[Game Critique #03] ecosphere VR

Qianou Ma
7 min readFeb 15, 2021
05–418/818 CMU Design Educational Games Critique Blog Assignment Post #03: ecosphere VR

Game Metadata:

Credits of ecosphere photos used in this article: https://www.phoria.com.au/projects/ecosphere/

This VR game is built on 180˚ videos of wild places on earth including the savannahs of Kenya, jungles of Borneo, and coral reefs of Raja Ampat. Ecosphere probably lies on the boundary of the definition of game, but following Huizinga’s definition, it still encompasses the critical elements of a game because it:

  • is outside ordinary life;
  • is utterly absorbing;
  • is not to be associated with material interest or profit;
  • takes place in its own boundaries of time, space, and rules;
  • creates social groups that separate themselves from the outside world.

Learning Objectives:

The narratives and experiences of this game enabled various learning objectives in fields such as geography, biology, earth & environmental science, and environmental awareness & protection. For example, using this VR game, students will have the opportunity to learn …

Conceptual knowledge:

  • What are the biosphere, biome, and ecosystem? What are some examples of ecosystems on earth? E.g., savannah, jungle, and ocean.
  • Ecosystems are dynamic and have the ability to respond to change, within limits, while maintaining their ecological balance.
  • How humans benefit from a diverse ecosystem?
  • What and how human activities affect terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and their sustainability? E.g., overfishing, hunting, depleting resources in non-sustainable ways.
  • What are some initiatives and humans’ actions to protect the environment?

Procedural skills:

  • Identify factors of humans’ activity that have an impact on ecosystems, and explain how these factors affect the equilibrium and survival of ecosystems.
  • Be capable of engaging in conversations that discuss the impacts of ecosystem services on humans' daily lives.
  • Take responsible actions and engage with ecosystems and nature in environmentally friendly ways; e.g., assessing the environmental friendliness of household products.

Dispositional skills:

  • Be aware of, understand, and shoulder individual responsibility to regulate humans’ impact on the sustainability of ecosystems in order to preserve them for future generations.

These learning objectives were adopted from different lesson plans about geology, ecosystem, and biosphere including Bioaccumulation and Magnification; Earth’s Biomes — All about the biosphere; and. Additionally, these objectives are aligned with the NGSS: Next Generation Science Standards, International Technology, and Engineering Educators Association standards, and various state standards (please refer to these resources for the specific alignments: Introduction to Ecosystem Services by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Environments, and Ecosystems by Teach Engineering).

Game Elements:

Mechanics: similar to Anne Frank House VR & Mission ISS VR, this is a one-player, first-person view game without any competition elements; however, the players can’t actively explore the space a lot, most of their experiences would be passively watching narrated 180˚ videos. In the map interface where players can choose one of the three locations (Kenya, Borneo, and Raja Ampat), the controllers are represented as streams of discrete light particles, and the player isn’t represented in the game (no avatar nor hands). A female voice provides narratives and previews as guidance throughout, different people in the videos have their own voice and the translated overlay voice with the same gender.

Dynamics (gameplay): in the map interface, the player can use the controller’s trigger and the joystick to rotate the earth model horizontally, the locations with immersive experiences are highlighted and when the player clicks on it, a preview and a rotatable, animated ecosphere model of the location will occur. The player can then download the ≤ 20 minutes video to watch. The player has no freedom of exploration or interaction besides dragging the progress bar, and the video experience is really designed for a non-stop watch since it’s confusing for how to stop watching videos, which seems to change from video to video (in the jungle video I was able to use the triggers to pull up the video progress bar, but in the ocean part I have to use the main menu button).

The rotatable, animated ecosphere model of Kenya (left) and Raja Ampat (right)

Player experiences: since the main part of this game only provide 180˚ experiences (although technical constraints are understandable) and the video was largely compressed from the camera rolls, the quality and resolution of the imagery isn’t quite as good as the models in Mission ISS or Anne Frank House VR, and since the player doesn’t have much control over anything, it’s a less immersive experience.

… seeing the monkey staring at me within a reachable distance

However, the scenery is still very awe-inspiring, and the documentary and the video shots are very well done: seeing the trees being cut and fall in front of me, seeing the bird-eye view of the savannah under my feet, and seeing the manta rays swimming above my head are definitely impressive. Because of these unique perspectives, we can see the presence of many aesthetics elements of MDA, including sensation, fantasy, discovery, and narrative.

Learning Principles:

There’re some learning science principles that this game successfully incorporated, and some others that this game may or may not attempted but unfortunately failed:

Succeed:

Concreteness fading: Concrete to abstract representations > starting with abstract

The structure of the narrative and the video shots actually nicely follow this concrete -> abstract rule, as some scenes of diverse species in jungles or oceans are shown and described before the introduction of abstract concepts like biodiversity and ecosystem.

Linking: Integrate instructional components > no integration

Comparison: Compare multiple instances > only one instance

The conceptual knowledge about biology and geology is nicely integrated into this learning experience and is illustrated over multiple instances of the savannah, jungle, and ocean ecosystems.

Anchored learning: Real-world problems > abstract problems

The narratives provided in this game are all real-world problems and places, so learners are likely to find it interested and related to their own lives.

Modality principle: Verbal descriptions presented in audio > in written form

Multimedia: Graphics + verbal descriptions > verbal descriptions alone

Redundancy: Verbal descriptions in audio > both audio & written; Eliminating redundancy: Avoid presenting identical streams of printed and spoken words.

Temporal contiguity: Present audio & image element at the same time > separated; Synchronizing: Present narration and corresponding animation simultaneously to minimize need to hold representations in memory.

The presentation of the videos nicely follows a bunch of Instructional Complexity Principles and Multi-Media Learning Principles, it doesn’t have any textual elements, all information is presented in audio and visual format synchronously.

Failed:

Segmenting: Present lesson in learner-paced segments > as a continuous unit; Segmenting: Allow time between successive bite-size segments.

Learners really can’t stop (or the experience would be very discontinuous) and 20 minutes is not a small chunk of video to digest, especially in a game context.

Application: Practice applying new knowledge > no application

Explanation: Prompt for self-explanation > give explanation > no prompt

Questioning: Time for reflection & questioning > instruction alone

It’d be great if ecosphere provides more instructions on actual applications, or simply prompts for self-reflection and explanation of the important concepts rather than just pouring information in the video format.

It’s understandable from the aesthetic of the film-making aspect that a documentary has its own structure and shouldn’t be segregated, but it can build in some time with thought-provoking prompts where students can apply or question what they have learned, or different modules of learning activities after the video experience.

Individualizing: Make sure learners possess skills at holding mental representations.

Since everyone watches the same video, there isn’t much room for individualizing the learning experiences; however, people may react to or receive the environmental messages in very different ways, which need to be addressed differently to maximize learning gains.

Overall Critique:

Similar to Mission ISS, ecosphere has great potential to succeed both as a game and as a learning experience, but it’s not achieving its full potential currently, probably because doing documentary in VR and deliver it in a free app already used up the funding. Its more gamy counterpart is National Geographic Explore VR produced by Force Field, which enables more control and physical interaction with the virtual wild spaces and thus, not surprisingly, costs $9.99.

For the learning part, there is an abundance of learning opportunities in the game. For example, when the narrative is talking about the deforestation of the jungle to keep up with the palm oil demands in countless products like makeup, ice-cream, biofuel, and chocolate, scenes of supermarkets and trees cutting are shown, and they can very much go further and provide a practice opportunity, a reflective prompt, or just a demonstration for students to learn how to distinguish the environmentally friendly product in their everyday lives. So again similar to Mission ISS, if more instructions and guided discovery can be provided in ecosphere, even without the full freedom to explore the space, it will be much more playable and educational.

References:

Lesson plans:

Kenneth R Koedinger, Julie L Booth, and David Klahr. 2013. Instructional Complexity and the Science to Constrain It. Science 342, 6161: 935–937.

Richard E. Mayer and Roxana Moreno. 2003. Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. Educational Psychologist 38, 1: 43–52.

Salen, K., Tekinbaş, K. S., & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of Play: Game design fundamentals. MIT press.

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Qianou Ma

I go by Christina too, and I’m a Ph.D. student at CMU HCII. Find my Chinese blogs at WeChat 一千只海鸥