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Sept. 1, 2021

A Deep Dive into Virtual Reality, Games, and Learning

A Deep Dive into Virtual Reality, Games, and Learning

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A Deep Dive into Virtual Reality, Games, and Learning

Hey everyone, we’re back again with our deep dive series! This week we will be exploring what helps us learn things better, the difference between gamification and game-based learning, and what the future of using virtual reality (VR) for learning might look like.  

What Helps Us Learn?

When we think about how we learn best, many of us immediately think about learning styles. We usually have heard of at least the four main learning styles: visual/spatial, aural/auditory, physical/kinesthetic, and verbal/linguistic. Other learning styles include logical/mathematical, social/interpersonal, and solitary/intrapersonal. 

Despite its popularity, this theory of learning styles is highly debated and often criticized. Still, exploring learning styles and how each appeals to us can help us discover new techniques you can use to learn new information. The prevailing view now is that which learning style is best is dependent on the information we want to learn rather than how we think we would prefer to learn it. 

There are many other methods we can use to help us take in, process, and retain information. We can endeavor to decrease distractions, improve our focus, and study on a schedule. Both regular exercise and meditation can improve our memory recall. Getting enough high quality sleep helps optimize our memory consolidation, a key part of the knowledge acquisition and retention process. 

Learning information through a variety of modalities (e.g. listening to a podcast, reading articles, and talking about a particular topic) puts that knowledge in more places in our memory bank, giving us more opportunities to pull that information out. Connecting new information with our existing knowledge, particularly with something very personal to us, strengthens the neural pathways we build for it in our minds, helping the new to merge with the old so we are better at retrieving it. 

Common advice for teachers is that students learn better when they are excited about a topic, when students experience something pleasant associated with learning, and when students are actively involved in the learning process. Teachers are also encouraged to present information in exciting and novel ways, helping students discover how the topic is relevant to them, and guiding student expectations of how successful they will be with the new material.  

A 2014 study found that experiencing fun and enjoyment in adult learning programs was a motivator to attend classes and learn, encouraged greater concentration during classes and helped with absorption of the material, and fostered a socially connected learning environment. The researchers theorized that incorporating more fun into adult learning experiences and methods would result in more adults being motivated to participate in learning, enthusiastic about learning acquisition, and optimistic about learning outcomes. 

Gamification and Game-based Learning

Image source: Alexander Kovalev | Pexels

Despite sounding like the same thing, gamification and game-based learning (GBL) are distinct from each other. Gamification is when game design elements, such as game mechanics and strategy, are used in non-game activities to motivate participants. GBL (sometimes referred to as serious games) is when games are built around education or training and practice, with the goal to reach specific learning objectives, without necessarily being entertaining. Recent research has suggested that massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), such as World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV, could also be powerful tools to encourage and motivate learners in a variety of subjects. 

Let’s dive a little deeper into gamification and GBL!

The Origins of Gamification 

Gamification is one of the hot buzzwords of the decade since its major rise in popularity in 2010, but it had been around long before the 2000s. One of the first uses of gamification was in 1896 by the Sperry and Hutchinson Co. Customers could purchase goods through the company’s catalogue, but only by using special S&H Green Stamps. These stamps could only be obtained by shopping at retailers who participated in the stamp program. The more money spent at the retailer, the more S&H Green Stamps they received. When they had enough stamps for the goods they wanted from the Sperry and Hutchinson Co., they would send them in to be redeemed. 

Another early form of gamification was the implementation of the badge system for the Boy Scouts of America in 1908. As scouts gain experience in different areas, they earn badges as physical symbols of their mastery of knowledge areas. The more badges earned by a scout, the more accomplished they are. In this way, badges act as a motivational tool to encourage scouts to learn and expand their knowledge base. 

Charles Coonradt’s book The Game of Work was released in 1973. His book made the case that adding elements of games, such as constant obvious feedback and quantified progress towards a goal, would help to motivate employees and keep them engaged with their work. The Game of Work was one of the first formal arguments to support why game-related elements should be incorporated into practical settings.  

Just a few years later in 1978, Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle, students at Essex University, created MUD1, the first Multi-user Dungeon (MUD) game. MUD1 is the oldest virtual world in existence. In 1983, Essex allowed remote access to its data processor. This led to MUD skyrocketing in popularity overnight with players around the world, making it the first game to really inspire socialization and cooperation on a multi-user online game.

Around this time, in the early 1980s, gamification began to be recognized in academic circles for its potential in education. Thomas W. Malone was at the forefront of academic research on the applications of video games, publishing his articles Toward a Theory of Intrinsically Motivating Instruction and Heuristics for designing enjoyable user interfaces: Lessons from computer games in 1981 and 1982, respectively. In these articles, Malone described what we can learn from computer game design and how those concepts could be applied to other areas. 

In 1999, Richard Bartle (of MUD fame) published a piece describing four main types of gamers who play Multi-user Adventures (MUAs): achievers, explorers, socializers, and killers. Bartle notes that most people tend to drift in different directions as they gain more experience with a game, and there is much crossover between the categories. These player types have been cornerstones of gamification initiatives ever since. 

Another major development for gamification occurred in 1999 with the publication of Stephen Draper’s Analysing fun as a candidate software requirement article in the journal Personal Technologies. Draper found that fun can be considered a high priority for user software in three cases:

  • When enjoyment is the primary function
  • When learning is the primary function
  • When learnability is considered an important secondary function

He examined how fun can be worked into software design by considering intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, flow, and play. 

Of course, no discussion of gamification would be complete without mentioning the advent of Foursquare, a location-based social network (LBSN), in March of 2009. Foursquare was essentially a gamified map that allowed players to earn points and badges, and to compete with other users to become “mayors” of different locations. Soon after its release, Foursquare reached over 10 million users. The massive success of Foursquare, and the consumer data it collected and sold to other companies, led to the explosion of gamification at corporations new and old. 

Though some say its popularity has decreased substantially since the first few years following Foursquare, gamification continues to be an ever-present aspect of our lives (consider rewards programs at Starbucks, through airlines, and on subscription apps). 

The Origins of Game-based Learning

Game-based learning, or “serious games,” came along a little bit later. By the end of 1999, about one-third of American homes owned a video game system. The surge in the popularity of video games led to the Woodrow Wilson International Center of Scholars’ Serious Games Initiative (SGI) in 2002. The goal of the SGI was to create games to encourage people to learn about the intricacies of complex policy problems, such as environmentalism, fiscal policy, and public health. 

The U.S. Army developed its own game in 2002, America’s Army. America’s Army is a first-person action game that lets the player get an insider perspective on what it is like to be in the U.S. Army. This includes learning about Army Values, the importance of training and individual development, and the crucial role teamwork and leadership play in the success of activities and larger missions. America’s Army continues to receive updates and new releases as of this writing. 

More relevant to most of us are the educational games used in schools, such as those used to teach math, history, and science. Marc Prensky’s book, The Digital Game-Based Learning Revolution, was published in 2001 and caught the attention of the public. In the book Prensky describes what digital game-based learning (DGBL) is, why it is different and better, why it is here to stay, and how it can be applied to different domains. 

As the early 2000s zoomed along, parents began to realize that their children were not being stimulated and engaged with traditional teaching methods. Gen Z (and younger Millennials, depending on which resource we look at for date ranges) are considered “digital natives,” meaning they have grown up with digital technology and are comfortable with it from a young age. With this in mind, educational games saw an even greater increase in popularity as the 2010s began. 

It could be expected that the volume of research around GBL increased as its popularity did, and such was the case. One such study from 2014 examined urban-rural differences in outcomes of digital mathematical learning programs. The researchers found that the DGBL produced better mathematics outcomes for both urban and rural students when compared to traditional classroom instruction, further supporting the growing body of research demonstrating the effectiveness of GBL in education. 

The Future of Virtual Reality for Learning

Image source: master1305 | Freepik

As we discussed in last week’s episode, one of the concerns with using VR in education is equity: VR may not be a viable option for all schools due to differences in funding. An interesting possibility is that virtual environments (VEs) could be used to replace other parts of school that would otherwise consume part of the budget. For instance, VR could be used to give students virtual labs they can perform experiments in. Schools may be able to use VR to provide students with more “hands-on” learning opportunities and virtual school trips. A financial expert would need to be brought in to evaluate the costs and benefits of such a redirection of resources, of course, but it could be a good option for some schools. 

VR can be used for remote collaboration. The pandemic has shown us that virtual education is possible and can be successful, given the right tools. Class and study group video chats are a great step in the direction of helping online students socialize with classmates and instructors as they would in in-person sessions, but it can be intimidating or mindless to simply stare into a computer screen and camera at small, mostly black boxes for hours. With VR, students could create their own avatars and have a more realistic social experience.

An area of VR for education purposes that is seeing improvements already happening is language learning. Companies have started introducing VR and augmented reality (AR) programs to assist language learners in their quest to master a new language (or refresh one they had learned before). These programs allow learners to get more realistic practice with a non-player character (NPC), which can be a great option for people who may have social anxiety or may not have time to find a practice partner. 

We noted earlier that students learn best when they are engaged in the material, and that engagement can be boosted when the material is enjoyable to learn or presented in a novel fashion. The use of VR in education is still a novel experience, and one that students tend to embrace with gusto. It also allows students the freedom to make mistakes in the VE, as those mistakes will have no real-world consequences and can instead be relatively stress-free learning opportunities. 

Some topics are inherently stressful. VR can be an excellent way to introduce students to tougher concepts, such as mental health challenges. For students facing learning or other cognitive challenges, VR can be used to adjust the way information is presented so that it works with them and not against them, making education a positive experience. 

On the more technical side of things, research into how VR is used for learning has repeatedly found that a more in-depth, extended model of learning through VR is needed so that we can better understand how people learn through VR and how we can better design educational VR programs. This includes more research into the validity of existing models of learning through VR, whether those models can be combined to create better models of learning, comparing the effectiveness of different types of learning specifications (e.g. scenarios, storyboards), and the development of principles and guidelines that can be used and understood by both developers and stakeholders such as educators. 

The Human Factors Connection

Image source: Giu Vicente | Unsplash

As we might imagine, human factors has a lot to contribute to the continued development of gamification, GBL, and VR for education. 

Despite its huge contribution to the popularity of gamification, Foursquare recently phased out its gamification mechanisms, though they kept some of them in a new app called Swarm. The company claimed that the game mechanics were designed for thousands of people, not millions; with so many more people using the app than it had been designed for, the gamification began to fail, and users lost interest quickly, making a redesign necessary. 

This points to an essential aspect of successful gamification, which is that gamification mechanisms must continuously change to address current needs and context. If the game mechanics are never updated, end-users soon find them stale and move on to other products and services that can do a better job of keeping their interest. 

Part of fostering user interest and loyalty to a product or service through gamification is ensuring that the rewards gained through gamification provide real value for both the end-users and the company. Rewards that are clearly relevant help people feel like there is a purpose to what they are doing, which can boost motivation. Regularly updating those rewards so that they remain relevant to the users and company in an ever-changing world contributes to a sense of novelty and excitement about the product or service, maintaining and refreshing user engagement. 

Gamification can go wrong when it becomes frustrating or makes users feel bad about themselves. When adding gamification elements to a product or service, we need to remember that how the end-user feels can be a major driver of engagement. The game mechanics we decide to use should be designed in such a way as to encourage user engagement, possibly by helping to make tasks easier and more efficient, more enjoyable, avoiding a patronizing tone, and building in mechanisms that make users feel smart. 

For DGBL in K-12 education in particular, it will be critical to keep in mind the dimensions of autonomy, play, affinity, and space. These are dimensions that DGBL can bring to the table for children 3-10 years old (one of the largest demographic groups of virtual worlds and online games) that may not be able to be provided in traditional school environments, or at least not provided for as well as they can be with the addition of DGBL. Opportunities for children to experience autonomy, play, affinity, and space on their own terms per their own preferences are essential to child development and nurturing their enjoyment of learning. 

When considering VR and DGBL for children, we will need to be mindful of the impact of these programs and games on brain development. A 2014 study that looked at the activity of space-mapping neurons in the hippocampus of rats’ brains while they were on a treadmill surrounded by a “virtual world” to create a non-invasive VR experience. When in the virtual world, more than half of the rat’s hippocampal neurons would turn off, despite those same neurons being highly active when the rat was in the real world. The implications for what this would mean for the impact of VR usage on young children’s development are unclear, and further research is needed. 

Young children can have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy or fiction. VR immerses users in a fictional environment, however realistic it may seem. This could exacerbate the negative effects of advertising, poor role models, and potentially traumatic content on children who use VR. We will need to consider the consequences of programmed content in VR designed for children carefully as they become more popular, as it could have lasting impacts, unintended or otherwise, on society. This may come in the form of integrating easy-to-use parental controls or creating guidelines for child-centered content. 

On a broader scale, designers of VR programs will need to think about individual differences and other questions like:

  • What are the goals of the user? 
  • What is their cultural background? 
  • What sort of familiarity with technology can we expect our end-users to bring with them? 
  • How will their cognitive styles influence learning outcomes? 

We have talked about other aspects of human factors and VR, such as the comfort of VR headsets and the time compression we can experience while using VR, in previous Human Factors Cast episodes (check out other relevant episodes in our Explore Some More section below). 

As VR is further developed for education purposes, it will be interesting to see how we merge what we know about how people learn with the concepts of gamification and GBL to create more effective learning tools for students of all ages. 


For more Human Factors Cast content, check back every Tuesday for our news roundups and join us on Twitch every Thursday at 4:30 PM PST our weekly podcast. If you haven't already, join us on Slack and Discord or on any of our social media communities (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).


Explore Some More

Episode Links

    • Virtual Reality: The Key for Learning


What Helps Us Learn?

Gamification and Game-based Learning

The Future of Virtual Reality for Learning

The Human Factors Connection

Photo by Billetto Editorial from Unsplash (left)

Photo by pch.vector from Freepik (right)