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10 Features of VR Games That Could Improve Educational VR Design

As an educator focused on the implementation of virtual reality (VR) in the classroom, most of my VR app downloads over the last four years have been educational ones. That’s not to say that I don’t ever download videogames (as if I wasn’t going to hammer Beat Saber along with everyone else) but on the whole, the amount of non-educational content I purchase is limited. Last year though, with the launch of Viveport Infinity, I found myself in a position where I could download hundreds of titles with complete freedom. Whilst I continued to grab educational content, I also started grabbing a lot more videogames.

Obviously many of the most accomplished developers produce experiences exclusively since videogames tend to attract a wider audience. I’ve had the opportunity to try some truly stunning VR title but it’s always hard for me to remove my teacher’s hat. As such, I found that as I played, I kept noticing elements of various games that I thought had great potential to enrich educational VR experiences. So I thought why not pull out some of these features that I was seeing in VR games and explain why I think they could be applied effectively to educational experiences. Who knows – maybe I’ll help spark an idea for the next great educational VR app?

Game: Beat Saber

Feature: Shallow learning curve

There’s a lot to love about Beat Saber but one thing that I think makes it so powerful (and so successful) is the fact that anyone can pick it up and get the hang of it within a couple of minutes. So many educational experiences have overly complex UI or a lengthy tutorial-style opening section. Being able to have students engage with a new VR experience without a lot of input or support is very useful and reduces the impact on learning time.

Game: Waltz of the Wizard

Feature: Fully interactive environments

The sense of freedom to interact with absolutely anything you can get your hands on in Waltz of the Wizard is wonderfully engaging. I find that many edu apps limit this type of freedom to explore a space and instead prefer to deliver a linear experience where you are directed from one point of interaction to another. More freedom, more interactive content and more Easter eggs would not only add to the sense of presence but also encourages exploration within the educational space. This type of approach is what helps foster a love of learning.

Game: Acron: Attack of the Squirrels

Feature: Parallel access on mobile devices

I recognise the fact that some multi-user apps like Rec Room allow access from mobile devices but Acron: Attack of the Squirrels offers something more unique in the way that the mobile users take on a complementary role within the experience. One of the real issues for schools in terms of VR adoption is still price and therefore schools tend to have access to a limited number of headsets. I’ve shared numerous ideas in the past for handling this issue so that students are not waiting for turns but the use of parallel access on mobile devices seen in Acron: Attack of the Squirrels would be a real plus here. By allowing students with mobile devices to interact and engage with another student using a VR headset, a larger group can be involved in an experience despite limited amounts of hardware. Massive potential here folks.

Game: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

Feature: Parallel access for analogue players

In a similar way to Acron: Attack of the Squirrels, the way Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes makes a single VR user collaborate with non-VR teammates (with the bomb-defusing instructions) is something that could really benefit schools with limited hardware. Transpose this exact videogame to a chemistry experiment scenario and it would make a great opportunity to develop practical science skills as well as valuable soft skills like communication and collaboration. What about having an experience wherein the analogue players have a physical map of a virtual world which they need to use geographical knowledge to interpret and guide the VR player? Lots of potential here…

Game: Summer Funland

Feature: Curated activities

When I first downloaded Summer Funland for my daughter, I didn’t expect much and I definitely wasn’t prepared for the wealth of experiences built into this one app. From carnival games to rollercoasters to puzzle-filled mazes and even Batmobile rides – it really does give the sense of being at a huge virtual theme park. There is just so much here in the same space  – and this is something I wish we saw more within the VR education space where often an app includes a short activity and little more. Or multiple experiences are split into separate apps to force multiple downloads/payments. I do appreciate that in some cases this may be to keep file sizes lower but multiple experiences could still be housed within one core hub and then users cache experiences that they engage with.

Game: Rec Room

Feature: Junior accounts

The addition of junior accounts in Rec Room was a brilliant move. Limiting youngsters’ access to communicate within this social VR platform may seem somewhat detrimental to the experience as a whole but by prioritising child protection and digital safety, Rec Room definitely earned a gold star in my book. The junior accounts feature could be applied to educational experiences in a range of ways. I’ve had to shelve plans to use platforms like Within and some historical apps with younger learners due to some more mature content  Having the ability to switch to a junior mode would allow apps to reach a broader range of students but ensure that the content is age-appropriate.

Game: Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality

Feature: A sense of humour!

Learning should be fun. So many educational experiences are deadly serious and lack a sense of humour. Being able to make students laugh a little will make them enjoy the experience even more. Whilst I’m obviously not advocating for that special blend of risqué Roiland/Harmon humour found in Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality, Accounting or Trover Saves the Universe, in content aimed at children but there’s definitely scope for more fun and whimsy in educational VR. It wouldn’t always be appropriate (e.g. within a historical experience it may not be suitable) but there are definitely some educational experiences which would have benefited from a less-serious tone.

Game: Quanero

Feature: Time manipulation

I was tempted to put Superhot here to be honest but this lesser-known title from a couple of years back is still my favourite example of time manipulation within VR. The player can slow down time, reverse it or stop it completely to allow them to explore scenes as they try to solve a crime. Imagine this same mechanic applied to a chemistry experience, allowing students to view a reaction from multiple angles, or a history experience, walking through key events and finding additional details. I’d love to see more dynamic time controls in educational VR. The best I can think of right now is the ability to make spatial recordings in Engage – which can then be replayed, paused, scrubbed and walked through as if you were there. It’s definitely something you need to try if you haven’t already.

Game: The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners

Feature: Freedom of Choice

The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is awesome for a lot of reasons but its clever use of choice and consequences make it unique to each player and very rewarding. This is another feature I’d love to see integrated into educational experiences more often, as a part of a shift away from the linear, follow-the-path experiences. One of the real benefits of VR in education is that it can remove the fear of failure since things can be rest and retried multiple times. Bringing in more choice and branching narrative type mechanics could really supplement this and help forge deeper learning opportunities.

Game: Half-Life: Alyx

Feature: Engaging narrative

It would be remiss of me not to include the recent smash hit that is Half-Life: Alyx and whilst there is so much to love about this AAA title, for me, it is the powerful narrative that makes it so impressive and engaging. It’s by no means the only VR videogame that boasts a great narrative, with Torn, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners and A Fisherman’s Tale being other good examples. Wrapping a learning experience in an interesting, well-structured narrative is a great way to immerse learners in the content more deeply. Just look at how Operation Apex blends learning about marine biology and conservation with a hunt for a giant shark. The story draws you in and makes the learning both more authentic and more subtle.