If technological gadgets and games are so popular nowadays, it is most likely because they are designed to trigger emotions in the user. For Donald Norman (2005), “The emotional side of design may be more critical to a product’s success than its practical elements” (p. 5). Norman describes three aspects of design: visceral, behavioral, and reflective. The visceral level concerns the appearance of the object and its appeal to our senses. The behavioral level is linked with the pleasure and effectiveness of the object’s use. The reflective aspect of design concerns the intellectualization of a product; the story it tells to the user, the symbolism behind it, its meaning and how this meaning relates to the user’s self-image. All these levels affect humans’ cognition and emotion.

Relatively recently, we did not have many choices among products. There were not many shapes, colors, or textures to choose from. When we needed a new gadget or tool, we would choose the one with adequate functionality. However, now we can choose among products of the same functionality and price range, according to our preferences. Successful high-tech objects are not the ones that are simply functional, but those that are beautiful, meaningful to us, emotionally resonant, and easy to use (usable). Not all smartphones create excitement and long waiting lines at their launch, despite their similarities in function. Emotions and affect greatly influence our thinking and our decision-making (Damasio, 1994; Ariely, 2008). Because we are not the rational creatures we believe we are, a product must also appeal to the user at an emotional level if it is to be successful. Children are also sensitive to emotional design and probably to a greater extent than their elders because appealing pieces of technology have always been part of their everyday lives. As they grew up with computers, the Internet, high-tech gadgets, and video games, these “digital natives” (Prensky, 2006) might expect their environment to be usable, to elicit an emotional experience, and to give immediate feedback. If school wants to become the exciting and stimulating place it once was or could be, it has to embrace technology that is usable and engaging. Offering an emotional experience is not only useful for engaging children with an educational medium; it also influences cognitive processes, such as memory, perception, and attention (Phelps, 2006; Pessoa, 2008) (for an overview see LeDoux, 1996; and Fellous & Arbib, 2005).

There is a whole new field dedicated to improving human-computer interaction (such as with a website or a video game): the user experience field (UX). The purpose of this field is to create a user-centered design: the object, website, game, or software is designed by taking into account the final user’s perspective, needs, and emotions. For example, when designing a car, placing the radio controller next to the steering wheel reflects user-centered design, whereby the end user’s perspective (the driver’s) is taken into account by placing within easy reach an object likely to be used often. Therefore, the user will not need to let go of the steering wheel to reach it (thus enhancing security) and can maintain full control of his or her driving while changing channels or adjusting volume on the radio (thus enhancing comfort). The UX field considers diverse concepts such as usability (ease and agreeability of use), engagement (of emotion and motivation), or flow (immersion in usage; Bernhaupt, 2010). Caring about the usability part is what should come first. If an interactive product is not usable, there is very little chance that it will be engaging, let alone fun and immersive. The term usability as applied to games refers to accessibility and ease of use. Thus, making a game usable entails making it easy and intuitive to use and “paying attention to human limits in memory, perception, and attention” (Isbister & Schaffer, 2008, p. 4). Playing a video game is a learning experience; the player has to discover the game mechanics, solve problems, and constantly acquire new skills and tools as the game progresses. For example, one may need to learn how to jump in a game. A usable way to teach the player how to do so is to teach this aspect of game mechanics in meaningful context and by letting the player acquire the skill while playing. One usable level design solution would be to place a shiny and attractive object right after a hole, such that the player has to jump over the hole to get the interesting object. When close to the hole, a pop-up text could indicate to the player which button to press to jump (and this text would only be displayed if players did not press the appropriate button on their own). A nonusable way to teach this mechanic would be to give the player the controller mapping image before the game starts, as with instructions to read before playing.

Video game editors have begun to use findings in psychology and cognitive neuroscience to ensure that their games provide a fun and enjoyable learning experience. There are numerous video games released each year and players have to commit time and money to them in order to play them. A game in which basic mechanics and codifications cannot be easily and immediately understood has a greater chance of being abandoned by frustrated players. The key to a successful game for a broad audience today is for it to be “easy to learn and difficult to master” (attributed to Atari founder Nolan Bushnell). Thus, basic concepts should be easily accessible, and the game should be challenging enough so that the player is never bored. A list of usability heuristics has been developed by Jakob Nielson (1994) to improve UX in websites and software. These heuristics have been adapted to video games to serve as guidelines for game and level designers (Desurvire, Caplan & Toth, 2004; Pinelle, Wong, & Stach, 2008). Some video game developers now also use UX labs, conduct usability assessments, and even have human-computer interaction experts, cognitive ergonomics experts, or cognitive and experimental psychologists helping them throughout the stages of video game development. To simplify what usability is about, it mainly concerns all the “signs and feedback” that the game provides, such as the specific shape of a nonplayable character (as in the principle that “form follows function”), iconography, sound effects, or visual effects. These elements shape the experience of the game and guide the players through it. If they are not carefully designed, the exciting journey can turn into a frustrating wrestle with the system (which is not that distinct from what some children may experience in the formal educational system, except that a player has, hopefully, greater freedom in deciding when to quit a video game).

Although usability is a steppingstone toward a rewarding user experience, it is not sufficient to promote fun. Another element is needed, which can be called “game flow” (Sweetser & Wyeth, 2005). The game flow model is inspired by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow (1990). Flow is the optimal experience whereby “a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 3). To stay inside the “flow channel,” an activity must not be too easy, or one feels boredom. Similarly, if the activity is too hard, anxiety rises. This not-too-easy-not-too-hard concept interestingly resembles another concept in child development: Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) concept (Vygotsky, 1978). For Vygotsky, the ZPD is the zone between that which the child can already do (too easy) and that which she or he cannot yet accomplish (too hard). Within this zone, the child can develop new abilities with the help of an adult or a more advanced learner. In this theory, play becomes a means by which to extend the ZPD. By combining both Csikszentmihalyi’s and Vygotsky’s theories, we can argue that children (and adults) learn better when they exercise their skills in playful challenges that are not too easy nor too hard, if a more advanced mentor—or a system—helps them master these new skills. The ultimate purpose of Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow is to better understand how to reach happiness in life. The purpose of the game flow model, by comparison, is to determine which elements of flow can be conveyed in video games and how to efficiently use them to improve players’ enjoyment (Sweetser & Wyeth, 2005).

Game usability heuristics and the game flow model both allow the evaluation of player enjoyment, using UX expertise and tools such as playtests, whereby the player’s behavior is analyzed while playing a game in development. The game flow model consists of eight elements; some of them have already been examined by usability heuristics: concentration, challenge, skills, control, clear goals, feedback, immersion, and social interaction. To be enjoyable and allow a playful and learning experience, an educational video game has to be usable and “flow-able.” The problem is that this state is difficult to achieve. Video game companies increasingly invest time and money in UX labs and expertise to ensure that their games are usable and fun, and even then the end result is not guaranteed. Educational video game creators usually have much less money to invest, which makes usability even harder for them to reach. However, by answering the following questions, the developers of an educational game can help to enable usability and game flow in their games:

  • • Is the game introducing its mechanics through a learning-by-doing practice instead of requiring players to read instructions first, before doing?
  • • Is the game conforming to usability heuristics (see Laitinen, 2008)? For example, the user interface must be consistent; the menus and icons must always function in a similar way; and every action of the player must provide immediate, adequate, and understandable feedback.
  • • Is the game motivating? To answer this tricky question, the self-determination theory (SDT) developed by Ryan and Deci (2000b) is often used. This theory places autonomy as the core concept of intrinsic motivation, which results in high-quality learning and creativity. Thus, the activity (here, the video game) must have the appeal of novelty, challenge, and aesthetic value for the children. It should also be connected to the children’s reality and tackle an issue or content of interest to the player. For example, instead of overtly teaching geometry rules, does the game allow the children to experiment with those concepts freely to do something meaningful, such as create drawings?
  • • Does the game offer challenges with increasing difficulty following the children’s skills development? The best way to maintain an appropriate difficulty level in a video game is by using a dynamic difficulty adjustment (DDA) system.

In this system, the difficulty of a game should change dynamically based on the player’s performance. This approach was formulated by game designer Jenova Chen in his thesis about flow in games (Chen, 2007). Just as all children do not learn at the same speed, different players have different flow zones (i.e., experts need more challenge than novices). Therefore, Chen proposed that players should progress in the game at their own pace and stay in their specific flow zone (not too easy, not too hard) by offering them different difficulties, challenges, and choices. Chen applied this concept in the video game called Flow (published by Sony Computer Entertainment in 2006).

These questions are certainly not exhaustive, but they can provide a useful framework for creating educational video games (and any video games in general). Educational games that are designed to address these questions of usability and game flow will most likely be more engaging to children, and hopefully more playful and fun.

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