Educational Games: Ten Design Tips for Immersive Learning Experiences

Games 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.

Figure 1. Our team plays the biomedical game on a large touch screen table.

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.

1. Understand Your Constraints

Whether it’s gravity for hover vehicles or light speed for warp drive, understanding the constraints around your project is critical. Many designers feel that constraints make them more creative by defining the boundaries they can challenge.

Our team had many constraints to consider. Our platform was a large 8 x 2.5-foot touch table that comfortably accommodated six people playing at one time, two on each side and one at each end. This great crowd-drawing feature posed significant design challenges. Text and game elements had to be within view of each player (not on the other side of the table) and oriented right side up. Our solution was to use six individual docks for the trivia games and to split the table into two teams for action games (see Figure 2).

Diagrams showing the position of players around the table.

Figure 2. Our touch screen table could accommodate six players at a time, which encouraged collaborative interaction, but limited the visibility of game

Unlike Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed, our game was targeted primarily at non-gamers: highly educated doctors of the baby boom generation, who were not likely to be familiar with gaming conventions. Without the ability to use sound, we focused on intuitive swipe gestures and finely tuned visual metaphors to make the game simple but not belittling or trivial.

We also knew that we would have limited time and much competition to capture attendees’ attention in a conference setting. For this reason, we designed the experience to be both flashy and quick. Participants were given a branded card to log in that contained a booklet with more detailed explanations of trivia and action educational concepts. Finally, participant play time could not exceed five minutes.

2. Develop a Visual Language

Goombas and piranha plants are as iconic to Super Mario Bros as star gems and hypercubes are to Bejeweled. Developing a visual language for a game is key to creating a uniform and intuitive game experience. We chose a game look with high saturation, strong outlines, and smoothed geometry to simplify complex molecular shapes. We also took liberty with the size and shape of the binding molecules to make the game easier to play and to reinforce the lock-and-key mechanism (see Figure 3).

Two examples of visual language from science research and biomedical games

Figure 3. In this biomedical game, we used a simplified visual language to make complex objects like
protein receptors more iconic and easier to interact with.

Distilling complex biological content down into meaningful graphics, storyboards, and game levels was one of the most important, challenging, and time-consuming steps in the process. Luckily, we had several biomedical communicators on the team who acted as scientific consultants, artists, and game designers. Having these resources not only made our design process faster, but also made the player interactions and educational messaging more cohesive and accurate.

3. Balance Challenge with Skill

Avoid putting the boss fight at the beginning and let players get in touch with their inner chi. Flow, as Jonathan Haidt puts it in The Happiness Hypothesis, “is the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging, yet closely matched to one’s abilities.” Aim to create challenging, yet interesting and achievable goals that lead to an optimal level of engagement. In A Theory of Fun, Raph Koster says a game should always be giving the player new patterns to analyze and resolve.

To achieve this, it is essential to understand the knowledge and skill level of your audience. It is also important to give players the ability to select the level of challenge (easy, medium, or hard). Creating different game modes (beginner versus advanced), embedding easy and hard challenges into a single level, or introducing increasingly difficult challenges as levels progress enables all players to enjoy and learn. It also maximizes re-playability because the players can learn something new each time they play.

We designed our trivia game with three levels. Questions and mechanics increased in difficulty from simple true-false to more complex multiple choice as the user progressed through the levels. Our action game was also designed with three levels. The first level was a simple scenario in which players had to bind two molecules to a receptor. The second level was a more complex case in which players had to identify normal receptors, avoid abnormal ones, and interact with faster moving molecules. The third level tested the mastery of all of these skills. This type of problem solving, according to Dan Pink, is key to intrinsic motivation because it gives players “autonomy, mastery, and purpose.”

4. Make It Fun

Does 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.

Visuals of the bonus ramp from the game

Figure 4. We added bonus ramps and combo cubes to our biomedical game as surprising non-biological elements.

5. Connect Learning to Prior Experiences

Learning 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.

6. Replace Words with Actions

Although some of us are nostalgic for times gone by, we no longer live in the Wild West of text-based games like Oregon Trail. We found that when people play games today, they don’t read text; they want just to “figure it out.” Therefore, you should not rely on words to tell the story. Instead, use motion, interaction, and as Neil Long puts it, “Use mise-en-scene—the art of telling the story through the environment—to add detail to your narrative without being completely explicit.”

In our game, we used a visual map similar to a flowchart to prime the players on what game to expect. We then used a single speech bubble coupled with animated arrows to reinforce the message (see Figure 5). Minimizing text means there are fewer problems with text orientation, which was a unique challenge of the large four-sided table.

Screen showing a speech bubble saying submit answers to the center before time runs out.

Figure 5. We relied heavily on animated cues and scoring rather than text boxes to communicate
information in the game.

7. If They Do It, They Learn It

From reading urban planning manuals to playing SimCity, people enjoy learning in many different ways. Experts like Jim Gee and David Shaffer agree that games enhance learning through role-playing events—real or fantasy—that players can’t experience in their own lives.

We wanted psychiatrists to walk away with two key messages: that two different molecules need to bind a normal functioning receptor to start a neural impulse, and that in schizophrenia this receptor functions improperly. To communicate these ideas, we made the main actions in the game “flicking” the two different types of molecules toward the receptor and “flicking” the gray abnormal receptor off the membrane.

8. Maximize Collaboration

Think of the stereotype of the teenager playing video games alone in the basement. Now imagine that she invites a few friends over, or perhaps a few thousand. Today, social media and the Internet give people access to vast online communities of gamers, which is a great thing. As David Shaffer discusses in How Computer Games Help Children Learn, collaboration in gaming enables people to learn actively and at their own pace, creating a safe space to take risks and reciprocate actions.

We encouraged collaboration in our action-style game by making two teams, one on each side of the table (see Figure 6). Each team had to work together to “flick” molecules to receptors. This created a common goal and a visual focus, not to mention a sense of competition! Players verbally coached each other and reinforced key messages through their actions.

Closeup of hands playing on the interactive surface

Figure 6. We encouraged collaborative interaction by creating a team-based action game in which
players had to work together to win.

9. Plan for Cheaters

We’ve all been there: why play by the rules if you can win more points using less time and energy? Designers have to anticipate players who want to “game” the system. Otherwise, you risk educating your audience in tricks rather than key messages. In our true-false trivia game, we decided to trigger a time delay after three wrong answers to penalize people who answer randomly. In our action game, we made a circle appear around a molecule after being touched. A player was able to drag the molecule within but not outside this area, preventing him from simply dragging it to the receptor.

10. Measure Success

So what’s your score as a game designer? Evaluating your video game is critical to understanding your success and building better games in the future. And it’s pretty easy. Measuring player interactions can be completely automated and can be done through collecting answers to trivia questions and response times for in-game actions. These data can tell you how difficult players found the game and how much they learned, as well as help you communicate the effectiveness of the game to the stakeholders.

Wrapping Up

Game design is hard to do well. It is even harder when teaching a complex biomedical topic. We hope these practical tips gleaned from our game design experience will help UX designers build more engaging educational games while simultaneously expanding the popularity of games as highly effective, immersive learning experiences.

Scott, B., Lau, B., Gauthier, A., Bartlett, S. (2013). Educational Games: Ten Design Tips for Immersive Learning Experiences. User Experience Magazine, 13(4).
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