From Virtual Reality Games to Online Education: Lessons in Strategy, Design and Engagement 

Take a moment to think of a childhood experience that you never would have guessed at the time, but has become so relevant to the work you do today. I’ll go first. 

It’s 2002. Preteen Brieanna sits at her parents’ desk on a rainy day during summer break, playing a game on their Dell desktop computer.  She is so immersed in the virtual reality of designing her very own zoo habit and attraction, that she doesn’t realize the skills she’s developing. How large should I make the safari enclosure? What animals can I put in the same habitat? How many zoo keepers do I need to maintain the health and well-being of each species? How many food and souvenir stands do I need to make enough profit and afford all the expenses necessary for my virtual zoo experience to thrive? Zoo Tycoon was my rainy day activity of choice when I ran out of library books to keep me entertained. 

I didn’t know it then, but the design and gamification of a virtual reality game like Zoo Tycoon (2001), Roller Coaster Tycoon (1999), and The Sims (2000) taught me skills like understanding processes, the outcomes of cause and effect, the key to developing and utilizing a strategy, and so much more. It was also engaging enough to hold a preteen’s attention for long periods of time and occasionally provided interaction with real-life individuals who were also immersed in the game or simulations of individuals that still provided a connection in some form. I see a parallel between the captivating world of virtual reality games from my youth and the engaging nature of modern online education that I develop daily within my work for Plaid and our client partners. 

What lessons can we learn from virtual reality games? How can we apply the same strategies to the online learning experiences we develop to enhance the learner experience and improve knowledge and skill transfer?  

Learner and user engagement in both gaming and education have evolved over time. Before we review key principles of gaming and how that may be adapted to online education, let’s start by defining what online education is. Online education refers to the delivery of learning and instruction through digital platforms and the internet. It encompasses a broad spectrum of teaching and learning activities that occur in a virtual environment, enabling learners to access educational resources and participate in courses without the constraints of location or time. Online education can range from fully digital degree programs to supplemental online resources that enhance traditional classroom experiences. It can be achieved both in synchronous and asynchronous formats. It can also be paired with in-person learning to elevate a learning experience. Common examples of online education include: online modules, online degree programs, virtual classrooms, educational apps and games, and virtual simulations and labs. 

Key principles of both a successful gaming and online education experience include strategy, design, gamification, engagement and interaction, and networking and community building. 


Implementing a strategic approach to any learning experience is key. The strategy considers meeting learners’ needs, resource management and allocation, instructional design for optimal learning, learner engagement, flexibility and adaptability in implementation, as well as assessment and feedback loops. Developing a learning strategy comes before any development or implementation of online education.  


The design of an online education experience can make or break the effectiveness and accessibility of the learning experience. Instructional design is the systematic development of educational courses and materials. It’s also encouraged to utilize a universal design approach for learning when developing a learning experience to ensure the experience is accessible for all. Implementing universal design principles in online education considers equity in the experience, providing flexible and adaptable options, the simplicity and intuitive nature of the learner experience, as well as providing multiple modalities of perceiving information.  


Gamification uses game design elements in non-game contexts, such as online education, to engage and motivate learners. Incorporating aspects of gamification into an online learning experience can help increase learner engagement in the content, motivate learners to take control of their own development experience, and maintain learner attention throughout the experience. Similar to my childhood gaming experience, integrating gamification into online education provides a learning experience in which the learner enjoys and gains knowledge and improves skills without the implementation of obvious learning methods.  

Engagement & Interaction 

Gamification is just one example of how you could make online education engaging. Engagement is also possible through various learner interactions within an online learning experience. Whether you are developing a synchronous or asynchronous online learning experience, learners interacting with the content and each other increases understanding, enhances capacity for implementing skills, and develops competency. For example, learners could engage with content through interactive videos, simulations, quizzes, and assessments. Learners could engage with the instructor through webinars, virtual discussion forums, and virtual communication methods like social media. Learners could also engage with each other through virtual conferencing platforms, online networking platforms, or online collaboration tools.  

Networking and Community Building 

Online education, while inherently remote and flexible, can still foster significant opportunities for networking and community building among students, educators, and professionals. Some effective strategies for facilitating these connections include discussion forums and online communities, live virtual events and webinars, group projects and collaborative assignments, social media and networking platforms, and virtual learning platforms and apps. By incorporating these elements into online programs, you can create a vibrant, supportive, and interactive learning environment that extends beyond a digital classroom. 

As you can see, there is a lot we can learn from our gaming experiences in our leisure time and apply to the online education we develop to elevate the online learning experience. If any of these concepts sparked your interest, Plaid invites you to join us at the 4th Annual Online Learning Summit. The Online Learning Summit is a FREE virtual professional development experience for anyone interested in learning more about how you can develop, implement, and improve the online learning experiences your organizations and institutions provide your learners. If you are looking to learn from industry experts and practitioners, like yourself as a part of your efforts to help you and your organization Be Better, register for the Online Learning Summit. We hope to see and engage with you virtually on July 17 and 18. 

Register for Plaid’s Online Learning Summit.  

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