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How Virtual Reality Meets Real Life Learning With Mobile Games

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Participatory games let students see archival footage of events that happened in the places where they stand.(Rosenfeld Media/Flickr)
Participatory games let students see archival footage of events that happened in the places where they stand. (Rosenfeld Media/Flickr)

The buzz around games and learning has mostly focused on how educators can learn from game structure to create engaging learning experiences. Or else, educators are experimenting with video games meant to help students practice academic skills. Less attention has been paid to a niche of mobile gaming seeking to bridge the gap between the screen and the real world -- pervasive gaming.

“Most games are not automatically motivating,” said Benjamin Stokes, postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information and co-founder of Games for Change. “One of the things that makes a game engaging is that the choices are meaningful.”

Giving students the opportunity to make meaningful choices isn't at the center of every classroom, especially when it comes to civics. Most civics classes focus on teaching about democracy and governance in its most ideal form, as a static system. The focus is on preparing students for their eventual participation in the system, without giving them a real-life experience of what it means to be civically engaged.

In these situated games, students play a game on mobile devices that also requires them to interact with the real world. For example, the game might include a challenge to go to a park where something historically significant happened, like a famous protest. While looking at the historical marker, the game could require students to read the text out loud or to tell passers-by about the history that happened at that place.

“Part of what’s interesting about mobile is that it takes a speech students might have read in the classroom and puts them at the location,” Stokes said in an edWeb webinar. In another instance, the game might ask students to act out a protest. “The goal of the game is not just to convey some facts, but to let people test out this disposition of protesting and engaging with the theater of it,” Stokes said.


These games allow students to walk in the shoes of historical figures, make the tough decisions those figures faced and deal with the consequences of those choices. That’s very different from merely visualizing what it might have been like.

While the mobile game keeps track of students' progress, assigning different missions and cataloging evidence and the resulting points, the game is played out in the communities where students live, requiring them to engage with people of all ages.

“The breakthrough for me is that you are participating in the real world, so that participation has to be authentic to what the real world wants as well,” Stokes said. In other words, the game is not just a simulation of an event; it necessarily has an impact on the public spaces where it is played.

And because the game is on a mobile platform, students can reflect on the experience with pictures, videos and short writing exercises. “When we’re being social about our reflection, we often need the skill of writing quick, short things and then linking to longer pieces,” Stokes said. If students made those reflections on a public social media site, the community could even engage with them as they learn about what makes the place where they are from distinct.

“One of the things we really need for civic renewal is having conversations with other generations about issues,” Stokes said. Allowing students to learn what it means to participate in a civics project by leading them through a mobile game might begin a conversation with adults about the past that never would have happened otherwise.


Jim Matthews is a teacher and researcher interested in using games to promote place-based education about everything, not just civics. Communities that show pride in their distinctive qualities and cultures tend to be more resilient and capable of problem-solving. Matthews wants to help students and their families contribute their own stories to the local history to strengthen that sense of place.

One of the strongest elements of a pervasive game is that the skills can’t be siloed into one academic discipline. “In order to solve some kinds of problems, by default they have to be multidisciplinary,” Matthews said in an edWeb webinar. Many of the games he has experimented with require students to use cross-cutting skills that will help them solve a varied set of problems.

YELLOW ARROW: This public art project started in 2004 in Manhattan and has spread across the world. Participants print out yellow arrow stickers from the website , each with a unique identifying code, and place them in public places that have important local meaning. People who know about the project can text the Yellow Arrow phone number with the unique code and instantly receive the story or piece of local lore the author marked. Other users can even add more stories to a location, creating a crowdsourced ethnography of place.

DOW DAY: In this game, players take on the role of a journalist on the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin in 1967 during a protest against Dow Chemical and their product, napalm. Called a situational documentary, students explore different characters' perspectives, taking on their roles. The game also offers opportunities to research contemporary issues connected to the university and contribute stories using the platform.

MENTIRA: This game was started in Albuquerque to teach Spanish. Players interact with virtual characters as well as real residents of one of the city’s Spanish-speaking neighborhoods to investigate a fictional murder. Following clues given by game characters and real people, students must play out the narrative and engage with people using their Spanish at the same time. “One of the goals of this story is to get people out into a neighborhood, and the way you are doing it is through an invented story that uses Spanish,” Matthews said.

JEWISH TIME JUMP: Using GPS technology on students’ mobile devices, archival images and tidbits of information pop up as students move around a park that sits across the street from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, site of the famous fire that drew attention to the dangerous conditions in sweatshops. Players interrogate virtual historical figures like Rose Schneiderman, read primary source documents and slowly piece together the history of Jewish immigration in New York, the labor movement and women’s rights. These kinds of place-based, augmented reality games have the potential to allow students to construct their own understanding of history, while tying it tightly to the physical place where it happened.

RE:ACTIVISM: This mobile game is similar to Jewish Time Jump in that it focuses on the civics history of locations, but it extends beyond New York. Teams compete to come up with visible, public actions that engage the public around different historical moments. Players are given cards associated with different sites and document their actions along the way. It requires creativity, research and knowledge to win the challenge. Players have to walk a fine line between being authentic to history and being playful -- one of the many interesting aspects of participatory gaming.

SUSTAINABLE U: Players find themselves in a dystopian future where natural resources are running out and something must be done to change the course of history. Players receive quests to explore transportation, water and waste policies at a university. After researching what’s already been tried, they come up with new ways to address sustainability. “One of the challenges is to go out and find where energy is being wasted and change your own behavior,” Matthews said.

UP RIVER: Designed to make learning about the St. Louis Estuary more participatory, this virtual game leads students through the estuary to various places, some more industrial, others that look like the natural habitat that once existed. Students investigate important scientific factors like oxygen levels in the water, vital for fish stocks, and interact with virtual historical characters who can describe what the area was once like. The game includes questions and challenges that require students to interact with contemporary people, like fishermen.

“One of the things we’re experimenting with is how can you integrate stories with field work,” Matthews said. Students are collecting water samples, but learning about the local lore of the place as well. This kind of game reinforces the notion that real problems aren’t siloed by discipline. Cleaning up an estuary has real effects on local businesses of all kinds, for good and bad.

COMMUNITY PLANIT: This game allows students to get involved in city planning at the local level. Students complete missions in the real world to win virtual coins. They can spend those coins to vote for how funds will be allocated for real city projects. “One of the neat things about this is that folks are tying it into planning projects that are already taking place,” Matthews said. The city of Philadelphia is using this game as it builds its Philadelphia 2035 plan.

DIGITAL GRAFFITI GALLERY: This game focuses on the ephemeral and often beautiful culture of street art. “You are capturing real-world graffiti that has been put out around the city before it gets painted over,” Matthews said. Capturing it creates a record of its existence, and players can curate their own list of favorite artwork.

LOCAL LOTO: Focusing on the lottery and its effects on communities, the game asks students to look at the quantitative data about the lottery and then go out into the community and gather stories of people who play and why. After they’ve conducted all their research, students form their own position about whether they think the lottery is good or bad for the neighborhood as a whole.

These are just a few examples of the kinds of activities local game labs, teachers and nonprofits have developed to connect mobile gaming to real places and the communities that bring them to life. “The games challenge learning to be relevant, using classroom skills and fascinating stories from life,” Stokes said.

He thinks real-world gaming has the power to re-engage young people with civics and ignite their passion to have an impact. “Engage them in studying places where they already hang out and use technology that they already use,” Stokes said. Doing so not only helps teach them, but it could also empower them too.


“I think we can actually try to be a little more ambitious beyond learning,” Stokes said. “Look at the contribution your young people might be able to make to their community.” As citizen scientists, community ethnographers and storytellers, chroniclers of injustice or city disfunction -- students can make a difference in their communities and often find great satisfaction in learning that allows them to do so.

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