By Michelle Turk Ph.D., Department of History, UNLV
Writing a game narrative and imagining how to integrate it into a classroom setting takes an open mind and a lot of collective creativity. Dr. Michelle Turk is a historian of occupational health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and author of Gambling with Lives: A History of Occupational Health in Greater Las Vegas. She has been researching, publishing, and lecturing about the Hoover Dam for over a decade, and is the primary historian and consultant for labor practices at the dam related to the VR Hoover Dam game.
This is the first thing I wrote about VR Hoover Dam. I opened my new, yellow notebook, and started writing teaching standards. I had no idea where it would go, but time and time again I come back to this page. It was February 2021, and (like other parents) I was juggling virtual schooling my two, elementary-aged kids and teaching over a hundred college students online due to the pandemic. Virtual reality was a completely foreign concept to me. My kids rarely played video games. It’s interesting to look back and reflect on how far I’ve come.
A year later, I’m setting up to test the game with two of my classes at UNLV. Over the past twelve months, I worked with an incredible team to write a narrative for VR Hoover Dam that not only told the story of the Hoover Dam through the eyes of Winthrop Davis, but also convey the work and dangers involved to engineer a dam, and how labor has evolved in time and space.
But writing and playing a VR game solo is one thing. Testing it in a classroom setting is another. When I tested the game, I wanted to use my own students. They are used to trying new ideas in my classes. I usually teach a new class each semester, so testing new curriculum is normal for me. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’m used to that. But testing VR in the classroom? I’m not going to lie- it was daunting. I hadn’t even put on a VR headset until a month prior. I also didn’t complete the game myself until the night before testing day!
That being said, I entered the classroom pretty confident that day because I tested the game on my kids over the past month. They told me what worked, and what confused them. In the process, I figured out what cues to give, and what the lesson plan (that introduced the game) needed to better integrate the game into a classroom setting. One of the biggest problems we tackled was figuring out how to project sound from the headset. After a few failed attempts, I settled on plugging a portable speaker into the audio port of the headset and attaching it to the player with a carabiner clip.
In both classes, I handed out a document packet that included photographs taken by Winthrop Davis, oral history transcripts, and a map of the United States. I then asked for a volunteer to play the game. Only a few took me up on the offer. Who knew that playing a new game in front of their peers would be intimidating? I picked a number between 1-10, and selected a player accordingly. Both players ultimately had experience with VR.
After, I delivered a short presentation. We discussed the life and work of Winthrop Davis, and that VR Hoover Dam is based on Wint’s interviews and oral histories. (This meant the majority of the game’s text and audio is direct quotes from Wint himself.) They located the future site of the Hoover Dam on a U.S. density of population map printed in 1890, and I asked them why so few people lived in the American West at the time? (Hint: no water) We then walked through the general premise of the game, and I introduced the purpose and dangers of high-scaler work during dam construction.
I then dimmed the lights, and we started gameplay. Both classes watched eagerly when the game started. One of the major issues our team discussed over the past year is how to engage the rest of the class while one person played the game. In both of my tests, the class remained engaged the entire time. When the player reached Black Canyon and attempted to climb a rickety ladder on the cliff, the class became even more animated. They cheered the player along as tools, boulders, and other objects flew past them.
Learning should be fun, and testing the game in my classroom was exactly that. Fun. What a long, strange trip it’s been since February 2021.