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Connecting Dots


Description of the Learning Experience

Educational Problems Addressed

Design Methods

Overview of Project

This project was created for Professor Dede's

T545 Motivation and Learning: Technologies That Invite and Immerse

Harvard Graduate School of Education


This project is for Assignment B: Designing a Learning Experience Sophisticated in its Use of Various Motivational Dimensions



I designed a Virtual Educational Escape Room where users must solve puzzles and complete tasks to successfully finish the game. The overall architecture and framework is based on principles of motivation we learned in Professor Dede's T545: Motivation and Learning: Technologies That Invite and Immerse.

Physical escape rooms allow players to move around in space and solve puzzles, often not in sequential order. This flexibility gives players the ability to split up and work on different parts of a room, especially if a player gets stuck on a specific puzzle. This is challenging to replicate in a virtual environment, as in the case of my game. Using new and emerging technologies such as AR/VR is an option to fully recreate this benefit in the virtual world, but these technologies also introduce additional considerations and challenges that must be addressed. 

My virtual escape room game is based on personal experiences as well as my love for creating and solving puzzles. The underlying framework of the game provides many opportunities to apply motivational dimensions and assess various player behaviors, some of which are difficult to assess in a traditional classroom environment. The overall theme of these rooms centers around mathematics. Puzzles and tasks are solved using math concepts that are applied to real-world situations. Players must understand how to use the math concepts to solve the questions to progress through the game.

Participants are immersed in a specific themed room. There are a variety of standard themes, but educators can also create their own. The idea is that educators can use prefabricated templates to design their own rooms. This can become a valuable upskilling opportunity for educators. Participants either self-select their theme, or the educator may require them to select a specific theme by disabling the other available rooms.

Each theme comes with its own unique storyline. These storylines help immerse the players in a situated learning environment. Players must read through scenarios and answer puzzles and questions to make progress in the game. The game is timed and the number of puzzles corresponds to this allotted time. This element creates a sense of urgency and pressure for players, but it also provides a measurable data point for competitive play. The answers to the puzzles are typically hidden within the content displayed on the screen. The players would not need any additional information beyond what's provided besides an understanding of the math concepts being assessed. A limitation to this prototype version of the game is that puzzles must be completed sequentially. If a player is stuck on a puzzle, they cannot move forward. As a future option, I would design in the ability to jump around puzzles as long as the information from one puzzle is not required to solve a future puzzle.

My target player base is for children between the ages of 7-12 years old or 1st to 5th grade. Specifically, my prototype was designed for children around the ages of 7-9 years old or 1st to 3rd grade. There are 10 questions in this prototype that increase in difficulty. This is to reflect the game feature where questions dynamically change in difficulty based on previous responses (difficulty + time to complete). If the player solves the puzzle under the benchmark time, the next puzzle increases in difficulty. If the player solves the puzzle over the benchmark time, then the next puzzle decreases in difficulty. Each puzzle is given a difficulty score as well as qualitative descriptions that educators can use to assess their students. For example, a puzzle may be tagged as Medium difficulty and related to fractions (e.g. Medium, #Fractions, #Addition).

Once the player solves all the puzzles, the timer stops. If there is time remaining, then the total elapsed time is recorded as the final score. The faster a player completes a game, the better the score. If the timer runs out before the player finishes the game, the game ends. Only successfully solved puzzles are recorded as part of the assessment. Since each puzzle is timed, the educator has the data on how long each player took to solve each puzzle. For example, it may take a player 3:16 to solve Puzzle #3, but only 2:55 to solve Puzzle #6. This data would shed light on which questions students struggled with during the assessment. These insights are more difficult to track using non-digital assessments such as paper exams but can offer tremendous value to individual learning needs. As an example, a student may finish the assessment on time, but spent most of their time on questions relating to geometry. An educator would use this information to provide the student with more learning resources on that specific subject.

My prototype was inspired by my daughter, Sophie, who is 7 years old and is in the first grade. She was an avid tester in many user studies during the creation of the game. The theme of the prototype is cooking. She wants to be a chef when she grows up and many of the foods listed here are some of her favorites. The dishes are also inspired by her ethnicity (Chinese and Vietnamese) and places she has traveled. Having her as the main inspiration for this game added a deeper motivational element for me - a trait that I hope educators would also discover. Since the game was inspired by her, she was highly motivated to play it and was engaged in the content throughout the game. This connection really shows the power of motivation at work, which is described in detail throughout the next few sections.


This section is important to read prior to playing the game. It outlines all the limitations of the prototype and how some elements are not reflective of the intended design. Throughout the game, you'll run into these limitations, and they may cause adverse effects such as creating a poor user experience in some cases. I decided not to include notes of these limitations in the gameplay and prefer to include them here instead as not to introdue more biases during user testing.


Known Limitations of the Prototype

  • The game was designed as a website with pages. This is not ideal, but it does work designed this way. Since it is technically a website, players could bounce between pages which cannot be done if it was developed correctly.

  • I only designed one game for this prototype: Secret Recipe. Choosing different settings and themes from the Settings page has no effect on the game. They are used as placeholders for future considerations.

  • Answer submissions are website page passwords. These passwords are case-sensitive, which is not ideal in a real escape room. There should be multiple formats of the same answer allowed. This would be fixed if the game was developed separately.

  • Sometimes it can be tricky to escape the password-protected page if an incorrect response is recorded. Please avoid using the browser "back" buttons since this may cause some issues with gameplay.

  • The timer shown on the screen is a placeholder. I was not able to find a timer plugin that reset for each game. Note that I could have spent more for a custom timer that would be more realistic, but I felt it was unnecessary for this prototype.

  • The questions should be designed to be dynamic; however, for the purpose of this prototype, they are static.

  • The Hints work but are not recorded. In the developed game, players would know how many hints they have used throughout the game, and after clicking on a hint, it would count towards their allotted amount.

  • Most buttons have been tested, but there may still be some bugs in the prototype, especially in unique use cases that were not quality tested. Please excuse any of these bugs if they arise during gameplay.


This game relates closely with Seyedahmad Rahimi's Stealth Assessment work. Assessments, particularly Math, may not be the most accurate indicator of a student's success. There are many arguments that suggest formal, traditional assessments should not be used independently and that the results should be carefully interpreted (Freeman et al., 1983). An educator could use this game as a form of Stealth Assessment to gain additional insights into a student's learning profile, especially on traits that are difficult to observe in a classroom, such as team collaboration, real-world simulations, and social-emotional learning.


This alternative method could provide a clearer understanding of what students learn and how they apply those learnings to real-world contexts and situations. Dr. Rahimi uses a game to secretly assess students' competency in specific physics areas, such as Newton's laws of motion (Rahimi, 2021). Stealth assessments offer a window to a learner's ability to tackle real problems under pressure, including their behavioral actions, which may go unnoticed in a classroom. This virtual educational escape room would extend that concept, allowing students to engage in situated learning environments, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, and doing these assessments without directly telling them.


There are a few important reasons why I selected Math-Themed Escape Rooms for this project. First, I felt that Math concepts were easy to incorporate into this type of immersive game. Math, especially at the 1st to 5th-grade level, is important in establishing a robust foundation for future concepts to be built upon. Having a firm understanding of these concepts early will be an important indicator of future math success. Second, the concepts are commonly applied to many real-world problems and situations. Basic addition and substraction are fundamental and ubiquitous in everyday life. Other concepts such as geometry are also important but situationally dependent. An escape room would exploit those instances that are more difficult to demonstrate in structured classrooms, helping students bridge the gap between the classroom and real-world applications. For example, finding the angle between objects in the room, calculating the area of a defined space, or even placing certain shaped objects into a container correctly. These real-world applications would enhance players' learning experience.

Next, disciplines like Math can be challenging for learners to learn in a structured classroom setting. Some learners prefer to learn concepts if they are applied to situations that are relevant and reflective in their own lives. Immersive games offer another learning option and medium for these students. For instance, some learners do not learn well using traditional tools like textbooks, so an alternative learning option like escape rooms could offer another approach for these types of students (e.g. students who are considered visual learners based on visual assessments and screenings). Since the escape room can be customized and personalized for each individual, it could address the specific learning needs of those individuals.

Additionally, escape rooms can be themed to help students engage with the content better. This relevancy is a benefit of escape rooms over other games that have themes that are more difficult to change. This flexibility also helps with accessibility. For students with either physical or learning dis/abilities, games can be adjusted appropriately, providing the right level of support (e.g. speech recognition tools, visual aids, auditory feedback, screen readers, etc.).


Finally, the interactions that happen in a virtual escape room can all be recorded and analyzed with other information. For example, escape rooms may capture intangibles like social interactions with other players, reactions to specific topics or themes, a player's process to solve a puzzle (presence of a problem-solving process), and emotions based on the difficulty of the puzzles. Data points taken from a virtual environment like eye-tracking can be used to gain deeper and richer learning insights. For example, if a student struggles with a puzzle, the educator can pinpoint the exact area they struggle with, whether it's missing a clue, doing the math wrong, or lack understanding (a method that the learner has not yet learned). Additional data includes time, reading comprehension via recordings, biometrics like heart rate, or body language and posture. This data can be combined with other information to give a better picture of the student's learning profile.


As a designer, it was easy to apply a user-centered design framework to the process. I first set out to collect front-end research. This was important because I wanted to be sure I tackled an educational issue with a personal connection to me. I had many interactions with my daughters and my nieces during this step. I learned about what topics they were learning at school, issues or concerns they had with learning, and how they were tested. From this data, it was easy to select Math as the main area to improve because it was not consistently taught from one school to another, let alone from one teacher to another teacher. I focused on early elementary since my daughter is in 1st grade, and she was an easy participant to interact with throughout the design process.

Second, I reviewed what theoretical and empirical frameworks from class I was going to use to address these issues. I settled on Self-Determination Theory, Flow Theory, and Zone of Proximal Development Theory with splashes of other concepts as built-in features. I used Seyedahmad Rahimi's Stealth Assessment work as inspiration. Details of these frameworks are described in the following section: Game Design.

Next, I sketched out a few ideas and quickly put together a workflow model. The workflow helped me lock in what concepts I wanted to address, what areas could be personalized by an educator, how players moved from one clue to another clue, and how to build in important features such as scaffolding via hints. I conducted these workflow sketches in Miro.


The Game Architecture involves a series of parallel rooms that can be played simultaneously.

Built-in flexibility and customization allow educators to design their own rooms and their own questions. They can also balance the teams appropriately based on demographics or skills for a more equal distribution.

Other adjustable features include the number of questions, duration of the room, and dynamics of question difficulties (educators can build question banks as datasets).

Then, I started to write out some ideas for the themed rooms. I wanted to ensure the themes were relevant to the students and that they at least would be excited about one of them. This was difficult since you could build many options to select from in hopes of finding a relevant theme for each student; however, I realized if I kept adding themes, I would be breaking Hick's Law, so I settled with just four themes to start (The Psychology of Design, 2022). To select the themes, I sent out a short survey to 14 kids with age ranges of 5-12.

From here, I used Wix to design the game and pages. I realized that the password protection feature would be an excellent method to record responses, while pages could be used as individual clues. After a few low-fidelity mockups, I tested them with a few participants. During the first few sessions, the players found the content too long and the questions somewhat too difficult. This was such an important insight because I had gauged elementary math wrong. Since I am not an educator, I did not understand that even though the process to get to the answer involved basic Math like addition, the reason behind the process was not yet covered (e.g. adding a number multiple times instead of multiplying the numbers). This information helped me with my first iteration.


(Low Fidelity Wireframes were created to tease out layouts, flow, user experience, and navigation)

Next, I started to build out some of the features and collected images I would need to use in the clues. I worked closely with my daughter on constructing the appropriate materials for the clues (e.g. dishes, names, images, etc.). This part was the most creative since we wanted to include many different types of dishes, but filtered them down to include a diverse set of options. We ran these lists across family and friends for general formative feedback.

Finally, it was time to design the prototype so I could test it. This was the longest part of the project since there were many elements to consider and many assets to prepare. Designing a website game was not an easy task, considering the various steps and logic involved. After a rough prototype was built, I tested it with 6 different users with 4 of them being in the target age group. The testing was done via Zoom. I shared the website link with them and asked them to share their screen while they played. As noted earlier, the timer did not work, so I kept time separately. However, time was not a factor I used in my analysis since there were so many limitations with the prototype. Most of the critical feedback was qualitative in the form of formative, subjective comments. I cover the results in the last section of Game Design.

After the user testing, I iterated the game once more before submitting it.

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The Game Design section covers the Theoretical and Empirical Frameworks that were used in this game as well as several research findings and claims made by advocates. It also covers the strengths and limits of this type of experience found in the literature reviews.

The Game Process section provides detailed informaion about the design process I used to create my game, including user research studies, design decisions, and iterations.

The Overall Assessment section provides my personal strengths and limitations of the game in regards to motivation and learning and ends with thoughts on how to improve the game in future interations.

References include a list of research references I used as well as the solution for each of the puzzles found in the game. If you run into any issues regarding the password-protected web pages of the game, please refer to these answers.

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