain profession but rather to have them learn to think innovatively and understand the complexities of solving meaningful problems in the modern world. Although these games are not designed to train students for specific professions, they do provide an opportunity to explore a potential job. Shaffer (in press) has suggested that this might be a valuable approach to enriching transition planning for students with disabilities and students in schools where actual internships are impractical or unavailable.

An example of an epistemic game is In this game, students are journalists reporting on current scientific issues in a weekly online science newspaper. While they are learning about science, they are also learning to apply the many skills of a professional journalist such as conducting an interview, organizing information for reporting, and copyediting. Students participating in also work with actual journalists as they develop their stories. In two studies with a total of 24 middle school students, evaluation of student work over time demonstrated development of skills and knowledge, as well as journalistic values (Shaffer, 2006a, 2006b, in press).

Augmented reality simulations

As handheld technology becomes more prevalent, simulations are being created that combine the real-world environment with information supplied by devices such as cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs). So-called augmented reality simulations and games integrate a fictional story into the real-world environment. Students gather information from the actual environment and through digital devices.

An example of an augmented reality simulation is Environmental Detectives, an outdoor game in which players try to uncover the source of a toxic spill. Working in teams and using handheld devices with Global Positioning Systems (GPS), they interview virtual characters, conduct simulated environmental measurements, and analyze data. The game is time-limited, requiring students to make choices about the information they gather. While most of the early research on Environmental Detectives has used college students, high school students have also successfully participated (Klopfer, Squire, & Jenkins, 2002).

Research support

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Research on educational MUVEs is for the most part in the early stages, focusing on proof of concept and utility of various design elements. However, a few research findings are noteworthy.

As with most educational computer-based games, MUVEs are more effective in supporting learning when embedded in ongoing instruction. Teacher facilitation is critical. When teachers help their students reflect on their work as a part of the game, the students demonstrate better conceptual understanding of the content and provide richer explanations for their conclusions (Squire, Barnett, Grant, & Higginbotham, 2004).

In many MUVEs, each team member has a different role and consequently has access to only a portion of the necessary information. This format encourages collaboration and development of social interaction skills. Students readily take on different roles and report that they enjoy the opportunity (Squire & Jan, 2007).

Students are often initially uncomfortable with the idea that there is no one correct solution. Younger students, in particular, try to find the one “right answer” and may have trouble with the ambiguity of the task (Klopfer et al., 2002). Yet, this is a critical component of MUVEs.

Students may perform better when the educational MUVE is not presented to them as a game. Studies have shown that when presented as a game, students feel MUVEs are too difficult. In contrast, when presented as a part of the curriculum, over time students begin to view the MUVE as a game and are more positive about engaging with it (Barab, Thomas, Dodge, Carteaux, & Tuzun, 2005; Lim, Nonis, & Hedberg, 2006).

Some researchers have found that educational MUVEs work well as components of after school programs. Because of their more open-ended format and the concentrated amount of time that they require, they may be hard to reconcile with the traditional classroom structure (Shaffer, 2006b, in press).

Online resources

River City Project

River CitySupported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the River City Project is an interactive MUVE for middle school science students. Teachers can contact the research team if they are interested in participating.

Quest Atlantis

Quest AtlantisQuest Atlantis is a MUVE for students aged 9 to 12 years that provides a variety of different quests or tasks for students. Teachers who wish to participate can complete an application form available on the Web site.

The Education Arcade

Education ArcadeThe Education Arcade is developing and researching several online multiuser games, including Revolution. The Web site includes an online community with current information on the various games. It is associated with the MIT Handheld Augmented Reality Simulations project (see below).

Epistemic Games: Building the Future of Education

Epistemic GamesThis weblog includes information and resources related to epistemic games, including

MIT Handheld Augmented Reality Simulations

MIT Reality SimulationsMIT’s Teacher Education Program, along with The Education Arcade (see above) are developing a collection of Augmented Reality Simulations using handheld technologies.


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.

Dieterle, E., & Clarke, J. (in press). Multi-user virtual environments for teaching and learning. In M. Pagani (Ed.), Encyclopedia of multimedia technology and networking (2nd ed). Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

Francis, R. (2006). Towards a theory of a games based pedagogy. Paper presented at the JISC Innovating e-Learning 2006, online.

Ketelhut, D. J. (2007). The impact of student self-efficacy on scientific inquiry skills: An exploratory investigation of River City, a multi-user virtual environment. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 16(1), 99-111.

Ketelhut, D. J., Dede, C., Clarke, J., & Nelson, B. (2006). A multi-user virtual environment for building higher order inquiery skills in science. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA.

Klopfer, E., Squire, K., & Jenkins, H. (2002). Environmental Detectives: PDAs as a Window into a Virtual Simulated World. Paper presented at the International Workshop on Wireless and Mobile Technologies in Education.

Lim, C. P., Nonis, D., & Hedberg, J. (2006). Gaming in a 3D multiuser virtual environment: Engaging students in Science lessons. British Journal of Educational Technology, 37(2), 211-231.

River City Project. Retrieved May 14, 2007, from

Shaffer, D. W. (2006a). Epistemic Frames for Epistemic Games. Computers and Education, 46(3), 223.

Shaffer, D. W. (2006b). How Computer Games Help Children Learn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Shaffer, D. W. (in press). The potential of epistemic games as career preparatory experiences for students with disabilities. Journal of Special Education Technology.

Squire, K., Barnett, M., Grant, J. M., & Higginbotham, T. (2004). Electromagnetism Supercharged! Learning physics with digital simulation games. Paper presented at the Sixth International Conference of Learning Sciences, Santa Monica, CA.

Squire, K., & Jan, M. (2007). Mad City Mystery: Developing scientific argumentation skills with a place-based augmented reality game on handheld computers. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 16(1), 5-29.

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