Crystal Island is a game-based learning environment for middle grade science and literacy. In the game, students play the role of a medical field detective investigating a mysterious infectious disease outbreak affecting a team of scientists on a remote island.


Crystal Island provides a motivating and engaging context for students to develop deeper understandings about scientific knowledge. Science content within the game aligns with the North Carolina Standard Course of Study Essential Standards for Eighth-Grade Microbiology. Game activities emphasize the nature and practice of scientific inquiry as called for by the Next Generation Science Standards and also align with standards from the North Carolina Common Core for English Language Arts. This curricular alignment allows students to use both deep learning skills and literacy skills to understand the symptoms, carriers and trends of the outbreak and solve the science mystery.

While exploring the island research camp from an immersive first-person viewpoint, students utilize critical thinking skills to solve problems about the source and impact of the outbreak, test hypotheses using virtual laboratory equipment, and complete a diagnosis worksheet to record their findings. Throughout the game, students also discover another scientist’s research notes and extend these to evaluate the spreading disease before it’s too late.  Literacy skills including synthesizing and applying knowledge from reading complex informational text are also required to piece together clues provided by virtual characters and integrate information from complex informational texts about microbiology concepts.

Over 4,000 students from North Carolina schools have used Crystal Island. Now in its fifth major iteration, Crystal Island is designed to supplement classroom instruction, and it blends elements of inquiry learning and direct instruction. The game’s narrative provides a meaningful context for science problem solving, as well as reading complex informational texts. After students solve the mystery, they earn trophies by completing additional reading-related challenges in the game to build mastery.

Beyond an instructional resource, Crystal Island is also a test bed for research on intelligent tutoring systems. The game provides a platform for conducting empirical studies of game-based learning environments’ impacts on student learning outcomes and engagement in science and reading. Research results involving Crystal Island have been disseminated in more than 40 publications in peer-reviewed journals, conferences and workshops.

Teacher Feedback:

“I think it is AMAZING! The things you guys have done with the program are incredible.”

“Students really enjoyed solving the mystery.”

“It was very, very interesting…I’m totally pumped at this point!”


Crystal Island has been recognized by schools and serious game experts for its innovative approach to engaging, inquiry-based learning. Crystal Island was a Finalist for Best Serious Game at the 2012 UNITE Conference, the annual developers conference for the award-winning Unity game platform. Crystal Island was also nominated as a Finalist for Best Serious Game at the 2012 I/ITSEC Serious Games Showcase and Challenge, a premiere venue for recognition of excellence in serious game development.


Comments are closed