“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.
In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are,
what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Maya Angelou

On Thursday night I asked permission of a parent to hug her daughter so we could cry together. This is not something I have even done or needed to do before but this was a unique moment that warranted such closeness, and all because of  Quest Atlantis – a game-based virtual world for young people.

The occasion was our school’s 127th annual Speech Night which, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is an occasion to formally acknowledge the successes of our students and ceremoniously release our senior students into the world. It is also the occasion for lots of talking and lots of listening and lots of sitting down trying not to be restless.

Afterwards, warmed by the powerful life lessons of the Indigenous guest speaker (amongst which was the perennial but valid message of ‘Being yourself because everyone else is taken’), an ex-student of mine nervously approached with tears in her eyes.

But before I share the moment in more depth, some back story is required. In 2008 a young girl (let’s call her Jane) came from rural NSW to live in the bustle of Sydney due to a shocking family tragedy. I was to be her teacher during the transition from country to city life and, with other professionals on hand, help Jane begin to start again. It was not, shall we say, an easy experience for any of us. Grief can tear an individual apart, but at the same time it can forge deep connections between people when it is acknowledged, met and shared. Having recently lost my father and  feeling bound by my own  destabilising grief, I had a willing ear and buckets of empathy to offer both Jane and her mother.

Now, in 2012, Jane is a young woman who has done more than just ‘start again’. In our teary meeting she expressed gratitude for the care I shown when she was at her most vulnerable. More than this, she wanted to say how much Quest Atlantis changed her life. On a mundane level, it taught her how to use her laptop – to create, store and share files which has since served her well in our one-to-one laptop school. Quest Atlantis gave her an opportunity to go beyond the confines of her painful experiences by putting her into the service of others trying to solve big ecological problems. She fondly recalls the Taiga missions that stretched her enormously and opened her up to wider, global concerns giving her fresh perspectives on the universality of loss.

But mostly, Quest Atlantis taught her to persevere, to keep trying to make an effort when it seemed all too hard. She admitted to ‘hating it some days’  and even hating me when Quest revisions were requested by Lan (the Council member who was supervising the missions at the time). Despite this Jane revisited her submissions multiple times, knowing that the people in Taiga (real or not) were relying on her. Her work mattered. Her ideas mattered. Her efforts mattered. She mattered. And she was having an impact. Whilst there were some aspects of her life that were beyond her control, here was a safe place where she could exhibit agency, experiment and make change.

Furthermore, she felt Quest Atlantis shaped her character; giving her the opportunity to develop the determination and will to see things to their conclusion which carried her through Middle School into the Senior years. It was, in her words, “the highlight of my time at school.” As you might imagine, it was then that I asked for permission to hug.

For some months now I have been reconsidering my commitment to the use of Quest Atlantis (Atlantis Remixed as it as now been re-branded) in my classes, citing falling student interest, technical issues with the ‘new-improved’ Unity version but mostly what I perceived as a compromised philosophy. Back when Jane was playing, students had freedom to explore and express a fledgling but urgent student activism in a variety of contexts. The overall design may have been rough but the learning was rich, deep and in the student’s hands. I struggle to see that pioneering spirit in the early ‘drafts’ of Atlantis Remixed.

But when I think of Jane’s journey from the country to city, from loss to gain, from fragility to strength and reflect on the role a computer game had in charting the course, I regain my faith in the overall concept. Perhaps I too could learn the lesson of perseverance, to keep on trying despite setbacks and reconnect to the vision of transformation play that lies at the heart of Quest Atlantis? Perhaps I and other early adopters of QA could share the stories of our students whose lives were shaped by the vision expressed so powerfully in those early years? Perhaps we could discover our own agency as this young woman did when she saw the world with more darkened eyes?

So after we hugged, I reminded her of her tenacity, courage and luminous heart and we each walked off to our respective journey.