An elder at Wimmera Camp. A still from VR game Virtual Songlines.
Learning ain't what it used to be. Once upon a time we used to listen and learn through stories. Now we experience them. Thanks to virtual reality (VR) technology and Australian design ingenuity, students can orbit earth at 27,000km/h, work on the International Space Station (ISS), and walk on the moon. They can also travel back in time and experience pre-colonial Indigenous culture.
"You can go to a museum and look at a spear on a wall, [but] I'd rather throw it – at a kangaroo," says Brett Leavy, creator of the VR game Virtual Songlines. "You get to kill it, skin it, cook it and eat it."
Virtual Songlines allows viewers to walk on pristine land among Aboriginal people, discover their architecture, see the boats the men rowed and hunted from, watch women collect food, view the precise ochre patterns on dancers. Using archaeological, historical research, Leavy and his team recreate the past.
"We look at culture, heritage, stories, language, connection – all those bits that talk about that association for First Nations people with the land. All the big questions. Then we gamify it."
Painted Aboriginal men from Virtual Songlines.
Virtual reality and video games take the elements of gaming – avatars, quests – and give participants the opportunity to experience life with first Australians before white settlement.
"Rather than [just] talk and rhetoric we make [participants] be First Nations people," says Leavy, a Kooma man, with roots in south-western Queensland. "We're talking about permanent camp sites, propagation, Aboriginal farming, trade routes, travel routes. Our fishing rights, land management and land title."
Translating that educational expertise, Leavy's game marshals technical sophistication to tell stories in real time.
"The grass grows over time," Leavy explains. "The tide goes in and out, it's fully linked to the Bureau of Meteorology with a hundred years of weather data in our worlds. It's topographically correct to one-metre resolution. All our animals flock, herd and you can hunt and gather them. It's new technology for an ancient culture."
A virtual reality still from Earthlight: Spacewalk.CREDIT:OPAQUE MEDIA
Leavy is one of the keynote speakers at this years' Education in Games Summit, part of Melbourne International Games Week. Educational games – or serious games as they are known – are a growing part of an industry that's serious money.
Australia's total games industry income is worth $2.2 billion and predicted to grow to $3.3 billion by 2020, according to Creative Victoria. Victoria accounts for more than half of it, with more than 130 companies and 800 employees. Ninety per cent of Victorian digital games are developed for global audiences.
Sydney Cove in a still from VR game Virtual Songlines.
"Games can be a fantastic force in our society and they are so badly viewed," says Vincent Trundle, games education expert at ACMI, "99.9 per cent of games you can learn from. It's picking up on the notion that we are drawn to play. And to use that inclination within an education context is good for both parties."
Endorsing the value of games in learning, the Victorian Department of Education and Training recently made the largest bulk purchase of Minecraft Education in the world. Every government school student has access to the Microsoft game.
Earthlight: Spacewalk enables children to experience what it's like being on the International Space Station.CREDIT:OPAQUE MEDIA
Like a virtual Lego, Minecraft gives players the autonomy to create their own world: draw characters, make videos, create a music soundtrack. Importantly it encourages players to collaborate and communicate with peers – and those who aren't at the same level (often the teachers) through a mutual learning process. (Seattle-based Minecraft Education expert Meenoo Rami is another keynote speaker offering tips for teachers.)
A world away from Minecraft's blocky landscape, Hawthorn-based Opaque Media takes players into photorealist depictions of space, at one-to-one scale.
"We have a big focus on making space accessible," says Emre Deniz, a director at Opaque Media whose Earthlight: Spacewalk currently features at Scienceworks, and its Lunar Mission lands in December. "Our mission is to enable children from a diverse range of backgrounds to be able to put their foot on the moon or experience what it's like being on the ISS [with Earthlight: Spacewalk]. They receive an experience that's both educational and engaging. So they can have an empathetic connection with what it's like to be an astronaut or see themselves in those shoes as well."
Empathy has proved a key benefit to VR. In 2013 Opaque Media designed a dementia simulator for Alzheimer's nurses and carers, to appreciate what living with the disease felt like. From education to health-care training, gamification is having a serious impact in serious areas.
It's one small step for students, one giant leap for education.
Melbourne International Games Week runs from October 20-28