Tag Archives: mlearning

How mobile learning games are different

As part of a class I’m taking, I’ve been looking at the characteristics of mobile learning games. What qualities of mobile devices can we exploit to create richer learning experiences?

Unique affordances

As noted by Benjamin Stokes at the Games for Change 2011 Conference, “More than 90% of the world population is covered by mobile networks.” The widespread nature of mobile devices and the pervasiveness of games means that there can be significant opportunities for engagement through these devices—when learning games are designed well.

Mobile learning games offer opportunities for:

  • Mapping:  games that require players to  notice and interact with their communities and physical spaces
  • Touring: games that connect people to organizations (e.g., non-profits, neighborhood organizations) and  people who work there.  These games tell a story through a space, not necessarily about a space.
  • Performing: games that immerse players in role-playing, simulations, and alternative and/or augmented realities

(Stokes, 2011)

Additionally, mobile learning games can balance on- and off-screen time, which means that learning activities are not necessarily dependent on what learners see on their game displays. Mobile learning games can also be designed for “temporal flexibility” and can be played in short bursts  (Woodill, 2011, p. 135).

The social connectiveness that mobile devices offer should not be neglected. Mobile games can incorporate conversations and activities in real-time as well as asynchronous activities through the use of physical and virtual social networks. Further, learners can communicate with both their bodies and their devices in certain types of games (Woodill, 2011, p. 135). Thus, mobile learning games are more likely to connect learners to physical and social spaces than online games played on personal computers  or using video consoles.

Types of content and game mechanics 

The optimal content of mobile learning games is very dependent on needs of target learners. In general, mobile learning games need to have simple rules and displays need to be easy to understand and manipulate because of time constraints. In addition, games should be interruptible and/or game goals should be achievable in a brief period of time (e.g., under 10 minutes.) As noted by Maxi and Tarkus (n.d.), content should “focus on core information without redundancy.” Further, mobile learning games should have simpler graphics than their PC/console counterparts: the types of graphics necessary to create 3D immersive environments may not port well to smaller devices. Platform idiosyncrasies may also dictate the types of media that can be used. For example, Flash is still a non-starter for iOS-based devices (though the advent of HTML5 may make this a non-concern).

Mobile learning game mechanics should connect to social experiences and tap into all of the affordances of mobile devices, such as the ability to:

  • Take pictures
  • Record audio and video
  • Obtain location-based information (e.g., via GPS),
  • Text
  • Communicate through social media
  • Communicate via phones (probably the least utilized potential of these devices)

Additionally, activities should be tied to locations that are relevant to the learners (e.g., schools, popular clubs, relevant workplace environments) (Maxl & Tarkus, n.d.).


Challenges to mobile learning games include many of the challenges faced by non-mobile games: a need to link game goals to learning goals without destroying the emotional resonance of the game.

Additional mobile device-related challenges include:

  • Development costs
  • Keeping up with rapid changes and platform updates
  • Challenges in developing games for multiple platforms
  • Challenges in developing games customizable by teachers
  • Challenges in connecting good game designers with good instructional designers during the design and development process (both knowledge domains don’t seem to be connecting well enough yet)
Despite these challenges, these are exciting times for mobile learning games. New technologies and interdisciplinary approaches afford opportunities for  innovative designs that are both engaging and effective. 

Maxl, E., & Tarkus, A. (n.d.). Definition of user requirements concerning mobile learning games within the mGBL project. [PowerPoint slides]

Stokes, B. (2011, June). Trends in gaming: rethinking mobile. Presented at the 8th Annual Games for Change Festival. New York, NY.

Woodill, G. (2011). The mobile learning edge. New York: McGraw-Hill.