NERO: How do we design and embed a narrative for an educational virtual environment?
Much of today’s educational media such as books and films are lacking in the focus and engagement that can be brought about by a strong narrative experience. In this paper, I will show the importance of a well designed narrative within an educational experience, whilst pointing at the importance of embodied learning, and why this framework would be best situated within a virtual reality environment. Through analysis of the current market, discussion of narrative within both virtual and physical environments, and looking towards game mechanics as enablers to carry out the narrative goal, I will review my own developing project titled NERO, and implement my findings throughout.
This research culminates in a designed experience that utilises a narrative framework for better understanding and an extended retention of the learnt subject matter, the implications therefore being an improved educational performance.
Technology in Education
With the growth of virtual reality and new technologies there has been an increase in the crossover between technology and other sectors including education, and more companies developing augmented apps and products designed as educational tools (Image 1). Over the past decade, classrooms have been slowly integrating smart screens and similar technologies to aid with the teaching and learning of the school curriculum. Now that virtual and augmented technologies are in more rapid development, there are beginning to be signs of how the integration of these technologies into classroom environments could aid the course of education.
The National Education Technology Plan calls for “simulations, collaborative environments, virtual worlds, games and cognitive tutors” discussing their ability to engage and motivate for students in learning complex skills (Lester et al., 2014). These and others (Behmke et al. 2018) suggest that technology is in an excellent position to make positive impacts throughout education.
Our end goal is to produce an educational virtual experience that can follow the current curriculum, but offers an alternative method of learning that can provide better long term retention of knowledge than the current classroom system does. To do this, we are developing a prototype titled NERO, focused on teaching the process of evaporation to school aged children. The goal for NERO is to go beyond previous educational technologies and offer this better long term retention of knowledge. The narrative framework of this experience will prove crucial to supporting the increased engagement and concept retention of the learnt topic. For this reason I will be focusing on case studies and literature that revolve around embodied learning, educational technology and looking at levels of memory retention in new technologies.
It is important to look at the technology that already exists in educational products and evaluate how well these different technologies work at improving upon the existing education system. With the accessibility of smart-phones and tablets, many companies now produce augmented reality apps for download, however outside of augmented and virtual reality, there have been a few successful attempts at experiences that integrate technology into the classroom. In 2010, SmallLab learning was founded and is an excellent example of how a mixed reality learning environment can be smoothly integrated into the classroom. They combined a Microsoft Kinect device and interactive multi-player surface with embodied learning tactics to keep children working together, moving and engaged in the subject matter. SmallLab report that there is an 86 percent increase in student achievement between their classrooms and regular classrooms within lessons: “When we engage the whole child and integrate collaboration with their classmates great learning gains are achieved”. (Birchfield, 2018).
Meteor works on similar theories by recognising the important role that the body plays in learning STEM subjects, “here we look specifically at using mixed reality to embed children as elements within the systems they are attempting to learn” (Lindgren and Moshell, 2018), challenging children’s intuition and building deep conceptual links, which led to a better understanding of the topic.
The feedback and results from both of these examples show the benefits of using modern technology for educational purposes, and the benefits of using embodied learning for understanding and engaging in taught material. These aspects are vital to this paper as the project in discussion relies on a narrative framework that implements embodied learning into a modern virtual technology for engagement and satisfaction of students.
Despite the ability of these technologies to encourage embodied learning, this is somewhat lacking in current products. For example, zSpace is a growing company producing augmented education software for schools, merging depth perception, the ability to look around and ‘kinaesthetic realism’ by stimulating sense of touch. zSpace products place objects from the learning media on the screen in front of you as three dimensional models to explore with the stylus. This stylus adds an extra layer or realism by stimulating your sense of touch, something that is not achieved from the other products (Zspace, 2018). The technology has already been rolled out across several school in the United States and China, however it is limited to those who can afford it, as to use zSpace you also need to purchase the hardware for it including computers or laptops and screens, making it far less accessible than companies that offer only apps and software.
Within the virtual reality world, there are many education apps for download including Adam Horowitz’s “Blank Canvas” that explores biotechnology on a nano scale, immersing you in a narrated world that isn’t possible without a virtual presence (Horowitz, 2018), and Apollo 11, an emotional recreation of the moon landing that took place in 1969 (Kickstarter, 2018). Although both these experiences trigger episodic memory and take you to places you could never go, letting you experience events from a new perspective, they lack the element of movement and physical interaction that contributes to your feeling of ‘being present’ in that experience. Creating this sense of presence is an area of virtual reality and accessories that is also continuously expanding alongside the production of content. More recently there have been products becoming available such as kinaesthetic apparel (Figure 5) and tools (Figure 6), adding to the reality of experience by triggering the touch senses and increasing the feeling of presence in the virtual space.
SmallLab and MEteor are great examples of the benefits of embodied learning and classroom integration: However they are unable to encapsulate the same ability of augmented and virtual reality to provide an immersion into a more three dimensional world, or location-based learning situations. The augmented apps are an engaging and effective way of getting children to participate in further exploration of subjects and gain a slightly more “hands on” (although not kinaesthetic) approach to learning, however these options do not provide the level of movement and embodied engagement that the room based experiences do. The virtual products described here show how important a virtual presence can be in experiencing a subject and leaving lasting impact, but current examples lack the element of interaction and movement that virtual reality can offer in abundance.
In response to this, what we aim to achieve with NERO is an experience that uses the narrative immersion and engagement that comes with exposure to new worlds such as Blank Canvas and Apollo 11, but also utilises the embodied learning skills of MEteor and SmallLab. With this combination NERO will provide a fun and engaging environment, led by a narrative framework that grounds it in theory, encouraging memory retention of the knowledge gained throughout the experience.
Introduction to NERO:
NERO is a virtual reality educational environment where users learn about the process of evaporation through embodied learning tasks and exploration of the environment. Its purpose is to provide an alternate framework of learning than that of the classroom environment, so although it could be used in a classroom, the experience itself can be played from a home virtual reality setup, as well as other learning environments such in an exhibition or museum space.
NERO is based on the learning theory of memory retention and three of the main long term memories: semantic, episodic and procedural. Semantic memory is generally thought to deal with fact-based information and the ‘general knowledge’ we build of the world that comes from reading, writing and other activities found largely in the current classroom. Episodic memory is based on events and experiences with a large focus on location (i.e. a friend you made on holiday or your first day at a new job). Lastly, procedural memory deals with largely subconscious actions and skills, such as riding a bike or chopping food (Queensland Brain Institute, 2018). NERO works to access elements of these three long term memories in one experience, and in doing this, prioritises long term concept retention over short-term learning.
NERO also strongly supports embodied learning, which comes from the theory that all our experiences are grounded in the body (Lindgren and Johnson-Glenberg, 2013). Multiple areas of research now support the theory that cognition is embodied, from neuroscience (Decety & Grèzes, 2006), social psychology (Niedenthal et al, 2005), mathematics (Lakoff & Nunez, 2000), gesture (Goldin-Meadow, 2009), and theatre and dance (Noice & Noice, 2006; Winters, 2008), (Lindgren and JohnsonGlenberg, 2013). Recently there has been an increase in research that points towards embodied learning being a powerful force for education due to its contribution to improving comprehension and retention (Lester et al., 2014). Working with these theories in mind, we suggest through the development of a narrative in NERO, we can improve comprehension and memory retention of the subject matter through immersion, task based events and embodied learning.
Importance of narrative:
Previous to NERO, we demonstrated World Zero, also an educational virtual reality experience with similar aims of using embodied movement and long term memory retention theory. Watching people interact with the environment we built, it was clear that our open world structure and exploration elements of the demo were overpowering the embodied learning aspects of the game, such that physical interaction with the environment was underused. Indeed, the feedback we received supported this conclusion: players reported that the experience as a whole was very enjoyable but the aims of the game were unclear.
We had previously made a mistake common in gaming where the mechanics are planned first, with a narrative devised to fit those mechanics (Nack and Gordon, 2016). Ideally, a game would work the other way around with narrative planned first and then mechanics used to enhance that narrative.
Taking this forward, it is vital that we start the development of our experience based off a narrative goal that will lead the player from beginning to end in a more linear fashion, so that they pass all the key tasks embedded into the narrative that will give them the understanding they need of evaporation to complete the experience, whilst still allowing for freedom to explore and mechanics that work towards the educational goal.
In the sections below I will explore the types of narrative common to gaming environments as well as architectural narratives (due to the three dimensional environment and nature of presence felt in virtual reality), discussing which elements of these are most applicable to our framework. This resulting framework will demonstrate how the narrative will draw from these elements to produce an educational environment that best fits the learning goals we want to achieve
The project is aimed at ages Key Stage three, from thirteen to fourteen but will be applicable to children up to the age of 16. The reasoning for these ages comes from technical, physical and educational purposes. For the experience to be applicable to a wider audience and for commercial use, it must follow the thirteen plus restriction on commercial headsets; These restrictions are placed due to the growth of the head and eyes through younger years and the inability to move the eye pieces on most headsets. Within the UK curriculum, Key Stage 3 is a time where you are about to embark on several years of semantic learning and exams, so is a good time to encourage an alternate way of learning through movement therefore widening the approaches to learning for more children. This is also the year that more abstract topics are learned such as forces and particles, topics that require abstract learning (which is developed through adolescence (Dumontheil, 2014) and which lend themselves well to a more virtual learning environment where scale and abstract concepts are no longer a barrier for learning.
Why Virtual Reality?
Going one step further than 2D screen based experiences such as films and video games, virtual reality gives you full visual immersion into a new world, allowing you to take on a first person role, and actively participate in scenarios that can quite literally be ‘out of this world’. Full visual immersion of virtual reality (as opposed to part immersion in augmented worlds) is beneficial to learning due to its sense of presence. Barney Dalgarno discusses the learning affordances that come with 3D digital environments (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010) and the sense of presence brought about by virtual reality further adds to these.
“Immersive virtual environments can break the deep, everyday connection between where our senses tell us we are and where we are actually located”(SanchezVives and Slater, 2005)
Visual immersion into new topics and worlds is one way that teachers can tackle the difficulty of teaching abstract subjects to students. Abstract thinking is an ability to “detach oneself from the immediate environment to process abstract thoughts and solve problems” and is a skill that is developed through adolescence (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010) so during this time, it is likely that students will be at different stages of developing these skills. Virtual Reality can aid in placing students into the abstract concepts, making them more visible and approachable to study. In the paper “Augmented Reality Chemistry: Transforming 2-D Molecular Representations into Interactive 3-D Structures”, chemistry students are shown to perform better when presented with a virtual malleable model of the particles they are being questioned on over a paper version of the same information (Behmke et al., 2018).
Simone Kuhn, University of Hamburg, shows evidence that the hippocampus, an area of the brain that serves spatial memory, increases in grey matter (which is in decline through adolescence) after several weeks of playing video games that target the use of this area of the brain (Max Planck Institute for Human Development, 2018). Kuhn also shows that people who play more video games are more motivated with a higher ‘expectancy and reward’ system whilst doing non-related tasks. This is a strong case for using a more gamified interface within the experience, with a reward system that will increase students motivation for learning outside of the experience.
In another case, after playing the game ‘Portal’, a puzzle game based on teleportation, players resulted in improved spatial cognition test results compared to that of people playing a 2D spatial game, Tetris (Adams and Mayer, 2013). Using virtual reality, games can target location based learning in an immersive environment, training and improving the hippocampus where episodic memory is based.
On top of being immersive and aiding episodic memory, virtual reality combats the sit-down style of classroom learning, encouraging movement within a three metre squared space with the additional use of body trackers. Placement of body trackers can be utilised through the narrative to aid embodied learning;, for example, trackers placed on both the hands and feet create virtual hands and feet that can be linked virtually to other game objects or target zones, encouraging the movement of these body parts in relation to the subject matter being explored.
3. Narrative in Game and Virtual Realities
With games and virtual realities, you can take on the first person point of view and interact with a story on a deeper level. When the player becomes the subject of the experience, instead of a viewer, there is additional investment into the actions that are taken. Studies on immersion in gaming show “people were more immersed in the game play when viewing the game world through the eyes of the character, regardless of their preferred perspectives” (Denisova and Cairns, 2015). A first person character will be used in NERO to bring a greater sense of involvement within the narrative.
“With VR, we are not empathizing with another character who acts as our deputy in the world – we are now the characters inhabiting the space.” (Leap Motion, 2016)
NERO: The Narrative Exploration
In the case of NERO, the narrative takes the form of a series of events that leads the player through the experience and towards an end goal of learning. These events are tasks that utilise both the ‘game mechanics’ which play on embodied learning and the spatial aspects of the game that encourage this. To enhance learning of a topic, the narrative requires participation at each stage for the user to continue onwards in a linear fashion and reach the end of the game.
The storyline of NERO goes deeper than the ‘narrative’, as it involves details such as the players character and their background story, why they are in this experience, and their end goal. This involves the emotion within the experience and any game objects or characters along the way that contribute to the overall narrative. The storyline can be used to enhance or break up the main narrative framework throughout, using techniques found in game design, such as text blocks, cut-scenes, dialogue and, environmental storytelling.
Leap Motion creators explain how virtual reality is a ‘new medium of expression’ and brings with it new possibilities of narrative. Players want to be smoothly drawn into these new worlds, and doing this often requires demo scenes and tutorials before starting the game. This way users can get comfortable with the new world physics and any game mechanics before taking on any responsibilities. One example of a narrative that does this developed for virtual reality is in ‘Weightless’ by Martin Schubert (Schubert, 2018)
“I wanted the player to have an experience that’s only possible in VR. That means taking advantage of the ability to look around in any direction and having good spatial awareness. This led to investigating a weightless environment that allowed freedom of movement in any direction.” (Schubert, 2018)
The game is a meditative exploration of weightlessness, and the narrative that follows is: You are a commander on board a salvaging space station and must sort space debris into two categories. You know this information due to the environmental storytelling and a station AI character that guides you. (Schubert, 2018)
To achieve the desired level of detail in NERO, allowing us to fully test the design and narrative of the game, we have taken a similar approach to Schubert and are focused on only one theory or piece of knowledge from the Key Stage 3 curriculum: evaporation. Evaporation is a topic included through several years of education in varying detail; it is a theory that you cannot see in the physical world, that is on a much smaller than human scale, and that can be linked to different subjects including chemistry, physics and geography, lending itself well to be tested in this form of educational experience. Thus, the core goal of NERO will be ‘to understand the process of evaporation’.
In ‘Crystal Island: Uncharted Discovery’, a digital game based learning environment, players are on a science based adventure where a group of stranded explorers are trying to contact the outside world for rescue. The game focuses on teaching landforms, navigation and modelling, and does so through a narrative that takes students around the fictional island, encouraging different uses of mapping and navigation through tools, and gets them to do tasks that help them identify common landforms around the island. What the player is learning through the stages of the game is tied back to their character, the goal and the reasons they are on the island with strong contextual links. The narrative ‘stranded explorer on an island’ and educational goals ‘learning landforms and navigation’ are intertwined into one experience (Lester et al, 2014). Upon reviewing the game it was found that “the motivational benefits of narrative-centered learning, particularly with regard to self-efficacy, presence, interest, and perception of control, were substantial” and “the learning gains in the CRYSTAL ISLAND condition exceeded those in the slideshow condition.” (Slideshow condition being the standard form of classroom learning (Rowe et al., 2009)).
Three main points to consider when developing a narrative for virtual worlds are (1) What is the user doing? (2) Why are they doing it? And (3) And how will they discover what’s worth doing? (Leap Motion, 2018). To give a strong contextual background such as in Crystal Island, and clear narrative such as Weightless, a storyline can be developed for NERO such as:
“You are Nero, a young wizard who rules over the water element. One day, you wake up on an abandoned island without any of your powers. You must regain control over the water in order to escape and reclaim your position as ruler.”
As the topic of evaporation is an abstract one to teach, the encouragement of a more abstract narrative and interactions could aid the users into taking them away from the physical world and physical expectations, opening their mind to new scenarios. For example, if your character in NERO is a wizard with the ability to grow bigger and smaller with certain actions, or shoot water from your palms, I hypothesise that the user is already primed for a more abstract world, and these abstract interactions will in turn lead to an easier understanding of the abstract concept of evaporation. These powers or abilities can be suggested to the player through the story techniques previously mentioned.
Leap also discuss the importance of emotional connections in story lines due to the increased sense of presence in virtual worlds. Virtual reality is often referred to as an ‘empathy machine’ (Constine, 2018), (Alsever, 2018), and arguably, the strongest narratives in virtual reality come from experiences that place you in a position of emotional empathy you do not get from other media. For example, 360 videos have had huge impact on audiences by placing you the viewer as a first person character in a situation you would never realistically be in, such as the virtual reality film ‘Clouds over Sidra’ where you are guided through a refugee home in Jordan by a twelve year old girl (Arora and Milk, 2018), or the aforementioned Apollo 11. The feedback from these experiences show just how impactful seeing through new eyes can be. With experiences like NERO where the subject matter is fictional, the importance of creating a strong narrative to keep immersion and engagement with the story is vital. At stages of the experience where you are not doing an embodied task or learning about the subject matter, there should be enough environmental storytelling to keep the player active and engaged.
Achieving the goal
What do you need to know for the process of evaporation? To achieve the goal, the player must be aware of all the parts of the process of evaporation including the scale, where it happens, how it occurs and why. This should be in not too few steps that the game is over quickly but not too detailed that it is no longer understandable. These pieces of information can be presented as different events along the narrative, leading up to the final task of performing the process of evaporation.
Taking from current textbooks for this key stage three age group such as ‘Collins KS3 Revision’ (Taylor et al., 2014), here is the knowledge that should be learned regarding evaporation:
- You need a pre knowledge of particle properties, the state of particles in solids liquids and gasses.
- Knowledge of the process: particles moving have energy, ‘internal energy’. Particles near the surface gain energy from the outside gas particle atmosphere and break away. Evaporation happens always, not just at boiling point.
- Additional Factors that can speed of evaporation, it can be increased by wind and heat
For the experience to be successful we would need people to grasp these fundamental educational points about evaporation, which can become developed into specific events in the narrative that teach these pieces of information to the player.
If we were to use an open exploration game such as Crystal Island, the freedom of exploring compared to the amount of tasks and knowledge provided for the subject would leave the player lost, as we saw in our first demo ‘World Zero’. Another type of narrative would be ‘multi-stranded’ and this form of narrative is made up of several different storylines that can be accessed at different points, and work well for multi-player games such as ‘The Sims’. For our approach, a linear narrative that guides players along a series of events would be most appropriate in achieving the stages of knowledge to learn evaporation. Here is one way this could be done:
- START – Introduction showing some background story Demo Space – Learning how to move around and the mechanics of the experience
- Space 1 – Learning particle structure of all objects in that space
- Space 2 – Learn that moving particles have energy
- Space 3 – Learn where evaporation happens
- Space 4 – Learn that it happens when articles gain energy and break away
- Space 5 – Main task of evaporation as a whole
- Space 6 – Reward area
- Bonus hidden spaces throughout – Learning about wind and heat contribution to evaporation.
With an overview of the experience, narrative goals and stages these could be completed in, we have our concept of how the experience will play out. However, with just a linear set of tasks, there is no sense of scale, time taken or grade of importance to each element of the experience. These are aspects that can be developed through the spatial planning and environmental storytelling, and for these two things we must assess the physical spaces within NERO.
4. Influences of Architecture
“Virtual reality involves a shift from time-based narration to spatial narration. From storytelling to world-building.” (Leap motion, 2018)
Importance of Architecture in relation to NERO
Virtual Reality gives you a ‘sense of place’ to be in another world – whilst being aware that you are in the physical world, your senses have been taken to the virtual one – and this virtual body with your physical senses creates a high state of immersion. With this sense of place, we can draw from real world application of narrative in architecture to inform the design of our virtual narrative. It is important to discuss the relationship between space, body and movement as this is one that can largely influence the level of embodied learning within NERO. Following are some examples of different relationships between space and narrative, and architecture and the body, that show the versatility of these relationships, and some concepts that could be usefully transferred into a virtual world.
“Architecture and its meaning is perceived through embodied experience…[it] participates in the construction of meaning through the ordering of spaces and social relationships” (Rashid, 2010)
The House of Eternal Return by Meow Wolf begins by working on the same basis as a video game; upon entering the space you are presented with some back-story about the house and learn about the families mysterious disappearance, prompting you to begin your adventure (McClanan, 2018). The house experience relies on full immersion into the narrative, encouraging you to explore every inch of the space and open all doors, cupboards and fridges that could lead you to hidden areas, revealing more of the story. The immersion is achieved by building a physical “other world” that could rival that of a virtual one; Each space is designed by different artists with fridges that lead to hidden rooms and portals to other dimensions, that keep you thoroughly engaged and curious of what is to come (Meow Wolf, 2018). This magical aspect is one that can be taken forward into NERO, as we want to encourage players to use their body, engage with the experience and explore a new media for education.
“There are different levels of experience depending on your degree of consciousness” (The Meow Wolf Experience, 2018)
The narrative that is built into the spaces of the house comes through digital screens, physical items and entire rooms that tell parts of a larger story. These can be thoroughly pieced together over many visits or taken lightly as users make their way through the installation. The entire experience as well as having its own narrative, is based on the foundational goals of the company: that having fun and being playful are core to human existence. Therefore, even if some visitors chose not to engage with the story, each visitor comes away from the experience having been immersed in Meow Wolf’s core values of fun and playfulness. A similar result should be considered with NERO; Not every child will want to fully engage with the story or feel the same level of curiosity within a virtual world, however, the core narrative should be so clear that every child will come away having had an experience of embodied learning. This can be achieved by a combination of: (1) The narrative framework, giving you a character and encouraging your motivation through the game towards a final reward. (2) The linear positioning of embodied tasks that must be overcome to continue. (3) Visual guidance through both the style and UI elements that keep engagement and help smoothly transition the player from demo to finish.
The Site of Reversible Destiny . An example of architecture that encourages movement outside that of your daily life, Arakawa and Madeline Gins designed the Site as an ‘environment to challenge the body’ and change visitors bodily perception (Reversibledestiny. org, n.d.). In order to do this and encourage visitors to explore the site as though they were children again, the spaces within the park were built with undulating planes, shifting colours, varying scales and disorienting shapes. Some spaces are barely big enough to squeeze through, others you have to climb over or under, there are pitch black rooms and maze-like structures throughout. All these elements contribute to an experience that forces your body out of monotonous daily life and into new territory.
Within NERO, there are times where the player will not be partaking in any specific learning task, but will be moving between tasks or exploring the surroundings within each task area. In order to still be engaging and encourage movement when the player is not actively involved in embodied learning tasks, we could take from this example and provide environments that encourage exploration of the space and body.
Corbusier. Almost the opposite of the Site of Reversible Destiny, Corbusier’s Villa Savoye was designed more to fit the existing requirements of the human body, a ‘machine for living’, not encouraging any movement out of the everyday, but providing a physical narrative to ‘everyday life’. From the ground floor that was constructed within the turning point of his car to the flow from bath, to seat, to bed, each space was designed relating to existing movements of the body. The inclining ramp through the building demonstrates the role of movement through architecture to provide a visual narrative, a journey through a space (Jenkins, 2013).
We can take from this example the concept that the space must be designed to realise the activity of the body. Within NERO, the tasks for embodied learning are the activities that the spaces should be designed around. For example; To understand the scale that evaporation occurs on, the user could repeatedly make themselves smaller in a shrinking motion, until it is visually clear they have reached a particle scale. For the space of the experience to realise this, it could be designed with decreasing height, to encourage the shrinking of the body whilst moving through the space. This event could be repeated throughout the experience to suggest the sheer size of the scale change between human and particle.
Figure 18 proposes a solution to the narrative layout of NERO, following the linear approach from chapter 5, each space has to be explored and task accomplished before the path is revealed for the player to continue onwards through the game to reach the reward stage.
In this example, the more important task spaces take up larger areas of the game map, such as three, four and five, and the bonus tasks – that can be completed or left uncompleted – are hidden off the main route to be discovered by those with greater interest in the game.
Not being able to see the spaces that come before and after you leaves a sense of curiosity such as in the House of Eternal Return, and spaces that make up the ‘in-between’ of each task area are their own embodied challenges, enforcing the shrinking to become gradually smaller towards particle size.
5. Game Mechanics
“Reaching out and playing with what we see is how we learn about the world. If there’s something immediately in front of the user, it will be the first thing they try to grab. From there, everything is a learning process.” (Leap Motion, 2018)
Although we will not define NERO as a game, but more of an ‘experience’, we will be looking at game mechanics as ways of enhancing the narrative and enforcing the theoretical values such as embodied learning and memory retention. Some existing game mechanics as examples are ‘repeat a pattern’ such as in Dance games, ‘teleportation’ instead of moving smoothly and ‘jumping’ such as in Mario.
“Game mechanics are constructs of rules or methods designed for interaction with the game state, thus providing game-play. All games use mechanics; however, theories and styles differ as to their ultimate importance to the game.” Wikipedia’s definition of game mechanics, (Wikipedia, 2018)
These game mechanics will provide a background set of rules for the user, and weave together the elements of narrative, storyline and space, from the opening demo scenes to the final task reward.
One mechanic I have begun to mention already through the formation of spaces is the movement between task areas. This can be achieved by using virtual trigger points local to each physical tracker. This then means the mechanic will be usable for each player and not have to be tweaked or changed in between players. In the Demo area upon starting the game the trigger areas can be lit up as prompts for the user to touch and explore how you can move around the world. This starts to get the player out of their normal comfort zone of movement and more used to exploring with the trackers and different body positions, without being difficult and being understandable. This movement is important as it brings the user more into an embodied way of moving and thinking within NERO, and prepares them for the more abstract tasks ahead.
One way I have previously mentioned to utilise this mechanic is through the embodied task of shrinking. This is encouraged by the space as well as changing the placement of trackers to be lower, so that when you become smaller, you automatically hit the trigger points to move forwards, meaning less confusion in finding the right points.
NERO: Mechanic development
Working from the previously stated linear narrative on page 9, each task will have its own required movements. Within the demo scene he user will learn how to navigate, but also discover the ability to interact with objects such as picking them up or pushing them. For the rest of the experience you are now aware of these abilities, and each task you encounter is based off of these existing mechanics. However, to implement the full force of embodied learning, each task relies on you performing a certain action to learn a small piece of information, and each of these actions will therefore be different and will need to be communicated clearly to the player. This could be achieved through having a single mechanic that stays the same throughout the whole experience but allows for different actions to be performed at different stages. For example, touching a sphere and moving it around shows a colour trail, this triggers a visible path to be followed by the sphere the player is holding, encouraging their movement in a certain way.
So the core mechanics to carry out the experience are: Movement – virtual triggers for physical trackers Movement for Shrinking – virtual triggers for physical trackers Follow the Trail – Learning movements to complete tasks Evaporation – Final mechanic that is gained from the combination of all other tasks
The game mechanics implemented alongside the narrative would therefore be:
START – Introduction showing some background story
Demo Space – Learning how to move around, Movement
Space 1 – Learning particle structure of all objects in that space
In Between – Movement for Shrinking
Space 2 – Learn moving particles have energy, Follow the Trail
In Between – Movement for Shrinking
Space 3 – Learn you must use all the trackers to create enough energy to break away, Follow the Trail & Movement
In Between – Movement for Shrinking
Space 5 – Evaporation
Space 6 – Reward area
Bonus hidden spaces throughout – Learning about wind and heat contribution to evaporation, Follow the Trail
Impact on narrative
Without these mechanics, the user is not able to advance through the experience, they are vital in keeping the user on track and carrying out the goal of learning evaporation by embodied learning. However these mechanics must also be relevant to the context of the experience and subsequently be linked into the narrative. In zombie games where you have to defend yourself there are shooting mechanics and reward systems for shots fired to encourage the use of that mechanic, but who you shoot can dramatically change the story. In ‘Papers, Please’ the core mechanics are to inspect papers and people coming through the border. In using this mechanic, the player receives fines or rewards, which impacts his personal life, and this develops a narrative over the time you play the game. “Mechanics and rules influence (but not determine) the actions of players, and this, in turn, influences what kind of story events can unfold” (Nack and Gordon, 2016). Each player of ‘Papers, Please’ will finish the game having witnessed a different series of events. This is how the design of mechanics can greatly impact the narrative experience.
In ‘The Last of Us’, the context of the game mechanics are changed to add to the story and build character relationships. They used a repetition of shooting mechanics to build an emotional relationship between characters by having them involved in a water pistol fight (Nack and Gordon, 2016). As we are encouraging wonder and exploration of a topic, we could use a context change to encourage the players intrigue in the topic being explored, for example, one Follow the Trail interaction will reveal a shaking motion to create energy, this could be re-used as a physical shaking of walls or boundaries throughout the game that reveal doors to the bonus spaces where ‘wind’ and ‘heat’ elements are found.
As the narrative for our experience is Nero being a young wizard looking to regain his powers, then the game mechanics must encourage and play from this storyline. Moving with invisible trigger zones plays well into this already as it holds an element of magic with teleportation, but the Follow the Trail interaction currently lacks relevance. Some ways to improve this and make it more fun and contextually relevant, the Follow the Trail could be triggered by bursting a water bubble using a hand movement to begin the trail, or by hitting a visible target in the space by shooting water from your palm.
I have stated some mechanics to be used in NERO, however, these need to be trialed and tested upon development with the appropriately aged children to make sure they are contributing towards our aim and not misdirecting the experience. From there, the mechanics can be further detailed or tweaked as appropriate
An issue with using game mechanics to complete tasks allowing the user to continue through the narrative is that we run the risk of telling players that their movements are right or wrong, instead of allowing multiple versions of the same motion to all be considered correct.. With World Zero we used Wekinator, an AI, to train each players movements to be recognised in the game so that we did not have to limit any movements in this ‘right or wrong’ way. However, this method proved timely and took away from the experience so was removed. Without the AI, we must use in-game solutions, for instance the trackers and triggers system for moving. With set trigger positions, each child will have to move in a very similar way to pass the task, which could be restricting. To combat this, there are storytelling techniques such as cut-scenes and dialogue that could be introduced in the demo stage that test the parameters of the trigger zones for each player and asses if they need changing, without taking away from the experience. For example, during dialogue that informs the player of their character background in the demo scene, they could be encouraged to stretch as tall and crouch as small as possible to gather data on these points to use in the later tasks. Although not fixing the issue completely, this technique will be intertwined with the storyline and aid in a smoother experience for the player for the rest of the game.
One larger issue with virtual reality is that for a very long time it has been a uniquely individual experience and not one that could be shared amongst groups of children as you would like in a classroom environment. At its current stage, NERO is a one player experience, however there are growing ways this could be adapted for classroom use. It is possible for multiple users to be connected in virtual worlds, however this would not be viable for a school or place of education to spend money on one virtual setup per child. The best way to achieve multiplayer status without this is through virtual to physical collaboration. Some examples of this are the game “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes” where one player in the virtual world diffuses a bomb and other players in the physical world give them instructions via a handbook, and in ‘Levers and Buttons’ you must cooperate between digital worlds so that physical players clear the way and help the virtual player to put out fires. A physical to virtual cooperation is the ideal way for NERO to become integrated into a classroom environment as the addition of physical players is an aspect of the narrative framework to be developed at a later stage, however with a linear narrative this would prove difficult to accommodate for. Games with multi-stranded narratives (such as The Sims) are far easier to turn into multi-player games due to the nature of the multiple storylines, and this is an issue that would need to be worked around to implement NERO into a classroom setting.
With the development of virtual reality and commercial educational applications, there is an undeniable place for educational software that expands the methods of learning that are currently on offer. NERO will be unique within the existing market in that it is highly focused on implementing the effects of embodied learning, immersive engagement and encouraging memory retention of the knowledge gained throughout the experience, all carried out through virtual reality.
Throughout this paper I have shown through analysing the combination of narrative, architecture and mechanics, how an effective narrative framework can be developed for an educational virtual experience and applied to just one of many subjects that it could be applicable to.
To build this experience of NERO and test it with the appropriate aged children – using a control group that learns evaporation through standard classroom means (reading and writing), and a group that completes the NERO experience – we can test understanding of the subject matter before, after and following three weeks, then a three month period to test memory retention, and we can confirm the validity that this narrative is as effective as has been claimed.
To further carry on this research and implementation of narrative into an educational environment, it is important to consider the technical issue of the classroom, and expanding the narrative to make room for multiplayer options. This would make NERO a more widely applicable tool for learning and would be a precedent for further learning experiences to be developed from, that can branch out across a wider range of subjects.
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