Instructional Mobile Games: Playing with Cognitive Load

Design and Development of Digital Games, Educational Technology, Game Theory, Games, Graduate School, User Experience

Can children learn from playing a mobile game? The answer is yes. Every game teaches something, even tic-tac-toe! Yet, what sort of structure is needed to create a game that successfully teaches a student concepts without making them feel overwhelmed and frustrated with instructional learning materials?

From an instructional design perspective, this is where Cognitive Load Theory comes into play.  What is Cognitive Load Theory? Cognitive Load Theory explains how the brain interacts with instructional materials for learning. Watch the video below for a quick explanation. (I would recommend watching the video with your sound off.)

An intrinsically motivating and engaging instructional tool that can be used in the classroom is a game. From a design perspective, the use of a mobile device is an excellent way to decrease cognitive load because of the reduced capabilities of the device and small screen size, limiting media and potential distractions.  Mobile games, in particular, can be used to discourage extraneous cognitive load (interferes with learning) and encourage germane cognitive processes (resources that aid a task). Games build schemas allowing students to learn the underlying patterns, which are held in long-term memory. Students can then later interact with more complex elements, or patterns, that can be manipulated in working memory.

It is vital that educators, instructional designers, and game developers collaborate and use this practical theory when designing and developing instructional mobile games. Below are 3 guidelines for teams to use:

1. DO scaffold learning.

Design simple to complex experiences by starting with an instructions page and build levels from easy to difficult to increase expertise. Within each level provide hints, prompts, and feedback. There are various features that can be used like speech bubbles, point systems, and message pop-ups.

2. DO build a state of flow.

Build a game with predictable experiences that presents procedural information that brings the student in a state of flow, focused on the tasks. In a state of flow, students are fully immersed in their learning and the game, optimizing user experience.

3. DO playtest game with students.

It is important to test the game with users in order to test the effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction of the student experience. Some important questions recommended to be answered: Did the students learn the concepts that were intended in the design? Were the instructional goals of the game met? Were the students satisfied with their gaming experience? Was it fun?

With cognition in mind, it is crucial to consider all of these factors when designing an instructional game. If all stakeholders take into consideration these design guidelines, a mobile game will potentially be a rewarding learning experience for the users. 

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