A workshop filled with the tools of a silversmith. In the left half of the frame, a man in colonial attire sits with his back to the viewer. In the center-right of the frame, the player’s pointer rests on a colorful print and declares “Landing Print.”

Mission US TimeSnap: Developing Historical Thinking Skills through Virtual Reality


Mission US: TimeSnap is a blended learning experience, marrying the capacity of a virtual reality mission with consolidation, support, and deeper exploration in the classroom. This article investigates the affordances of virtual reality as a teaching tool and the challenges of designing for today’s classroom. The game developers of Electric Funstuff were drawn to virtual reality by research that suggests it has great potential to support the kind of inquiry-based learning that many high school history classrooms struggle to provide. The result is Mission 1: King Street, 1770, the first in a series of history-based virtual reality missions that model and scaffold the use of critical historical thinking skills. After several rounds of testing and iteration, Mission 1 is poised for a final classroom evaluation, and this paper shares the developers’ insights and best practices for other classroom-VR creators.


There’s an argument brewing in the Royal Exchange Tavern on King Street. Two men cluster at the end of a sturdy wooden table, deep in conversation and visibly agitated. The tavern keeper ignores their quarrel, distracted by an advertisement in the Gazette. Across the room, a man slouches over his tankard and re-reads, astonished, a letter the author never meant to share with the people of Boston. Hundreds of miles away, hundreds of years into the future, yet, impossibly, also present in this moment, in Boston, in April, in 1770, a high school student considers her options: “Hm, do I really want to do that? No, don’t go there…”

This student is playing Mission US: TimeSnap, a game-based virtual reality experience designed to critically engage high school learners in US History. Before her mission is through, this student will explore three richly detailed and interactive locations in 1770 Boston, on the way gathering evidence that will help her explain why, only weeks earlier, five civilians were gunned down in the middle of the street by British soldiers. And, because TimeSnap is a blended learning experience, the journey won’t end when she removes her headset. Outside of the virtual world, this student will collaborate with her classmates and receive support from her teacher in order to understand and articulate not only the causes of the Boston Massacre but also the different ways this event was interpreted and why this matters to America’s Revolutionary history. In short, she will be “doing history” by grappling with contextualization, causation, and other essential historical thinking skills.

This paper describes the design and implementation of TimeSnap from the perspective of both its developers and researchers and offers lessons learned for would-be practitioners.[1] These lessons include (a) how to allow for the time and technological constraints of today’s classroom, (b) how to manage cognitive load in virtual learning environments, and (c) how to use design to support active learning.

Educational Affordances of Virtual Reality

Since the computer arrived in the classroom, history educators have sought to harness digital technologies to innovate instruction. Advocates saw exciting opportunities to digitize primary sources, scaffold learning with hypermedia, and build two- and three-dimensional virtual spaces for exploration and engagement (Dede 1992; Evans and Brown 1998; Cornell and Dagefoerde 1996). The use of technology in the classroom arose side-by-side with a shift in pedagogical practice in the social sciences. Over the past few decades, professional organizations like the Stanford History Education Group, National Center for History in Schools, American Social History Project, and Roy Rosenzweig Center for History News and Media have developed strategies and resources to help each learner to “read like a historian,” or practice disciplinary literacy, by grappling with historical evidence. Inquiry-based learning, where teachers guide students through the process of evidence-gathering, source evaluation, and argumentation, has emerged as the most promising instructional mode for building these historical thinking skills (Voet and De Wever 2017). Assessment tools have also evolved: the document-based question (DBQ)––in which students analyze primary and secondary sources to explain past events and make arguments––has been widely adopted as the most reliable measure of student learning. Technology, particularly digital media, has been singled out for its significant potential for scaffolding learning (Dede 1992; Saye and Brush 2006). Hypermedia and other digital supports foster inquiry into the “ill-structured” problems of history by providing hard scaffolds and promoting independent exploration and problem-solving (Saye and Brush 2006). However, despite calls for an inquiry-based classroom and even after the wide adoption of digital tools in many classrooms, according to one survey, half of high school history teachers still regularly lecture for three-quarters of the class period––and some for the entire period (Wiggins 2015). Implementing these methods poses a challenge for teachers trained in conventional practices as well as for students who struggle to analyze complex texts.

Reflecting on the need for both effectively modeled historical thinking skills and more compelling practice environments, we saw an opportunity for innovation. After ten years’ experience using the affordances of games and interactives to deepen middle school social studies through Mission US, our game developers wanted to harness the unique capacities of virtual reality (VR) to build historical literacy. We drew on the insights of the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) and the National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS), selecting essential historical thinking skills like contextualization, causation, and sourcing to model and develop in high school history classrooms through a blended VR experience.

Virtual reality has strong potential for teaching history. Like living history museums, VR assembles a three-dimensional historical world to explore––putting students “inside” the past and, through embodied learning, making historical investigations more memorable and motivational. Theorists of embodied learning assert that learning is a product of sensorimotor interaction with the world rather than the result solely of mental activities that occur within the brain’s physical confines (Lakoff and Johnson 1999; Osgood-Campbell 2015). Proponents of experiential learning argue that the most powerful learning experiences are those that allow people to experiment (or “take action”) physically as well as mentally through hands-on activities, reflect on the outcomes, and make changes as required to advance toward goals (Kolb 2014; Kontra, Goldin-Meadow, and Beilock 2012). In this frame, learning activities should be designed to allow students to interact in meaningful ways with their environments to facilitate deeper encoding of knowledge.

Researchers speculate that VR can promote embodied and experiential learning by facilitating presence, or the illusory perception of physically “being there” in a non-physical space (Schubert, Friedmann, and Regenbrecht 2001). Accordingly, students can interact with content in ways not possible with books, video, or even games. They can, for example, pick up and rotate objects, and, in in-room VR, move toward and away from sounds, giving them an intimate sense for the distinctive material culture of a historical era. Students may also be more likely to practice the skills of historical thinking after having them modeled by characters in the VR space and then trying themselves. Similarly, VR may promote embodied learning by enhancing episodic memory (memory of autobiographical events) and visuospatial processing (the ability to identify objects and the spatial relationships among them) (Parsons et al. 2013; Repetto, Serino, Macedonia, and Riva 2016). Some researchers have proposed that the formation of memories is closely tied to the ability to take action on the information being encoded by the brain. According to Glenberg (1997), “conceptualization is the encoding of patterns of possible physical interaction with a three-dimensional world. These patterns are constrained by the structure of the environment, the structure of our bodies, and memory” (see Osgood-Campbell 2015). If this is the case, a learner in a VR setting, who must perform actions (albeit limited gestures, not fine motor movement) to navigate their virtual environment and unlock knowledge, would form more meaningful memories than a student reading the same information.

VR has educational potential beyond the affordances of embodied learning. Research suggests, for example, that the novelty and interactive possibility of VR improves student motivation and increases student recall (Chiang, Yang, and Hwang 2014; Ijaz, Bogdonovych, and Trescak 2017). Furthermore, learning in a realistic virtual space aligns with the methodologies of anchored instruction. Anchored instruction theory posits that more meaningful learning takes place when students are placed in a realistic context, for example by solving a problem presented in a case study (Yilmaz 2011). Often, anchored instruction is supported by technology like video or VR, which supplies the realism of an otherwise unfamiliar situation. In a virtual scenario, students activate “inert” knowledge when they encounter situations to which that knowledge can be applied (Love 2005).

TimeSnap is designed to bring these advantages to the US History classroom. With its immersive and interactive historical spaces, TimeSnap aims to model the work of history as it builds knowledge of historical people, places, events, and ideas. Working under the assumption that inquiry-based learning experiences are the most powerful, our theory of change posits that a brief (fifteen-to-thirty minute) VR experience that models historical thinking skills, followed by a lesson plan that helps students to apply their new knowledge and skills, will be demonstrably more effective at helping students retain and apply historical knowledge and skills than a traditional, paper-based lesson.

Virtual Tour of TimeSnap Mission 1: King Street, 1770

Mission US: TimeSnap is a blended learning experience that marries the capacity of the virtual reality mission with consolidation, support, and deeper exploration in the classroom. It was developed in Unity and optimized for the Oculus Go. The production and research process has been funded by a Small Business Innovation Research grant through the US Department of Education. In each TimeSnap mission, students “travel” back in time to investigate a pivotal period in American history. The core of each lesson is a VR mission in which students explore historical locations, encounter local people, collect and analyze artifacts, and bring back evidence to construct an interpretation of what happened and why. The following case study is focused on the development and testing of Mission 1: King Street, 1770, an investigation of the Boston Massacre. Later missions will build upon this research to explore the Fugitive Slave Law, westward expansion, and turn-of-the-century immigrant communities.

To encourage the critical inquiry and problem-solving skills at the heart of inquiry-based learning, TimeSnap is animated by “missions,” questions that form the basis for the VR task and the lesson to follow. A simplified in-game mission (Find the causes of the Boston Massacre) keeps students focused on a single task during their time in the VR. The classroom lesson poses a more complex question (How did the Patriots and the British each explain the causes of the Boston Massacre?), to be answered using evidence collected in the VR in collaboration with classmates and with teacher support and guidance. For more advanced students, an optional DBQ challenges them to apply what they have learned to a new set of documents and interpret the larger significance of the Boston Massacre in American history.

Entering a three-dimensional virtual space allows players to feel physically immersed in a new world, but TimeSnap extends this opportunity for immersion by including worldbuilding. Students do not simply put on the VR headset and immediately see 1770: they enter a future society with its own fractured history before embarking on their mission. Students are deputized as agents of the Chronological Advanced Research Projects Agency (C.A.R.P.A.), a future government department. C.A.R.P.A. was founded to rebuild the world’s archives using the agency’s signature technology, a virtual form of time travel that replicates historic environments, artifacts, and organisms. C.A.R.P.A. created this technology to repopulate their digital collections and expand their understanding of the past. Agents search for objects and information to fill gaps in the historical record that have puzzled the agency’s scholars. In the King Street Mission, for example, C.A.R.P.A. is aware of the Boston Massacre but does not have the evidence necessary to explain why five civilians were shot by soldiers of their own government. Room by room, students uncover the clues necessary to explain the many factors contributing to the Massacre.

Overview of User Experience

In a three-minute tutorial, agents meet C.A.R.P.A.’s Director Wells, who will be their guide and model for historical thinking. Director Wells outfits agents with a TimeSnap device (the handheld VR controller) that enables time travel and other helpful powers. Wells gives agents a mission: to go back in time and verify or collect historical accounts in order to respond to the mission question (e.g., What caused the Boston Massacre?). Their mission begins with a key piece of evidence––a challenging text or visual primary source. Wells poses focus questions about the evidence and prompts the players to learn all they can by investigating historical figures, locations, and other documents and artifacts. In King Street, 1770, Wells leads agents through three rooms, which are carefully researched recreations of colonial historical settings. Players explore rooms to gather sources and contextual information and to collect and study additional primary documents.

VR Features


Players use the Oculus pointer (or an equivalent) to navigate to, and through, rooms in the VR environment.

Audio Guide

Voiceover (VO) support, in the form of C.A.R.P.A.’s Director Wells, guides players through the space, assigns tasks connected to the lesson question, and models historical thinking skills, including sourcing and contextualization.

Scan, Mind Meld, and Analyze

Players use the pointer to click on people and objects in the VR environment, view hot spots providing background information, “hear” thoughts (Mind Melds), and zoom in for a closer look. This feature is the primary way that players interact with the VR rooms and items.

Close-up of Paul Revere’s “Landing of the Troops” print. In the center of the frame is a transcription of the cursive letters from a corner of the print. Text supports are highlighted in aqua. At the bottom of the frame, the text supports explain that His Majesty’s Secretary of State for America was “the official responsible for overseeing the American colonies.”
Figure 1. Transcription and text supports for Paul Revere’s “Landing of the Troops.”
In the center of the frame, a textbox contains the transcription of a Mind Meld with the tavern keeper. Below the text are two prompts labeled with an ear, inviting the student to listen further to one of the options.
Figure 2. Transcription of the tavern keeper’s branching Mind Meld.


Each room is divided into discrete scenes, known as tableaux. Each is a collection of objects and Mind Melds, typically providing interrelated information. Players must complete a minimum number of interactions with the items in a single tableau before they move on.

Field Notes

Players automatically collect field notes during their interactions with certain objects and people. Notes are sorted into pre-set categories as they are found. Players can track their progress unlocking categories and collecting notes when they return to the C.A.R.P.A. Lab. At the end of their mission, players are emailed copies of their notes.

In the left half of the frame, a text box indicates how many Field Notes the player has collected. The Field Notes are grouped by category (ex. “The Aftermath”, “Taxation”, etc).
Figure 3. Collected field notes displayed in the C.A.R.P.A. Lab.

Evidence Locker, Room, and Exit Questions

After they complete each room, players are asked to select one of three objects to return with them to the C.A.R.P.A. Lab. These objects are held in the Lab’s evidence locker for the duration of the mission. When they return to the C.A.R.P.A. Lab, players answer questions about the items they have selected from each room and about the conclusions they are drawing about the mission question.

In figure 4, holograms of three objects are projected on top of the final Revere Workshop tableau. The closed caption prompts players to choose the object that “best helps you understand the causes of the massacre.”
Figure 4. A room question in Revere’s Workshop.
In figure 5, a follow-up question about the Revere Workshop artifact is projected over the C.A.R.P.A. Lab scene.
Figure 5. The follow-up question from Revere’s Workshop in the C.A.R.P.A. Lab.

Virtual rooms

C.A.R.P.A. Lab

A large space with irregular grey and white walls. In the center of the field of view, a fragment of Paul Revere’s “Bloody Massacre” spins on a small holographic pedestal. The closed caption reads, “It’s a primary source from 1770 that another agent retrieved.”
Figure 6. A fragmentary source is analyzed in the C.A.R.P.A. Lab.

Players begin and end their mission in the C.A.R.P.A. Lab, a cavernous industrial space with an evidence locker for the artifacts students collect from the historic spaces.

  • Room Objective: Acclimate players to the VR environment, introduce them to the mission and Director Wells, and help students reflect on and consolidate information between VR rooms.
  • Number of Objects: 1
  • Number of Mind Melds: 0

Paul Revere’s Workshop

A workshop filled with the tools of a silversmith. In the left half of the frame, a man in colonial attire sits with his back to the viewer. In the center-right of the frame, the player’s pointer rests on a colorful print and declares “Landing Print.”
Figure 7. Paul Revere in his Workshop.
  • Room Objective: Discover the complete “Bloody Massacre” print and explore Paul Revere’s perspective on the Boston Massacre.
  • Tableaux: Revere’s Workbench, Revere in 1770, Revere in 1768
  • Number of Objects: 5
  • Number of Mind Melds: 2

Royal Exchange Tavern

A dim tavern interior with wooden tables and a large fireplace. Two men stand in the center-right foreground. A third sits in the left background. There is a wooden stick on the table behind one of the standing men.
Figure 8. Customers at the Royal Exchange Tavern.
  • Room Objective: Encounter conflicting perspectives and evidence on the Boston Massacre.
  • Tableaux: An Argument, The Tavernkeeper, An Editorial
  • Number of Objects: 4
  • Number of Mind Melds: 4

Boston Gaol

A narrow jail cell. In the center of the frame, a man sits in his shirtsleeves with his back to the viewer. To his left, the iconic red coat of a British soldier lies on a cramped metal bed. To his right, a player’s pointer lands on a piece of paper with the question “What is he writing?”
Figure 9. Captain Preston in Boston Gaol.
  • Room Objective: Hear Captain Preston’s account of the Massacre.
  • Tableaux: Preston Asleep, Preston Awake
  • Number of Objects: 4
  • Number of Mind Melds: 1

TimeSnap Lesson

The King Street, 1770 VR mission is followed by a classroom lesson that helps students apply the knowledge and skills presented in the VR mission. Teachers are asked to lead their students in a mission debrief discussion that helps students review and consolidate the information they were exposed to in the VR. Students are provided a copy of their field notes, pre-sorted into relevant categories to support their inquiry into the causes of the Boston Massacre. Classroom activities and teacher-led discussions lead students to expand their inquiry into the Massacre, from naming and explaining the causes of the Boston Massacre to a critical evaluation of the sources of their evidence. Ultimately, students are expected to use the historical thinking skills modeled by Wells and practiced in the lesson to analyze a new set of documents pertaining to the Boston Massacre and the American Revolution.

Testing and Evaluation

Over the course of its ongoing development, the usability, feasibility, and promise of efficacy of TimeSnap have been evaluated in numerous settings. The final version of TimeSnap, described above, has been substantially revised based on recommendations from two pilot studies (conducted in December 2017 and January 2019), but final testing is still in progress. The results of this summative study, including the extent to which learning was positively impacted by the VR experience, will be shared via the project website.

Initial Phase I pilot study

In December of 2017, a pilot study of the initial Mission 1 VR and lesson activities was conducted with two US history teachers and fifty-nine students in two public high school classrooms (a ninth grade class in Queens, New York, and an eleventh grade class in suburban New Jersey) to determine the project’s feasibility. Students in each class were randomly assigned to a treatment group or control group by their teachers. Prior to the beginning of the pilot, participating teachers and students in the treatment group were asked to complete a Student Immersive Tendencies Questionnaire. During the two-day classroom pilot, all students had the opportunity to engage in the TimeSnap VR experience and were also asked to read, annotate, and respond to questions about four primary source documents related to the Boston Massacre, though students in the control group were asked to complete their analysis of documents before engaging in the VR experience. Many students in the treatment group reported that the immersive nature of the VR experience heightened their engagement and focus during the lesson in addition to aiding their ability to visualize and recall important information about the historical context. Students also reported that they enjoyed having a personal, distraction-free learning space in which to explore and progress at their own pace. Both teachers were able to successfully incorporate TimeSnap into their regular instructional approaches and noted an interest in using VR with their students in the future. To ensure that this novel instructional experience was not going to adversely affect learning, the pilot study also included preliminary measures for efficacy. The treatment group actually showed slight, but not statistically significant, improvements in retention of historical facts. More importantly for the goals of the study, students and educators affirmed the potential for the game to impact students’ sourcing and contextualization skills.

Phase II formative research

In January 2019, a newer iteration of the TimeSnap: Mission 1 VR prototype and accompanying curriculum materials were tested with a group of five eleventh-grade students and one facilitating teacher at a public high school in lower Manhattan in New York City. The instructional session took place in an after school setting over ninety minutes (designed to simulate a condensed version of two individual instructional periods) and was immediately followed by a thirty-minute group interview with all participating students and a forty-minute interview with the facilitating teacher later that week (see Appendix for additional information.) The small sample of student participants (n=5) allowed for in-depth analysis of students’ written responses to open-ended questions, which provided some insight into the nuances of their misconceptions and gaps in understanding.

Key Findings and Implications

All participating students exhibited a high degree of engagement in the VR and subsequent class discussions and collaborative writing activities. The two features of the VR experience students found most compelling were picking up and manipulating objects and Mind Melding with different historical figures. Ironically, though students were able to vividly recall objects they had “touched” in VR, they ultimately struggled to articulate how these interactions informed their understanding of the relevant 2D primary source documents. This suggested that future iterations of the prototype might benefit from attaching deeper, more meaningful content to these popular mechanics, in an effort to better engage and support students in making sense of difficult language and more relevant contextual details. At the same time, it remained important to consider what could get lost through such enhancements to the Mind Meld mechanic, insofar as this feature was intended to function as a support—not a replacement—for the heavy lifting work of document analysis.

All students demonstrated an appropriate degree of intuition about how to interact with key VR features, though most expressed a desire for more opportunities to “click around to figure it out yourself.” Nevertheless, and in spite of the degree to which they chose to engage with in-game scaffolds, all students exhibited difficulty recalling and articulating specific mission goals 
following the experience and there were only minor differences in their performance on a six-question multiple choice pre-/post- VR assessment. When asked to recall important information associated within each VR room, student responses primarily focused on people and objects, with a tendency to describe these elements broadly rather than explicitly referencing their significance to the mission question or historical context (e.g. “three men,” “tools,” “a bowl with writing on it,” etc.). Though students were able to work together to answer sourcing and contextualization questions about “The Case of Capt. Preston of the 29th Regiment,” they were less successful in building and supporting independent arguments related to the “Bloody Massacre” print, where they either interpreted the print as a photographic representation of historical events or failed to acknowledge the broader historical events which informed the creation of the document. Students’ failure to fully meet the lesson’s learning objective, coupled with their professed desire for additional agency and freedom to choose their own level of scaffolding, suggested a need for the incorporation of additional prompts and moments aimed at inspiring students to pause, reflect, and revise their initial impressions as the VR experience unfolds, rather than postponing such activities until students’ return to the “real world.”

Phase II Full Study

TimeSnap is currently undergoing final testing. In December and January 2019–20, the revised build of Mission 1 and accompanying instructional material were piloted in three “treatment” classrooms, while three “business-as-usual” classrooms completed a paper-based lesson on the same content and skills. The first build of Mission 2 will be tested at the same three sites at a date to be determined. Our research partners are evaluating TimeSnap on the following criteria:

  • Usability: Are students able to navigate the VR setting successfully and accomplish the goals of the lesson?
  • Feasibility: Is the teacher able to integrate the students’ experiences in VR with the associated classroom activities to achieve the learning objectives?
  • Fidelity of Implementation: What modifications does the teacher make to the lesson activities or curriculum materials and why?
  • Student Impact: As compared to peers in business-as-usual classes, do high school students who participate in TimeSnap lessons demonstrate greater gains in history content knowledge about topics in American history and in historical thinking skills? How do students relate to and experience history content in a VR-supplemented lesson?

Lessons, Revisions, and Conclusions

Testing has repeatedly shown that students find TimeSnap to be appealing and immersive, a welcome change in the way they approach course material. However, measurable change in students’ approach to historical thinking remains elusive. Since January 2019, our team has drawn on research findings and other insights from our partners at the Education Development Center, the American Social History Project, and other expert advisors in history pedagogy to revise and strengthen TimeSnap: Mission 1. We have taken steps to clarify the mission goal, expand the role of the in-game audio guide, and create space for reflection and synthesis. The Virtual Tour of Mission 1 included earlier in this article reflects those revisions to the design of the game. We believe that the simplified mission, enhanced support from Wells, and deliberately reflective room questions will produce meaningful learning opportunities. We launched Phase II testing in December 2019 in three New Jersey high schools. As of the submission of this article, those tests were ongoing. While we wait for the data and results, we have reflected on our process and identified three critical best practices for would-be developers. As you embark on your own VR production process, here are lessons to keep in mind.

Lesson #1: Plan for Classroom Realities

Bringing interactive technology into the classroom means designing for conditions of scarcity. Even in school districts that value technology in the classroom or experimental instructional design, there are limits on the amount of time and money departments can dedicate to VR. We knew it was essential to design a teaching tool that teachers would actually have the resources to implement. To keep TimeSnap teacher friendly, we have adhered to three core principles:

  • Short: Here, VR best practices align with classroom needs. Industry guidelines suggest that users should not exceed 30 minutes of continuous play, as they then become more likely to report symptoms of simulator sickness, such as nausea, disorientation, and eyestrain (Smith and Burd 2019). In our experience, most students reported little to no discomfort when adhering to these limits. Classroom time available for novel learning experiences is also limited, making the time constraints on VR a compatible limitation. The VR portion of the TimeSnap mission takes twenty to thirty minutes to complete, less than a standard class period.
  • Mobile: Mobile headsets, like the Oculus Go, are less expensive than room-scale VR systems and require far less set up. While mobile VR headsets do not offer the ability to walk or grasp objects in virtual space, they still provide an immersive experience without breaking a district’s technology budget. While new mobile headsets like the Oculus Quest provide six-degrees of freedom, consider that it is not very practical to have twenty-five students trying to walk around the actual classroom!
  • Flexible: Some teachers may have a week to explore the nuances of a single historical event, but most must move speedily through their curriculum. We have created lesson materials that teachers may select from or adapt to their own purposes, from a simple worksheet to guide students through field note analysis to a full DBQ. We also believe that our focus on teaching historical thinking skills (beyond the specific historical context) helps justify additional time spent.

Lesson #2: Less is Still More

Educators have looked to digital technologies to support student learning, including to help shoulder a student’s cognitive load while they wrestle with new or complex information. However, in a VR experience like TimeSnap, there is a risk that the very supports meant to be helpful will inundate students with new information and without any time or mechanism to process that information. Earlier iterations of TimeSnap provided more detail and allowed students more freedom to explore each room at the cost of their comprehension. This is why, despite the fact that some players have requested more interactions and greater freedom of movement, we embarked on a program of simplification ahead of our Phase II testing.

  • Clear Mission: It is critical for students to understand their primary purpose while in VR. We found that having a secondary mission sapped students’ cognitive load without adding to their interest or learning. We pared down the in-game mission question, saving the subtleties of sourcing for the classroom exercise.
  • Audio Guidance: Use a narrator or guide to support students as they navigate virtual space. A guide can do more than just give orders or answer basic questions: she can shape the way students think about the information they encounter. We expanded the role of our in-game audio guide, Director Wells; in addition to her existing function answering hotspot questions, Wells will prime students for a focus task within a room (“I wonder if these people would agree with Revere’s version of events…”) and act as an external memory (“This must be the same print we saw…”).
  • Structured Discovery: Be wary of calls for free exploration of the VR landscape. Some creators understandably believe that more unstructured experiences that allow students to move and explore at will must generate high user engagement. More freedom, however, often creates instructional and logistical problems. Students who are free to explore are also free to miss essential information, and the ability to transition back and forth between rooms makes the VR experience longer and increasingly uncomfortable. We introduced the tableaux system, curtailing player ability to move between sections of a room and complete in their preferred order. This allows us to control the flow of information to students; we feed them information in an order that makes sense. This has the added benefit of reducing the need to script complex conditional answers based on what a student has or has not encountered yet.
  • Repetition: The primary affordance of VR—immersion in a new and exciting virtual space—can be distracting. With so much to look at and absorb, students can easily miss key details unless they are exposed to them multiple times. We threw off our fear of repetition and began recycling key phrases and ideas. The language of the mission question and the various potential causes resurface again and again in the script. Repeated exposure to these ideas, some of them quite unfamiliar, gives students a chance to recognize that this information might be worth hanging on to.

Lesson #3: Cultivating Curiosity

Historical VR experiences are often framed as time travel, where learners can visit the past in the same way they might visit Paris. But what kind of tourists will they be? Sometimes, exploring a nominally “interactive” virtual environment is downright passive. To ensure that students are pursuing and synthesizing information, not just hitting “next,” our production team deliberately constructed a mission that students could get excited to complete. Our developer team designed game mechanics that motivate students to explore widely and make meaningful choices, even within the constraints set by cognitive load. These Phase II revisions reflect recommendations from Phase I and interim testing to encourage more student reflection and synthesis within the VR.

  • Tools for Problem-Solving: Make gameplay captivating by presenting a problem and equipping students with the tools to solve it. By setting a mission goal and creating opportunities for interaction and meaningful choice, TimeSnap presents a compelling problem space for students to navigate. In the C.A.R.P.A. Lab, Director Wells assigns the student a task and models the “hotspot” method they will use to extract information from the objects they encounter on their mission.
  • Meaningful Choice: Prevent students from passively clicking through interactives by prompting them to make decisions. Mind Melds and Room Questions provide TimeSnap’s primary opportunity for meaningful choice. Unlike documents, Mind Melds offer branching choices. When a student selects a follow up option in a Mind Meld, they cannot return to listen to the other option later. This encourages students to select the most interesting or relevant information and can lead to variation in student experience and field note collection. At the end of each room, students are prompted to select a significant artifact to return to C.A.R.P.A. While this ultimately does not affect the outcome of the mission or the information in their field notes, students must use their judgment in choosing what artifact they believe is most relevant to the mission.
  • Rewards: Use in-game reward systems to encourage learning behaviors and help students monitor their improvement or progress. We developed specific game mechanics meant to motivate users to actively explore their environment. For example, students can see how many field notes they have collected on return to the C.A.R.P.A. Lab. This in-game feedback informs students that they are making progress towards their goal. However, equally as motivating is the thrill and wonder of “hands”-on discovery. Phase I research and interim testing indicated that students were most excited to “touch” virtual objects (rather than to read virtual documents) and enjoy discovering “hidden” items. These encounters drive them to keep interacting with the virtual environment in search of new secrets to uncover.

Mission 1: King Street, 1770 received a final round of classroom testing in December and January 2019–2020; Mission 2 is currently in production and will begin testing, conditions permitting, in Fall 2020. We are eager to see how this current iteration of Mission 1 can produce measurable improvements in student knowledge-acquisition[2] and historical thinking, and we will carry forward any new insights we glean from these tests into Mission 2 and beyond. Grappling with the technical and cognitive challenges of VR in the classroom has been a productive process; each frustration forced us to adapt and innovate and ultimately create a better product.

Though it is hardly still “early days” for VR, this technology remains underutilized in education because of significant logistical impediments, and our work to mitigate these obstacles is one part in a long process to make VR a practical and effective pedagogical tool. Including educator voices is an essential component of that long-term mission and one that developers would do well to prioritize. Our developer team is perhaps uniquely well-positioned to partner with educators: after a decade of interdisciplinary collaboration on the Mission US game series, Electric Funstuff has built a robust network of educational researchers, curriculum specialists, and classroom instructors. Even with our considerable experience designing and developing educational games, we actively solicited insight and guidance from these partners. Developers best understand the technical possibilities afforded by new and evolving technologies, but only educators can point us to the areas of greatest need in their classrooms. Seeking balance between freedom and structure, depth of content and cognitive load limits, we will continue to iterate a compelling educational instrument where even the laws of physics are no barrier to historical learning.


[1] Mission US: Timesnap was developed by Electric Funstuff in partnership with the Educational Development Center and the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning at the CUNY Graduate Center. The authors would like to further acknowledge Dr. William Tally, who kindly reviewed drafts of this article and provided invaluable feedback, along with Dr. James Diamond, James Hung, Valentine Burr, Pennee Bender, Donna Thompson, Joshua Brown, Michelle Chen, Jill Peters, Dale Gordon, Benjamin Galynker, Robert Duncan, Caitlin Burns and Peter Wood, each of whom has contributed their talents and expertise to this project.

[2] While pandemic control measures have indefinitely delayed our test of the second TimeSnap mission, we are excited to share preliminary data from the Mission 1 tests from December through January. Independent sample t-tests were conducted to compare treatment and comparison students’ change from pre- to post-assessment on a historical thinking subscale (possible range 1 to 6) and a historical knowledge subscale (possible range 0 to 1). Treatment students showed statistically significant greater pre-post change (M=.19) on the Historical Knowledge sub-scale than the comparison students (M=.04) (t=-2.7, p=.007, Cohen’s d=.54 indicating a medium effect size). Further analysis is ongoing. A full report will be made available on the project website when it is complete.


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Appendix: January 2019 Testing Session Overview

Approximate Duration Research Activities
2 min. The research team shared a brief introduction to study activities and objectives.
5 min. Students completed an online 10-question pre-assessment, which included six multiple choice and four open-ended questions.
5 min. The teacher introduced the lesson with a provided script and by sharing a player onboarding video.
15–22 min. Students engaged with the VR experience.
10 min. Students completed an online Simulator Sickness Questionnaire, Self-Assessment Manikin survey, and a post-assessment that was identical to the pre-assessment taken earlier.
3 min. Students filled in a “memory map” graphic organizer in which they were asked to record all the relevant information they remembered from each VR room visited.
5–10 min. The teacher then facilitated a class discussion in response to the following three prompts:

  • Whose account of the massacre was more believable to you?
  • Did witnesses agree that Preston gave the order to fire? Can this fact be corroborated? Or is it contested?
  • Do you think Preston should have been found guilty?
15 min. Students were grouped according to whether or not they thought Preston was guilty, with two students in the “guilty” group, and three students in the “not guilty” group. In these groups they:

  • Discussed and responded to two sourcing questions in reference to Captain Preston.
  • Read and discussed an excerpt from “The Case of Capt. Preston of the 29th Regiment.”
  • Discussed and responded to two contextualization questions and
    two close reading questions.
5 min. Individually, students assessed the trustworthiness of Paul Revere’s Bloody Massacre print by circling details in the document and briefly describing their significance.
5 min. The teacher led a discussion by sharing John Adams’ role in the trial and connecting the case to the concept of “presumption of innocence.”
25 min. An Education Development Center (EDC) researcher led a debrief interview with students with support from other members of the project team.
40 min. An EDC researcher and the EFS PI interviewed the facilitating teacher at a later date.

About the Authors

Alison Burke is an instructional designer and writer at Electric Funstuff. She leads the research and writing for Mission US: TimeSnap. An educator and public historian, she creates meaningful and accessible encounters with the past for audiences of all ages. She holds an MA in Public History from New York University.

Elana Blinder is the curriculum director at The League of Young Inventors, an interdisciplinary STEAM + Social Studies program for students in grades K–5. In her previous role as a design researcher at The Center for Children and Technology | EDC, she conducted formative and summative research to support the ongoing development of Mission US: TimeSnap and a variety of other educational media products.

Leah Potter is a senior instructional designer and writer at Electric Funstuff. She is also co-founder and president of Hats & Ladders Inc., a social impact organization dedicated to helping all youth become more confident and better-informed career thinkers.

David Langendoen is the President and lead game designer of Electric Funstuff, an NYC educational game studio, makers of Mission US––the critically acclaimed history learning games, produced by WNET, with over 2 million users.

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