Gesamtkunstwerk: It’s both the coolest word you’ll learn all day and the hardest to say. A Gesamtkunstwerk, German for “total art” or “all-embracing art form,” is a work of art that uses multiple art forms in a single composition. Richard Wagner and other 19th-century artists and philosophers coined the term and explored the idea of combining every art form possible into one—specifically, combining music, dance, and theater to create an opera performance. Seems obvious to us now, but at the time, this was a revolutionary concept.

Virtual reality (VR) video games are the latest incarnation of Gesamtkunstwerk. They simultaneously employ myriad art forms in creative new ways, including cinema, documentaries, interactive theater, music, soundscapes, literature, architecture, visual art, electronic graphic design, fashion design, sculpture, and dance. A few brave souls are even working to integrate the culinary and olfactory arts into their experiences. VR and video games appropriate virtually every art form imaginable, but they don’t stop there, also adding in liberal doses of entertainment, education, commerce, social media, science, and, of course, technology.

VR video games are the Gesamtkunstwerk to end all Gesamtkunstwerk. The total “total work.” Let’s call it Gesamt-gesamtkunstwerk. Wagner would be proud.

What an opportunity! We can create whatever experience we want, for whatever purpose we choose. No, we should create this. Building life-changing VR games is not only our opportunity, it’s our responsibility. It’s a tool that is changing the world, whether we realize it or not. It’s art at its most powerful. In the future, the world will consist of two kinds of people: those who create and play VR and AR games, and old fogeys quickly getting left behind.

Educators of all stripes better pay attention. Can you imagine a better way to teach or train than to fully immerse your students into a beautiful, exciting, repeatable, and memorable interactive experience that wholly engages their minds and bodies at whatever pace they choose? Can you imagine day-to-day lessons being any more fun*? Any more cross-disciplinary? Any more effective, efficient, affordable, or scalable? We have no excuse for letting learning be boring ever again.

*Besides an African safari or a field trip to the Louvre, perhaps, but even those could probably be enhanced with a VR game or two.

Gesamtkunstwerk in action

But Matt, you may be asking, are there any VR and serious game projects that actually demonstrate these lofty Gesamtkunstwerk principles? I’m glad you asked. Below you’ll find several examples of how Gesamtkunstwerk VR games can be used for eLearning.

Firsthand Technology

Firsthand Technology is a company that creates VR games to help people relieve pain. The founders first created SnowWorld in 2008, a VR game built at the University of Washington HITLab in collaboration with the Harborview Burn Center to help burn victims forget about their pain. During painful treatment sessions, players don VR goggles and throw virtual snowballs at penguins, snowmen, and other icy targets, all while listening to an upbeat Paul Simon track. Patients report reduced pain and even feeling physically cooler while playing, and it’s not just a psychological trick, either. Brain scans made during game play back up the claims. Check out this uplifting ScienCentral video for more about the project.

Firsthand has since developed more advanced (but equally entertaining) VR games for pain reduction, including Cool! and Glow!, both of which also teach users how to use biofeedback to control bodily functions such as heartbeat.

SnowWorld, Cool!, and Glow! provide examples of eLearning in action. Through beautiful imagery and calming music, these serious video games act as psychological treatments, teaching people how to consciously control their bodies and distract their minds from pain.

Notes on Blindness: Acoustic Space

In 1984, the writer and theologian Dr. John Hull began to go blind. Throughout the two-year process, he recorded audio diaries on cassette tapes, which were transcribed into a book in 1991. Last year, a short film and feature film were also created as part of the project, plus a Twitter page to connect with the community building around the film.

In November, the New York Times added to this ever-growing project by releasing a cool multimedia experience called Notes on Blindness: Acoustic Space. Readers download the free NYT VR app and use a Google Cardboard headset to experience a simulation of what it’s like to be blind. The viewer sits on a park bench, staring at blackness in 360 degrees. An excerpt from Dr. Hull’s audio diary begins to play, a recording he made while actually sitting in a park. In addition to his voice describing the nature of sounds and the experience of being blind, the various background sounds you hear—cars, birds, children, rain—are visually represented by evanescent lights. This builds up an eerie and continually fading visual scene all around you, representing how a blind person might “see” his or her surroundings by listening carefully.

On the same day the NYT released this VR experience, it also published an “op-doc” (opinionated documentary) explaining the background of the project, as well as a personal essay on what it’s like to go blind by acclaimed writer Edward Hoagland, who went blind late in life.

Like Firsthand’s games, this project is a visually stunning VR experience that includes a rich soundscape, but it also includes audio diaries, documentary/drama film with musical tracks, a nonfiction book, an op-doc, and a personal essay with an accompanying graphic image. l learned a lot about blindness as well as gained empathy for people with physical disabilities by exploring the project. These results were clearly at least part of the project’s aim, making it another fine example Gesamt-gesamtkunstwerk at work.

Other examples

While I’d love to discuss many more examples in depth (and I may in a future article), for now I’ll just list a few more excellent examples for you to explore on your own:

  • Kahoot is a fascinating educational quiz show game with Gesamtkunstwerk qualities
  • Minecraft, which can be played on smartphones, on computers, or in VR, teaches children and adults alike to be creative, solve problems, and navigate the digital world in novel ways
  • The Crystal Reef, a mostly underwater 360-degree documentary, educates viewers on ocean acidification and how elevated CO2 levels are damaging our coral reefs
  • Fragments of Him is a serious game with an interactive narrative allowing players to experience one man’s death, the people he influenced, and their stories and emotions after he died
  • Deep is a beautiful serious VR game with accompanying haptic belt that teaches players to alleviate their stress, anxiety, and mild depression through game movements controlled by slow, conscious breathing instead of traditional hand controls


VR games embody Gesamtkunstwerk principles more completely than any other art form has before. Thus, teachers, instructional designers, and corporate trainers can use this aesthetic concept to create educational experiences like no one has ever experienced before. The possibilities are limitless, and plenty of people are already creating fascinating projects in the space. Let’s get to work!

What VR and serious game eLearning projects are you working on that demonstrate Gesamtkunstwerk principles? What additional examples do you know about? Please tell us and link to them in the comments below.

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