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When Games Go Small

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The education game market continues to grow rapidly, and mobile learning games are a dominant force in this market. Newzoo, an industry analyst that provides insight for the generic games market, predicts the overall mobile game market across all game types will grow 40 percent between now and 2020. That’s a significant growth increase.

Meanwhile, the Serious Play Conference recently released its annual report showcasing the huge growth specific to the education and corporate training sector. It projects that in the United Stated the compound annual growth rate will be more than 20 percent between 2017-2022. That number grows to 35 percent globally, with the United States and India being the top two markets for serious gameplay. Clearly, it makes sense for L&D professionals to consider what space a mobile learning game (one intended for play on a smartphone) might occupy in the learning and development portfolio of their companies.

A smartphone game is not just a shrunken version of a PC game, just as a limo is not just a bigger mode of transport than a unicycle. The user experience and design aspects one expects from a limo and the intended use of the limo differs widely from that of the unicycle, even though both are modes of transportation. So too is the case with learning games.

The use case for a smartphone game differs from that of a PC game, and the user experience should be different, too. L&D designers need to consider this when developing new solutions. When learning games go small, there are four quadrants of design skills involved:

  1. User Experience (UX) Design. This is the framework and navigation design of your game. This framework makes it easy to learn, easy to use, and easy to add or build onto it if you need to roll out future enhancements.
  2. Instructional Design. This is the design and structure of the experience to meet specific learning needs for a specific audience or audiences.
  3. Game Design. This is the design of the play experience. It includes the core dynamics of your game, rules, and game elements—all working together to enable players to achieve a game goal and have fun doing it.
  4. User Interface (UI) Design. This is the graphical look and feel of the game. It provides the aesthetics and helps create a mood or feel (light-hearted, scary, humorous, intense) to your game. Many developers think UX and UI mean the same thing. They don’t.

It’s highly unlikely that a single individual will possess skills in all four quadrants. It’s also very likely that if you opt to go the route of a mobile learning game, you will need to pull together a team to create that learning game. Understanding each quadrant helps you assemble the right team and do a good job evaluating the game design the team evolves.

When working on developing a new learning game, here’s a quick checklist to consider for each design quadrant.

Instructional Design Checklist

Does your game:

  • Have a clear learning goal and measurable learning objectives focused on a specific learner?
  • Tap into learner motivation?
  • Manage cognitive load by eliminating irrelevant or extraneous content?
  • Provide relevant practice?
  • Give specific, timely feedback?
  • Trigger emotion that can help with long-term retention of learning content?
  • Provide spaced repetition to help with long-term retention of learning content?
  • Use story(ies) to help with long-term retention of learning content as well as involvement during learning experience?

Game Design Checklist

Does your game:

  • Provide players with an intriguing goal or challenge?
  • Match the interests or player types of your target players?
  • Stick with one or two core dynamics?
  • Provide clear rules?
  • Use appropriate game elements such as chance, strategy, cooperation, competition, aesthetics, theme, story, resources, rewards, and levels?
  • Make the scoring relevant, motivating, and understandable?
  • Balance game complexity and difficulty for your player and the time you anticipate them playing it? (you don’t want you game to be too easy or too little complexity, but you also don’t want it too hard or have too much complexity either.)

UX Design Checklist

UX best practice is to design to the smallest screen. This means that your design supports these attributes on the smallest phone size players are likely to use. It’s a good idea to draw the line at the iPhone 5, which is 1136 x 640 pixels or 4-inches diagonally. Good UX means:

  • Have legible text.
  • Have touchable targets that a typical adult finger can easily succeed at using.
  • Cut the clutter.
  • Focus on one key action or use per screen.
  • Make the navigation intuitive.
  • Make the experience seamless if intended for multiple devices.
  • Cater to contrast.
  • Design for how people hold/use their phone.
  • Minimize the need to type.
  • Attend to the small things to make a big difference.

UI Design Checklist

This checklist is the smallest, yet the aesthetics (or look and feel) of your game has a major impact on uptake and continued gameplay. This translates into best learning, assuming you executed well on the instructional design checklist items. When creating your UI design:

  • Be consistent. Treat every button of the same type in the exact same fashion. Treat all screens of a single “type” the same way. Use fonts and text labels for things consistently.
  • Design to your user—and not to your personal preferences. For example, while you may love anime art, your corporate user may find it insulting or trivial.
  • Do not reinventing standards. Use what’s common and comfortable. There is a thing called “heuristics” for a reason. (Note: UX/UI heuristics are often bundled into a single list.)
  • Ensure the design is an enhancement of the focus and not the focus of your game experience.
  • Give users clear feedback about what to do and where to go. Be forgiving of user mistakes. Include plenty of prompts and helpful guides.

Want to Learn More?

For a deeper dive into good game design, join me at the ATD 2018 International Conference & EXPO for the session: When Games Go Small. I’ll share numerous examples, and you’ll have a chance to practice using the checklist. In the meantime, check out my book, coauthored with Dr. Karl Kapp, Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games .

About the Author

Sharon Boller is president and chief product officer of Bottom-Line Performance, Inc. (BLP), a learning solutions firm she founded in 1995. Sharon has grown BLP from a single-woman sole proprietorship to a $3M+ company with 30 team members. Under Sharon’s direction, BLP created the Knowledge Guru™ learning game platform. Knowledge Guru is the recipient of numerous industry awards, including the coveted Brandon Hall Gold award for best innovation in gaming and technology (2014). BLP has also produced a wide array of other award-winning learning solutions. They earned Brandon Hall awards for best advance in sales training, best use of games and simulations for learning in 2014. They've earned numerous Horizon Awards as well. 

Sharon frequently speaks on game-based learning and learning design topics at the local and international level for eLearning Guild, ATD, CLO, Training Magazine, and other industry groups. She is also the author of numerous articles on game-based learning, learning science, and instructional design, as well as a book featuring team building simulations and games, Team Training. She also has an authoring credit for one of the chapter’s in Dr. Karl Kapp’s book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Field Book.

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