Zombies, Killer Robots, and My Vision for the Future of Education

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to play through two games and the MindTrek VR experience that opened recently. First, it is worth saying that it was great fun. Wearing a computer on my back, VR headset and noise-cancelling headphones with microphone, and a fairly satisfying mock rifle, my two companions and I survived a 15-minute zombie onslaught, and then fought our way through a space station filled with killer robots and a hostile AI. All of this took place in a 1,000 square foot open room, which we were free to move around in with real-time motion tracking. The system is designed to handle up to 8 players at a time in co-op play, and we could communicate with each other and the game master throughout the game. It was a significant step up from the 8×10 play area of my home Oculus setup. I highly recommend it, if you have a chance.

Beyond the genuine enjoyment that I got from playing this game, I had a secondary agenda as well. I have a vision in my head that, in the near future, I will be able to design and build a VR science classroom (ideally with a gamified format) that will allow students to explore science concepts the same way they play games like the ones I played at MindTrek. Given a virtual set of tools and an environment to test them with, students could work through science concepts at their own pace, safely, with limited guidance from their instructor. There will be no chemical waste, no limits to what they could study, and no equipment to buy or replace. Beyond letting the students explore, however, my ultimate goal would be to have the VR classroom adapt to the skill levels of the students in the same way that the very best video games adjust to the skill levels of players.

This is where I was even more excited by the MindTrek experience. Several times during the games, the game master came over the headset to offer advice or guidance (the way a teacher would). Even better, he commented more than once about “ramping up the difficulty” on us. Live. In real time. On the fly. That’s the beauty of the VR classroom. With proper design and oversight of an expert instructor, the difficulty can be dialed up or down to match the skills of each individual student or group. Challenges can be made more difficult. More or less guidance can be provided by the game master (teacher) or the in-game NPCs. Sections of the classroom itself could be made available or inaccessible with a swipe of a setting on the game master’s dashboard. The virtual environment can be manipulated at will. There is no reason this couldn’t be applied to other content areas as well: history, mathematics, language, etc.

Now, if I can find a way to build the chemistry concepts into the game itself, I will have hit the jackpot. There are certainly elements of this out there, from companies like Schell Games, the Singularity game at MindTrek, and plot elements such as those I just watched in the Lost in Space reboot. I am more confident now than ever that this can be done…and soon.

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