I think that two elements are key to engaging adolescents in games:
- freedom to experiment: allow the student to re-invent himself and see new approaches for solving problems.
- freedom to fashion identities:allows the student to explore his identities in other worlds
- aesthetics are important in highly visual games such as Myst
I did a study a while back of students in my Intro to Design course who used Second Life over a 3 month period, and compared to the control group they had a more content view of their “future social self” in an educational context.
I think that the experience of creating various avatars with different looks helped them explore “possible selves”, and then self-construe back to who they are now.