VR Scout - Hops
Sustaining Farms Through Virtual Reality Agricultural Training
A huge misconception we want to break at GameTheory is that games are just for gamers. Everyone plays games in some way or another, and you don’t have to partake in gaming as a hobby to earn the educational benefits that many games have to offer. The truth is, games are often just a really helpful format for explaining how systems work, assessing knowledge, and feeling rewarded for the work you do. Games can be a great, straightforward solution to an otherwise complex problem. VR Scout - Hops is the perfect example of how two otherwise distant fields, farming and technology, can come together to use games to solve a difficult problem - year-round realistic, and consistent training for hops farmers.
Finding a Solution Together
For this project UVM Extension approached us with a clear need - hops farmers in Vermont have to have essential training on scouting practices to identify problems in their fields like pest infestations, mold, and crop damage. With a short growing season, and a long winter in Vermont there’s limited time for farmers to get into the field and practice identifying these agricultural problems. Making it harder still, there’s a limit to the real world experience which farmers can get identifying damage since when their crops are maintained and treated they’re less likely to show the full range of damage and infestation that can happen.
Together we came up with a goal - create a realistic way for hops farmers to simulate all the different issues their crops can face, self-assess their ability to scout, and to help them learn how to scout. Our solution, VR Scout - Hops is a virtual reality hops scouting game that systematically meets this goal through a few simple mechanics and interactions.
The Experience in VR
In VR Scout - Hops you put on a virtual reality headset and find yourself in a hops field in the middle of the growing season. You can look around and see rows of hop bines and leaves based directly on the look and layout of local farms in Vermont. In each level you’ll visit a new farm with a unique and important problem that it’s facing. In some levels you’ll see Potato Leafhoppers damaging the field, as they eat away at the liquid within a leaf, leaving it yellowed and weak. In other levels Japanese Beetles have chewed away the soft leaf between the veins, so that the plants will have holes across them in a pattern similar to lace.
With this crisp view into the field, you’re in the perfect environment to practice scouting, the process of choosing a representative sample of leaves and scavenging them for signs of damage and pests. You can pull leaves off the hops plants, flip them, and get an up close view of bugs, and damage throughout the field. As you scout the field for issues that are threatening the crop, you can record what you see just as you would on a real day of scouting. You’ll write down what you notice and how severe the symptoms appear to be.
When finished, you’re assessed on how well you identified key issues. You get a score based on how accurately you identified pests, damage, and helpful bugs and get to check out the problems you might not have noticed. Each time you play the level is slightly different to help you hone your skills over time. Just like in real life, the pests you see will be a different in each field every time you visit. This helps farmers understand where their assessment strengths are, see accurate examples of damage and understand when a pest is just an outlier, versus an indicator of a larger issue.
Although games are rarely thought of as an agricultural solution, in a case like this a game was a natural fit. Games offer the ability to create a new world for us to visit, practice, and build our skills in. In VR Scout the world we needed to build was an amped up version of our own local farms. Now the skills built in VR Scout can be developed in any season, and used to foster better, healthier farms across Vermont.