In the midst of Zoom classrooms and virtual assignments, online learning has become an immediate necessity, if not a debatable approach to education. This writer will admit, when she was first assigned a review of VR Quest, her first response was an exhausted sigh. As someone who receives no less than 50 emails each day offering every virtual resource imaginable — from games and lesson plans to online roller coaster rides — the prospect of trying to engage her (very) active boys in a sit-down computer game was less than palatable.
This writer was wrong on every level.
VR Quest Review: Behind the Game
VR Quest is the brainchild of Warren Black, an ebullient man who is passionate about tech and education, and has spent most of his career synthesizing the two in ways that engage kids of all ages and backgrounds. This fully-immersive, virtual reality (VR) game-building system recreates both historic places for social studies, in addition to curriculum for 4th through 12th-grade English, science, and math curricula, which will be added in September. Kids can also build different worlds of their own choosing, such as Hogwarts from the Harry Potter universe.
After students build their own first-person game using 3D design, they can then publish, play with, and invite others to join the world they’ve created. When students are ready to start playing their game, they use a mixed reality (MR) headset, and that’s where the magic happens because they can literally step into the virtual world they created – alone or in multiplayer mode. However, kids don’t need a headset to create, play and share their games; in fact, it’s equally immersive without the hardware.
“We had everything set up for students in schools, but when COVID hit, we made VR Quest available for purchase online,” says Black. “We’re giving it away and funding every student in Montgomery NY. All the kids in the school get a free VR license. We know that 99% of kids want to create their own games, and VR Quest lets them do that.” In addition to company sales, VR Quest has a nonprofit fund called VR Edventures through the Community Foundation of Orange and Sullivan County in Montgomery, New York which raised enough money for the school and all the students to have VR Quest.
The lesson plans are developed in line with current curriculum standards, and they’re easy for students and teachers to follow. Black says most teachers can start leading their students in game design after only 15 minutes of step-by-step instructions.
Throughout Black’s demo, it was apparent that this software is easy to use. With simple mouse clicks, the user can create terrain, entities (objects such as a hut or a tree), characters, travel trajectories and “win” zones (where the character has to land to win the game). Edits to the virtual world can be made in real time while the creator is playing the game.
“It’s beautiful and easy to build custom environments that look fabulously real,” says Black, who has been integrating educational VR game design into schools since 1996.
I have to agree. As a parent currently steeped in the world of Minecraft, I’m familiar with a more rudimentary building system. Comparatively, VR Quest looks agile and intuitive, building on the basic coding language of its younger cubist relative.
“In 20 minutes, I have students building their own game,” Black says proudly. “The biggest challenge over the years was making it easy enough for students and teachers to use.” The VR Quest software was developed in partnership with The Game Creators and took about 10 years to develop.
“It’s hardest for teachers, because they don’t have time to learn something new every September,” says Black, who claims that teachers can teach VR Quest after watching one 30-minute video. “Teachers just have to guide the process,” he says. “And if I’m the student, I have over 90% retention because I’m the one building the game.”
Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)
What is perhaps the most amazing component of VR Quest has nothing to do with its programming and everything to do with how this type of virtual gaming lends itself to social and emotional learning (SEL).
According to research conducted by Penn State University, “social and emotional learning protects against adverse risk-taking behaviors, emotional distress, and conduct problems, and contributes to health, academic achievement, and success later in life.” Black was intentional about developing this game in line with The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). He says that students unknowingly develop the skills they need to create better outcomes for their learning environment and social interactions.
Students can clearly identify their emotions and value systems through building their games, particularly when building games around emotionally-charged events in history, such as the Underground Railroad.
The ability to control emotions and behaviors through goal-setting, persevering through challenges or failure points during game construction, managing stress levels, and impulse control.
As students develop empathy for the characters and scenarios they create, they come to have a broader understanding of diverse perspectives, cultures and backgrounds.
Students build these skills sets through active listening, collaboration, negotiating conflict, and asking for help when required.
VR Quest fosters reflection, evaluation, and consequences for a student’s actions. For example, Black has maintained the highest ethical standards when creating characters and entities. There’s no cultural appropriation here; every item has been created based on historical evidence.
When students are able to synthesize thoughts, feelings and actions, great things start to happen. “Delaying immediate gratification, persisting through failure, collaboration, these are only a few things that kids can get with VR Quest,” says Black. “On a practical level, this game has a direct line to STEAM and next-generation curriculum, something no one else has been able to do.”
The VR Quest license is sold yearly and includes the VR Quest software for all the computers in a school, two gaming laptops, two MR Head-Mounted Displays with game controllers, curriculum guides, the use of VR Quest’s “Social VR” platform which enables students to interact in their games from remote locations, online training, and support. Additionally, each student at the licensed school will receive a copy of VR Quest to use at home.
VR Quest also sells a single home license for $25.00, and is currently in New York public schools; Mt. Vernon, NY schools; Montgomery, NY (in September) and has been used in Yonkers, Hawaii, and Florida public schools.