Why VR for Education?

Hannah Seckendorf ’20

The trend is clear: as time progresses, an increasing number of people are becoming heavily immersed in virtual worlds and games. Many of the individuals taking part in this mass exodus to virtual existence have had enough of reality. Some of them are stuck in conditions that are not sufficiently stimulating, challenging, or rewarding. They may spend their days at nine-to-five posts that leave their skills and energies underutilized. When these individuals come home, they are enticed by a virtual world of seemingly endless potential: one in which they can dither between orchestrating complex attacks and raids and blowing the crowd away on stage with a plastic instrument collection they have invested hundreds of real dollars in. These are the individuals responsible for the collective 250,000 Wiki articles on World of Warcraft (a compilation one-tenth the size all of Wikipedia). These are the individuals who prefer to dedicate their downtime to screen-time.

These individuals, for the most part, haven’t entirely abandoned reality. They go to school, they work, they have families, relationships — ostensibly fulfilling real lives. But the balance inevitably begins to tip towards screen time as they are confronted by a series of troubling questions: Why is life not this fun? Why don’t I feel this engaged at work? Why don’t I get to be the hero in my story? Why don’t I feel fully alive and challenged? Where is this sense of a broad community in which I matter?

It’s not the fault of the gamer that they aren’t feeling as rewarded and satiated in real life as they are in their virtual worlds and games. The truth of the matter is, as psychologist Csikszentmihalyi says, “The foremost reason that happiness is so hard to achieve is that the universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind.” (Flow, p. 8) Unlike what is presented on the screen, reality is not designed to please, thrill and motivate us. Virtual realities are invariably designed bottom-up with the viewer first and foremost in mind. The same will never be true of reality.

So we have a choice. We can turn a blind eye to this exodus from reality and mourn the future generations’ lack of engagement with reality. Or we could start taking this growing gamer population more seriously. The large-scale passion surrounding virtual reality lends us an opportunity to redirect energy and engagement to create meaningful change, one that will make for a more fruitful experience in both the virtual and real world. We need to start thinking about what kind of games and worlds we want to create and how we want people to interact with them.

In a world where surveys find that 75% of students respond with negative emotions when asked how they are feeling in school, we need to rethink how we are approaching education and engaging our youth. It’s time to recognize the potential virtual realities have to optimize our human capacity to engage. If we can find ways to successfully integrate the immersive benefits of virtual reality into educational curriculums, we will have taken a step towards bridging the disparity in enjoyment of games and enjoyment of reality.