This Melbourne Creative is Using VR to Help Youth Gain Work Experience

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The virtual world solving real-world problems.

Imagine a virtual reality experience that changes the lives of unemployed young people and opens doors to job opportunities in the growing disability sector? It sounds like pure genius. With many long-term unemployed young people around Australia struggling with access to the training they need to enter work, we wanted to find out how tech is evolving employment.

Starting out as a dream on a napkin 10 years before the tech was available, Melbourne-based filmmaker and director Ben McEwing and his team were asked by Registered Training Organisation Workforce Plus to design an interactive VR game. An Australian Government Grant provided the funding for the project as part of the Empowering Youth Initiative, which focuses on innovative ways to help young people aged 15-24 years improve their skills and move toward sustainable employment.

However, Ben realised early on in developing WorkPl►ysVR that if video and story intertwined seamlessly in the game, young people could have a “real life” experience of being a disability support worker, engaging with “real people” portrayed by actors with disability.

Using storytelling to teach

“For me, the answer was to personalise the stories and ask the audience to participate in them. I wanted the participants to feel respected and needed, so I made sure that the characters in the scenes spoke directly to the camera and asked for help. We chose the gender-neutral name of Sam, so it didn’t matter if the participant was male or female.

“In the scenarios, a character will turn to the camera and ask Sam for help of some kind. For example, in the cooking scene, they ask Sam to find some missing ingredients for the dinner they’re preparing. This then triggers the game play and further engages them.”

The project has helped young people experience work and training in a more modern way.

“If you look at traditional work experience, it’s usually pretty boring. Young people are made to sit in an office and do someone else’s filing or any other low level shit-kicker job that no-one else wants. This game experience puts them out in the field and asks them to participate in real-life situations. It’s both practical and entertaining. Plus, they are given choice all the way through. Their free will is respected. No-one is talking at them or telling them what to do. They are invited to participate and if they do, they benefit.”

Trial run a real-life job

By having a virtual experience of the role first, young people are able to make empowered choices about their lives.

“What I really hope is that it will help these young people realise that they have a lot to offer and are inspired to take action. The VR experience itself requires patience to sit through and we did that on purpose. The scenarios pretty much run in real time, so it requires concentration from the participant. If someone is going to work in the disability sector, patience is one of the top traits required for the role. We embedded that into the experience. So if someone sits through it and thinks, ‘Yeah I’ve got what it takes’… then I have done my job.”

Virtual reality and storytelling combined provide a unique way to help shift the mindset of disadvantaged young people, who are suffering low self-esteem or do not have role models to look up to. The experience aims to teach young people as well as give them a taste of the industry.

“Our role was to open their minds to other possibilities and show them that they are capable of a lot more than they currently believe. The idea was born out of that need. What could we do to take them from ‘I can’t do this’ to ‘Wow, this looks pretty cool’”?

The biggest reward is seeing how the tech is able to create real change in the lives of young people, right before your eyes.

“When they started, many of them were very shy and unable to communicate clearly. They had limited skills and were very reluctant to put themselves out there. Six months later, many of them are now working and/or studying. They are happier and their self-confidence has grown immeasurably. This doesn’t just impact them, but also their families, friends and communities. Now they’re pumped to be out in the world and contributing. And they, in turn, will inspire others to do the same.”

Social change is in constant evolution, just like the tech itself. So how will VR look in the future, if we could see a crystal ball on the other side of the headset lens?

“What I see happening is that all these bugs will be ironed out and the level of interactivity will improve to the point where the participant can really guide the story. The choices they make within the VR environment will alter what they experience in real time. Kind of sounds like real life, doesn’t it?”

We would love to hear your thoughts