Educational Games: Ten Design Tips for Immersive Learning Experiences

1Games have become the go-to technology for creating engaging and educational experiences. They have popped up online, in schools, in museums, at large corporate events, and at conferences. User experience designers are now facing the challenge of designing optimal gaming experiences in all of these new contexts.

People playing a game around a table surface.

A major pharmaceutical company tasked us with building a video game to teach attendees at an international psychiatry conference about the pathophysiology of schizophrenia. In case the complexity of the topic wasn’t enough, we also had to make the experience fun and engaging in a space filled with interesting exhibits, all competing for attention.

Our solution involved a series of short, interconnected games that took a new spin on both quiz- and action-style games (see Figure 1). Following the game’s success at the conference, we were inspired to share ten tips that we believe can help UX designers build blockbuster biomedical games.

Connect Learning to Prior Experiences

5Learning is like a game of Tetris: if you have time and the right building blocks, assembling a complete row is easy. But if you don’t, you’re left with gaps and an ever-growing tower of misconnected pieces. Game designers need to make it easy for players to build new knowledge. You can do this by layering information piece by piece and by using a visual language based on the audiences’ tastes and prior knowledge.

We used iconic biomedical representations of neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters, which would all resonate with the psychiatrists. We also used the well-known lock-and-key metaphor for molecular interactions—also understood by this audience. Because players were able to visit other parts of the booth before playing the game, we ensured that the colors and shapes of our key molecules were similar to materials displayed in the booth so that the connections between the different media were clear.

Make It Fun

6Does fun, like the princess in the castle, seem to be just beyond reach? Well, button mashing won’t help! Challenges need to get harder and more surprising as players solve problems and learn new skills. This is because fun is created by uncertainty. Dancing just on the line between too hard and too easy is what leads to the “Aha! I got it!” moment, which motivates players to keep going. Neil Long has a great analogy: Good game design “is like a broken circle—make that break too big and the player won’t bridge the gap. Make it too small and it’s too easy, and the player gets bored.”

We added bonus ramps and combo cubes as surprising, non-biological elements, which proved to make the game more fun and kept attendees engaged (see Figure 4). We used points as well as color changes and pulsing glows of the game pieces and background to create an emotional connection and to reinforce good plays. We also showed players their final score, which was a combination of both individual and team efforts.