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Instructors explore game-based learning

Educators are using gaming elements, combined with the interactive and immersive aspects of virtual reality, to enhance learning.

By KERRY BANKS | DEC 26 2018

Medical students wearing headsets with thick black visors stand in a room at the University of British Columbia manipulating a large, floating, 3D hologram of the human brain. Like an apparition from a futuristic sci-fi film, the hologram instantly responds to their voice commands and hand gestures, allowing the students to rotate, expand or isolate sections of the image.

Claudia Krebs (centre) with graduate student Parker Holman (left) and postdoctoral fellow Tamara Bodnar (right). Photo courtesy of Kerry Blackadar/UBC faculty of medicine.

The HoloBrain, as it is known, is a teaching tool that was created by members of UBC’s Emerging Media Lab in collaboration with university students working at Microsoft Vancouver’s Garage Internship Program. The researchers assembled the hologram using a modified HoloLens, the optical system introduced by the tech company in 2016 as part of an interactive crime-solving game called Fragments. The HoloLens headset projects virtual objects into the user’s actual field of view, augmenting what the user sees but not replacing it.

The app’s ability to blend 3D virtual content with 2D MRI scans in a hologram format opens a new window on the brain’s inner architecture. Claudia Krebs, a senior instructor in the department of cellular and physiological sciences at UBC’s faculty of medicine, says it took many years of study before she could form an accurate mental image of the complex individual structures of the brain and their spatial relationships. With the HoloBrain, this takes just a few seconds. “It’s as though I suddenly have people walking around inside in my brain who can see what I can see,” Dr. Krebs explains.

Although the HoloBrain is meant to complement rather than replace in-lab experiences such as dissections, Dr. Krebs admits, “We’re very excited to be introducing the world of mixed reality into the classroom, and we’re looking forward to adding to our existing tools in collaboration with researchers across campus.”

The HoloBrain is just one of the more spectacular examples of how aspects of the gaming world are being integrated into the educational fabric of Canadian universities and colleges. Examples run the gamut from courses in which students engage in role-playing and complete missions to accrue experience points in place of regular grades, to participation in high-tech simulations, to semester-long projects created entirely within the medium of virtual reality.

Some educators believe that the adoption of gaming elements and immersive realities can make learning a more rewarding experience for students. “I think games have great potential in teaching,” says David Kaufman, a professor in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University who has spent nearly two decades examining how games and new digital technologies can influence education.

Dr. Kaufman says games can increase a student’s engagement with a subject and make the learning more memorable than passively listening to a lecture. “When you learn in a fun way, it stays with you,” he notes. “The memory of the experience is heightened.” Even so, he believes that the use of games in education should not be absolute. “It’s one more spice to add to the recipe, but it’s not the entire meal.”

Increasingly, an interactive classroom is seen as essential to effective learning. “Long gone are the days when you were expected to read a book and regurgitate it,” says Vincent Hui, a professor in the department of architectural science at Ryerson University. Dr. Hui employs both augmented reality, which overlays virtual objects into the real world, and virtual reality, in which a user is entirely immersed within a simulated world. These digital tools, he says, are “all about facilitating another type of experiential learning, one that allows individuals to put themselves in another place and see something from a different viewpoint.”

As Dr. Hui notes, “When you’re seeing things in VR, you’re more sensitive to how a building is put together and what views you’re trying to set up, things you don’t always pick up by looking at floor plans. The accessibility helps students develop their ideas. It’s a potent learning tool.”

A few definitions:

Gamification is the integration of game features like point systems, leaderboards, badges, or other elements related to games into “conventional” learning activities to increase engagement and motivation.

Game-based learning involves designing learning activities so that game characteristics and game principles are inherent within the learning activities themselves.

Virtual reality is an interactive computer-generated experience taking place within a simulated environment.

Augmented reality is an interactive experience of a real-world environment where the objects that reside in the real-world are “augmented” by computer-generated perceptual information.

Many of the gaming elements used by today’s teachers originated in video games, which are now the dominant creative industry of the 21st century, far outstripping the revenue-generating power of the motion picture industry. In 2017, video games raked in $108.9 billion worldwide, while movies earned a mere $38.6 billion, according to Newzoo, a marketing firm that covers the games industry.

Yet video games still get a bad rap. They are accused of corrupting young minds and, in the case of first-person shooter games, are even characterized as “murder simulators” that train young people to kill. Nevertheless, there is a growing body of research that indicates that video games can foster creativity and innovation, and have great potential to sharpen higher-order skills like problem-solving and evidence-based reasoning. This applies particularly to a new wave of so-called serious games that are designed for pedagogical purposes and not purely for entertainment.

Serious would accurately describe Deteriorating Patient, a realistic but low-tech game played on smartphones by fourth-year medical students that was invented by Jeffrey Wiseman, a professor of medicine at McGill University. Designed to sharpen their reasoning and decision-making processes in an emergency clinical situation, the app requires students to stabilize an ailing patient while alone in a hospital ward at midnight. “If they don’t administer the proper treatment, the patient deteriorates and eventually dies,” says Dr. Wiseman. Students have given the game high marks, he says, even though some find playing it “absolutely terrifying.”

Maja Krzic, an associate professor at UBC’s faculty of forestry, uses an engaging but less stressful game for a mandatory course on soil science that she teaches to first- and second-year forestry students. Played using smartphones in combination with GPS, the game was designed in partnership with the mobile app developer 14 Oranges Software Inc. and UBC Studios, the university’s video production service.

Dr. Krzic admits that many of her students aren’t exactly enthused about the study of soil. “I hear them asking, ‘Why am I studying dirt?’ I have to get them over that hurdle.” Games are an ideal bridge, she says, adding, “They’re playing games on their beloved phones all the time anyway.”

The topic is introduced with a lecture and a lab. Students are then sent into a forest where they must answer questions and follow subtle clues to find specific types of plants and soil. They receive points for each correct answer, which are logged onto a scoreboard shared by the class. “We’re basically guiding them through the steps a professional scientist goes through when he or she performs these observational tasks in real life,” says Dr. Krzic. She notes that about 70 percent of her students play the game, even though it is meant as a bonus assignment to be pursued outside of class time.

Students at Université de Sherbrooke are using a similar type of application called Trajectus, developed by Jérôme Théau, a professor in the department of applied geomatics. Students use the app on a smartphone or tablet to complete different tasks – making observations, taking photos or answering questions – during field trips. This type of active learning allows students “to integrate more information and better achieve our educational goals,” says instructor Jean-François Comeau, who has tried out the app with one of his undergraduate environmental studies classes.

Deborah Fels employs gaming ingredients at two courses she teaches in technology management at Ryerson University, awarding “experience points” in place of grades, posting a leaderboard and maintaining an in-game economy in which undergrads can buy advantages by completing extra tasks. “I find that it gives students more independence and control over their progression in a course,” says Dr. Fels, who is also director of the Inclusive Media and Design Centre at Ryerson. Although she admits there is no evidence that students in these gamified courses get better grades, they do appear more involved – and, as she notes, “I get better grades in my evaluations, and I like that.”


Starting in January, headset-wearing medical students at Queen’s University will begin treating ailing avatars in a simulated world that is designed to look, sound and have the same equipment as a real hospital. The initiative, billed as the first VR medical training facility in Canada, is a partnership between the university, the French company SimforHealth and Taiwan-based technology firm HTC, which manufactures a virtual reality headset called Vive.

“Virtual reality offers exciting new opportunities for us to realistically simulate a wide range of clinical situations,” says Dan Howes, a professor of emergency medicine and critical care, and director of the new clinical simulation centre. “We want learners to make all their beginner mistakes in the virtual environment, not on real patients.”

Watch an example of the SimforHealth simulator: 

In Bernhard Riecke’s classes at SFU’s school of interactive arts and technology, he is exploring the capacity of virtual reality to get students to think about the world from new perspectives. He likens this to the “overview effect,” a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts after viewing Earth from orbit.

In a course called Immersive Environments, Dr. Riecke’s students had to design and build a meaningful interactive virtual environment. The inventive final products they produced allowed users to experience the effects of global warming from the viewpoint of a polar bear, connect emotionally to a child’s inner world through dreams, and enter the mind of an asylum patient trapped in the throes of a psychotic episode. Dr. Riecke plans to introduce a new course this spring in which teams of interdisciplinary students will attempt to solve a real-world problem using VR.

See an example of a student’s final project for Dr. Riecke’s course:

Meanwhile, immersive simulations with game-like features are being used to enhance the training of nursing students at Ryerson University and two Toronto community colleges, George Brown and Centennial. One of the online simulations puts the player in the role of a nurse attending a prenatal assessment of a pregnant woman; another sends the player to the home of a distressed woman with a potentially violent husband.

As students progress through the simulations, they reach decision points where the video pauses and they must choose the correct response from several possibilities. Upon completing the scenario, students receive a score, along with feedback that includes links to additional content modules.

“The game allows students to apply the things they have learned in textbooks in a setting that is psychologically and physically safe,” says Jennifer Lapum, a professor at Ryerson’s school of nursing. It also provides an alternative to running labs with real people, which are costly, resource-intensive and can be intimidating for some students.

These simulations have proved incredibly popular. At Centennial College, 98 percent of nursing students play the game without the incentive of receiving marks for their participation. Ryerson nursing professor Daria Romaniuk believes their popularity stems from their emotional impact. “We often hear from the students that they feel they are right there with the client. They develop an attachment and want to help them.”

Tim Chan, who teaches industrial and mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto, uses games to illustrate specific principles. In one course, he has his students play a computerized version of the popular TV game show Deal or No Deal using software that he designed. Dr. Chan finds the game, which requires players to choose from 26 sealed briefcases containing varying amounts of cash from one dollar to one million, to be an ideal vehicle for teaching students about probabilities and decision-making in situations with uncertain payoffs.

The game, which is now used at schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke University and the U.S. Air Force Academy, succeeds at three important things, says Dr. Chan: “It gets people engaged, compels students to think critically about how to solve the challenge, and it makes the learning a more memorable experience, so students are more likely to remember the concepts that are being taught.”

Even deeper learning takes place when one creates a game, according to David Ng, a UBC geneticist who oversees a course called Global Issues in which students are tasked with designing a tabletop role-playing game set in a city 100 years in the future. The setting is not pure fantasy, as the students have to craft their metropolis “based on evidence and plausibility,” says Dr. Ng. “They must consider what types of political conflicts and societal tensions might arise, and they have to account for the effects of climate change and genomics.”


Yet, as interesting as some of these game-inspired innovations may be, their use remains spotty in Canada’s postsecondary institutions, often only occurring because an individual teacher has the necessary skills and energy to use them. As well, researchers say there is still little empirical evidence so far to suggest that games-related teaching can boost academic performance.

Even at the University of Waterloo, which houses a Games Institute dedicated to the study of games, gamification, interactive technologies and immersive environments, the topic of pedagogical efficacy is left unexplored. Neil Randall, executive director of the institute, believes the absence of this sort of research is due to a lack of demand. “You get pushback from faculty and parents on this. There is still a hang-up with the word ‘play’ in our society,” he says. “A lot of people associate ‘playing a game’ with frivolous and possibly even harmful pursuits.”

Perhaps as games and emerging digital technologies become more closely integrated into our everyday lives, games-related learning will be regarded with more value and be adopted by a wider audience, some suggest. For now, the costs in time and labour, and the technical expertise needed by instructors to employ games as learning tools, remain obstacles to their wider adoption.

Jennifer Jenson, a professor of pedagogy and technology in York University’s faculty of education, who has been studying games for two decades, says people have a tendency to overhype every new innovation that emerges from the gaming world. “However, I still believe that games have great potential as an educational tool,” she says. “We just need to find more direct and purposeful means of using games. I think we can get there, but we still have a long way to go.”

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