[Game Critique #05] We Live Here VR

Qianou Ma
8 min readMar 18, 2021
05–418/818 CMU Design Educational Games Critique Blog Assignment Post #05: We Live Here VR

Game Metadata:

Learning Objectives:

This VR game experience is built from a real narrative of Rockey, a homeless woman living in a tent in a park for 3 years. This game enables players to immerse in the stories and memories of a homeless and really see the world from her perspectives, which give rise to various learning opportunities in fields such as social studies, economics, justice, service-learning, and politics for each of the conceptual, procedural, and dispositional objectives.

For example, using this VR game, students might be able to learn …

Conceptual knowledge:

  • Definition of homelessness and the value of a home
  • Factors and their interrelations that cause people to lose homes (unaffordable housing, economic crisis, mental and physical health care, low-income employment, etc.)
  • Choices available to homeless people (e.g., homeless people may still have jobs but can’t afford a house, so they can’t benefit from the welfare system)
  • Hazards and difficulties that homeless people face (health, water, police, drug, poverty, negative stereotypes, loss of self-esteem, etc.)
  • Current policies and solutions from government and other entities that aim to address homelessness, limitations, and difficulties

Procedural skills:

  • How to take actions to help and stop homelessness in the community

Dispositional skills:

  • Respect homeless people’s dignity and pride
  • Develop empathy with homeless people as equal human beings no different from others
  • Become caring, compassionate, informed, and proactive citizens
  • Appreciate the luck and preciousness of a place that one can call home

These learning objectives were adopted from lesson plans about homelessness by different organizations, such as Homelessness and Housing Umbrella Group (HHUG), Committee on Temporary Shelter, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and etc. It can be used in alignment with various national and states standards in language arts and social studies.

Game Elements:

Mechanics: similar to every other VR game reviewed so far, this game is still a single-player first-person experience. The controllers represent players’ hands in the game, and a female voice provides instructions on how to interact with objects to hear Rockey’s story, through narrated films or animations.

Dynamics (gameplay): the player can directly walk to explore the tent that Rockey lives in and grab objects, and those highlighted with blinking light have narrative elements or different ways of interactions (such as opening a book, turning on a music box, taking out photos, waving a stardust bottle, etc.)

Soothing and sad piano background music is played on the background and a radio message about how people blame homelessness on homeless people is played once in a while. The same female voice linked different pieces of Rockey’s story together, and there is only one highlighted object at a time, so the choice of exploration is quite straightforward.

However, some wacky things happened when I accidentally drop the photo box to the ground, it just disappeared and refreshed at the corner of the bed instead of its original place, which took me 5 minutes to figure out and grab that object since it’s out of my guardian play area.

Player experiences: the player is automatically taken to a 20-minutes VR experience, technically one can stop between interacting with different objects, but it’s meant to be a consistent, nonstop, one-time experience. There isn’t any other way to move like pointing at the floor in Anne Frank VR or staring at footprints in Notes on Blindness, so if the available physical space for the VR device is smaller than the tent area, it’s really hard to get to the corners and grab the objects there, so the guardian boundary warning and the re-centering of the player after crossing that boundary could be really interruptive for game experience.

The designers also make good use of contrast in visuals, music, and narratives to trigger people’s emotional responses, which are consistent with the MDA aesthetics elements including sensation, fantasy, discovery, narrative, and submission. For example, when the police start slamming on the tent, the shadows grow and turn the scene into darkness, which gives the player a feeling of someone knocking down your home.

After learning about Rockey’s stories and immersing in the dreamy scene with a horse, the police siren sounds from a distance break the peace and disturbs the horse. While the female narrative is soothing the horse “you’re safe, nobody is going to hurt you,” the imaginary world suddenly collapses to reality, and the player is exposed to the reality when the polices are turning Rockey’s belongings upside down and yelling things like “get out of here,” “illegal,” which effectively evoke players’ empathy and helplessness.

The sudden transition from a dream to reality.

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:

Anchored learning: Real-world problems > abstract problems

This is a very realistic experience and a pressing issue that our society faces. The immersive and embodied nature of VR helps convey this message, as the players can feel the cramped tent where one cannot even stand straight.

Multimedia; Modality principle; Redundancy; Eliminating redundancy; Temporal contiguity; Spatial contiguity

The multimedia-related principles are keys for a smooth narrative and compelling gameplay, no wonder that these VR games in general successfully incorporated these learning principles.

Questioning: Time for reflection & questioning > instruction alone

Activate preconceptions: Cue student’s prior knowledge > no prior knowledge cues

The narratives in this game were written specifically to activate players’ prior knowledge and own experiences about home, financial hardship, work, and life, using questions such as

“Do you have a family that love you? Do you have job security? Did you pay your mortgages, your student loans, your rent? Have you gone to doctor lately? Can you picture that, being homeless?”

These questions and prompts like “picture this” evoke reflections in players, effectively maximize the development of empathy, and convey the message that “we are not so different from those experiencing homelessness.”

Failed:

Pre-training: Practice key prior skills before lesson > jump in

Signaling: Provide cues for how to process the material to reduce processing of extraneous material.

This game gives no training on how to interact or find the object that can trigger prerecorded narratives, the only cue was the blinking highlight for most objects, except the phone in the can which buzz so the player can use the sound as part of the cue.

Most of the time this is enough to direct the players’ attention, but sometimes it can be very hard to find the next object to interact with (the sequence is fixed in the sense that there is only one highlighted object at a time), especially given the physical constraints of the available space, such as the photo box that refreshed at the corner of the bed.

Metacognition: Metacognition supported > no support for metacognition

A little metacognitive support was provided, as reflective prompts were provided to evoke players’ metacognitive reflection, but players are not prompted to self-explain, assess, or monitor their learning.

Feedback: Provide feedback during learning > no feedback provided

Immediate Feedback timing: Immediate feedback on errors > delayed feedback

No feedback in learning was provided in this game, and the interaction dynamic with the objects can sometimes be confusing (e.g., that photo box) because there’s no error feedback on wrong operations.

Overall Critique:

This game is quite effective in communicating its message of empathy, and so it’s successful both as a game and a learning experience in that regard. The VR experience is based on the real stories of Rockey so it’s very powerful to hear a real person’s account. For example, when the producer thanks Rockey by saying “it’s my honor to meet you” and she replied, “well, no one has ever said it’s an honor to meet me.” It’s a very educational moment for players to learn what does it mean to respect.

Additionally, the use of different styles of animations and music make narrative elements unique and impressive, such as the dreamy sketch style and country style guitar that reflect Rockey’s dream of being a cowboy and her intimate relationship with a horse, the bright, vibrant cartoon and energetic music that corresponds to Rockey’s colorful memories for her wedding, and the quiet piano and the sounds of a household like the laughter, hot showers, burning wood in the fireplace, and door locking, which is Rockey’s dream as “one can going to bed knowing they’re safe.”

However, this game can do better as an educational game if it builds more learning objectives and principles into its narrative and game design. For example, it can immerse players in the homeless experiences and give players more autonomy and freedom in available choices, so players might learn or practice developing resilience and combating adversities in life or other dispositional and procedural skills.

References:

We Live Here news report:

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.

Previous Game Critiques:

  1. Anne Frank House VR: https://qianouma.medium.com/game-critique-01-anne-frank-house-vr-9ead016cf36d
  2. Mission ISS VR: https://qianouma.medium.com/game-critique-02-mission-iss-vr-d6d749dcef6f
  3. Ecosphere VR: https://qianouma.medium.com/game-critique-03-ecosphere-vr-970dcada6daf
  4. Notes on Blindness VR: https://qianouma.medium.com/game-critique-04-notes-on-blindness-vr-eca67609a2ba

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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