Designing Cellverse - A VR Game for Learning Biology
Meredith Thompson, Annie Wang, Dan Roy, Philip Tan, Eric Klopfer
Accepted paper, Connected Learning Summit, August 2-4 2018 MIT Cambridge MA
Citation: Thompson, M., Wang, A., Roy, P., Tan, P., Klopfer, E., (2018, Augusts)
Designing Cellverse - a VR game for learning biology
. Connected Learning Summit,
August 1-3 2018, MIT. Cambridge, MA.
The increase in both availability and affordability of virtual reality has sparked renewed interest in
immersive virtual reality (VR) as an educational tool (Castaneda et al., 2017; Thompson, 2018). While
skeptics argue that film, video, and the internet can likewise transport learners, the level of the learner’s
immersion within the virtual world dissolves the boundary between the learner and the medium, creating
an opportunity for the learner to experience embodied learning (Kiefer & Trumpp, 2012). To optimize the
affordances of VR, designers should consider two central questions: (1) When does VR enable more
effective learning than alternative options (video, simulations) and (2) How might designers optimize VR
for different types of learning experiences? We will address those two questions through our work on
In the Collaborative Learning Environments in Virtual Reality (CLEVR) project, we are currently
developing an educational game, Cellverse
, that will help students in high school biology to learn about
cell structure, the process of transcribing DNA to RNA, and translating RNA to proteins (central dogma).
We are using a Design-Based Research methodology (Easterday, Rees Lewis & Gerber et al., 2014) to
iteratively create an experience that offers learners rich, immersive opportunities to collaboratively
investigate and explore the cell from the inside out.
Through our work, we have examined the challenges in designing for collaboration and learning
environment authenticity. We aim to create situations where individuals can collaborate across the
boundaries of immersive VR, virtual worlds (i.e. MUVEs, MMORPGs), and reference information such as
online databases. During Cellverse
, students collaborate in small teams of two or more to examine a
living cell or organ from within. Each student takes on a complementary task, such as entering the cell in
VR to observe function and structure, gathering data about the cell, and navigate through the environment
using a tablet and computer to solve a puzzle about the cell.
Our second design challenge is to capture the dynamic and complex environment with the appropriate
level of authenticity for the users (Jacobsen, 2017). A part of our challenge has been to create a context
with an appropriate level of authenticity to allow the user to have a positive experience in the dynamic
environment of a cell. In particular, we aim to represent the complexity and density of the cell within the
limitations of the technological boundaries of VR and without excessive cognitive load for the user.
During the session, we will share some of our experiences in creating a collaborative game situated within
an authentic representation of a cell. A sample build is shown in Figure 1. One challenge we have faced
regarding authenticity is how to enable students to identify specific parts and functions of the cellular
environment without introducing unrealistic anthropomorphic powers in the game. At the advice of the
subject matter experts who we have consulted along the way, we decided to use tools that scientists use
such as green fluorescent protein (GFP), and stains such as Coomassie Blue as a way to mark different
parts of the cell, as shown in figure 2. These tools meet the dual purpose of targeting specific parts of the
cell and showing learners how scientists focus on different aspects of the cell in their research.
Figure 1: Screenshot from Cellverse showing a centriole (left) and the player’s clipboard (right), which
displays additional information about the object where the player’s pointer is focused (microfilaments).
Figure 2: Comparing the current color scheme to three labeling techniques: Proteins with Coomassie
blue, RNA and DNA with Methylene blue, polysaccharides with Periodic acid–Schiff (PAS)
Castaneda, Lisa; Cechony, Anna; Bautista, Arabella (2017) Applied VR in the
Schools All School Aggregated Findings Foundry 10.
Easterday, M., Lewis, D. R., & Gerber, E. (2014, January). Design-based research process: Problems,
phases, and applications. In Proc. of International Conference of Learning Sciences
Kiefer, M. T., & Trumpp, M., N. (2012). Embodiment theory and education: The foundations of cognition in
perception and action. Trends in Neuroscience and Education
Jacobson, J. (2017). Authenticity in Immersive Design for Education. In Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed
Realities in Education
(pp. 35-54). Springer, Singapore.
Thompson, M. (2018, January 11). Making Virtual Reality a Reality in Today’s Classrooms. T.H.E.