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Bug Off Pain: virtual reality game with an educational value

New research – led by UEA Pharmacy postgraduate student Lucka Bibic – shows how virtual reality games aren’t just fun but also educational. 

People usually perceive spiders, scorpions, and snakes as aggressive, dangerous, and lethal, a view that is continuously reinforced by Hollywood movies.  But can these bad guys turn good as well?  Their venom may have therapeutic potential for treating pain, stroke, irritable bowel syndrome, and bacterial/fungal infections. Still, public perception is skewed towards the potential harm they can inflict in humans. Unfortunately, this holds true for many other research areas, in which a major breakdown of communication between scientists and the public is recognized.

Lucka Bibic, who is studying spider venoms and chronic pain, wanted to do something to address this issue: “Well, two years ago I remember thinking, ‘Lucka, what about if you gamify the idea on your Ph.D., chuck some spiders in and make it into VR? Would that make your research more accessible to people from all walks of life?’”  Lucka then teamed up with two students – Justinas Druskis and Sam Walpole and the team came up with a virtual reality (VR) game called Bug Off Pain. Here, VR was used as an innovative approach to science communication and public engagement in biochemistry. Bug Off Pain places the viewer inside the brain and shows the molecular system that allows people to sense pain. After securing three (learning) points via the multimedia-based clips, this experience translates to the interactive game where a player has to choose venom that shuts down the pain until that results in “pain over.”

“Initially, we hoped that our game would take the pain out of the public engagement, but we figured out that Bug Off is not only fun and games; to our surprise, our game also has an educational value,” said Lucka, a lead author of the study. “Our data points out that Bug Off Pain is a really fun way of learning about biochemistry of venoms through narrative and play.” Their results show the positive outcomes in promoting learning about chronic pain and the biochemistry of venoms via a VR medium. “In a nutshell, the students who played virtual reality game Bug Off Pain performed better on the test that the ones who only watched the video clips in the non-VR environment,” said Lucka.

This paper is first of its sorts that offers how researchers and educators can utilize their own research topics in VR games, and evaluate these games appropriately. “But just to point out - our game is not meant as a total replacement to any current effective pedagogy. It just means that VR approaches as such may be a valuable learning aid to the teaching toolbox that educators can leverage to engage the modern learners,” Lucka highlighted.

Lucka can’t wait to see what the future holds for these VR platforms. The paper “Bug Off Pain: Educational virtual reality game on spider venoms and chronic pain for public engagement” was published in the Journal of Chemical Education last week.

Photos by Saurabh Prabhu.