This Work-in-Progress Research paper focuses on digital game-based learning (DGBL), which refers to the use of a virtual environment to support students' learning. In this exploratory study, we examine how students engage with GeoExplorer, a digital game-based learning environment that simulates Cone-Penetration Testing (CPT), an on-site test used in geotechnical engineering to investigate soil properties that students typically don't have access to. In GeoExplorer's CPT activity, students participate in a virtual internship in which they examine several sites with varied types of soil. This paper investigates DGBL environments by leveraging Self-Determination Theory (SDT) to ask the following research questions: (1) How do "freedom"and autonomy within GeoExplorer encourage students' new emergent learning strategies? and (2) How do emergent learning strategies in GeoExplorer support students' confidence as they self-guide their learning? Ten open-ended semi-structured interviews were performed with civil engineering students from three U.S.-based institutions. The data are analyzed using narrative analysis and a grounded theory approach. Our preliminary findings indicate that, while GeoExplorer is intended as a complement to in-person learning, it serves both as a complement and supplement to the online learning that helps to engage students during the pandemic. Students share that a felt sense of "freedom"within GeoExplorer encourages them to engage in different emergent learning strategies, such as repetition and trial and error. Students also describe that these emergent learning strategies promote knowledge retention and understanding, and further support their confidence in performing CPT. Our preliminary findings provide opportunities for students to practice autonomy and develop competency - two out of three basic psychological needs in SDT - in their educational processes.