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Learning in the Metaverse

As a company that leverages video games in the service of learning, we get excited about technological advances that unlock novel ways to deliver digital play. Every new game development tool/hardware offers new affordances that facilitate new types of learning experiences and fuel our collective imagination. When HTML5 landed, we rejoiced at the prospect of developing highly interactive experiences for the web sans Flash (RIP). When AR arrived, we reveled at the idea of making games that could interact with the physical world. And when VR came of age, we marveled at the idea of creating embodied virtual learning experiences.

Enter the Metaverse, an ambitious vision for how our digital lives will be transformed in the future as a variety of technologies (e.g. multi-user virtual worlds, VR, AR) advance. On paper, we’re excited about the possibilities for learning, but in practice, our enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that the Metaverse – unlike the technologies referenced above – is not a specific thing per se but rather a paradigm about how extant technologies might evolve to facilitate more seamless, immersive, and ubiquitous online experiences for those wanting to lean further into cyberspace. The other reason it’s hard to get overly excited (yet) is that the most novel and compelling aspects of the Metaverse vision are based on generous assumptions about how human-computer interfaces will advance in the near future.

How will our facial expressions be accurately transposed onto digital likenesses in the Metaverse? How will we reconcile the differences between our physical bodies and the real-world environments they inhabit with our avatars and the virtual spaces they inhabit? How will we make VR headsets sufficiently comfortable that we’re regularly willing to spend hours in them? The teaser videos are compelling but leave me with the distinct impression that the scenarios they depict will remain science fiction for decades to come.

Setting that caveat aside, here are two hopefully interesting reasons why the Metaverse might someday matter for teaching and learning:

One, short-form quiz games are commonplace in schools but long-form learning games that offer deep, substantive experiences are still primarily consumed as entertainment products. There are many reasons for this, but one is that digital game literacy is still in short supply among education professionals, including both educators and decision-makers. To the extent that the Metaverse makes engaging with 3D virtual spaces commonplace, it will help bridge the familiarity gap that has historically prevented schools from embracing high-end learning games.

Two, the Metaverse has the potential to dramatically improve how we cohabitate and interact with others in virtual spaces. On phone calls, participants are disembodied voices. Video calls add facial cues but participants are still isolated from one another like Celebrity Squares contestants. In multiplayer games, participants are even more estranged; embodied, yes, but represented by avatars that have the expressive range of action figures. Metaverse visionaries tease a future wherein virtual interactions will combine the best aspects of video calls and multiplayer games to deliver a sense of presence that rivals true in-person interactions…perhaps minus hugs and handshakes. If the Metaverse (or more aptly, the technologies developed to make it highly immersive) delivers lifelike, impactful online interactions that foster meaningful connections regardless of physical distance, it may pave the way for highly sophisticated multiplayer learning games that leverage intricate cross-disciplinary collaboration and mock physical co-location as core game mechanics.

Picture an Escape Room, for instance, where small groups work together to solve intricate puzzles. They pass objects back and forth. They jointly manipulate objects and otherwise physically assist one another. They use their bodies and unique vantage points to convey ideas and perspectives. They employ a variety of non-verbal communication techniques (e.g. looking, pointing, gesturing). Ultimately, they leverage distributed cognition to progress far more expediently than they could as individuals, operating like real-world professional teams.

Now, rather than asking teams to escape, imagine we ask them to manipulate “physical” models to conquer an engineering problem, work an archeological dig site to solve a mystery about the Roman Empire, or navigate a well-stocked laboratory to achieve a scientific breakthrough. Collaborative “Escape Room” style games like these would be extremely difficult to pull off virtually with current game development tools and gaming hardware; even the best attempts would be inferior to physical instantiations of the same concepts. In the Metaverse of the distant future, however, such experiences could offer incredible opportunities for learners to hone their problem-solving, critical thinking, and teamwork skills, all while exploring content knowledge in a fun and authentic way.

More on the Metaverse and the future of game-based learning:

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