Building desirably difficult interactive experiences

Exercise is challenging. To gain strength and endurance, we have to work hard and keep working. Like exercise, deep learning is also challenging, and requires effort, time, and practice. Deep learning promotes understanding, retention, and transfer, but it is also hard to achieve. Make learning too easy, and students forget; but if the process of learning is too hard, students disengage.

To create the conditions for learning, our experiences and platforms tap into desirable difficulties.

What it is.

We design challenges that are just difficult enough to foster opportunities for learning.

Desirable difficulties are the conditions of learning that create difficulty but lead to deeper understanding. These difficulties trigger memory processes that support learning, understanding, and retention.[1] By involving students in activities that require analysis and problem-solving, that lie just beyond the reach of their current skills, we can create an impasse: to solve problems students need to engage in deliberation and an active revision of their mental models – a desirably difficult activity which can promote deeper learning, retention, and transfer.[2]

How we do it.

We calibrate difficulties so that the experiences are challenging, but not so challenging that players get frustrated. By marrying difficulties with engaging gameplay, we keep players in the zone and in the right spot to learn.

In the safe environment of the simulation, players naturally need to overcome team-related difficulties and are required to work as a group to problem-solve, communicate effectively, make decisions quickly, and share asymmetrical information.[3] Their efforts are supported by in-game feedback, post-game personalized feedback, and an interactive debrief that underscores the learning objectives. To offset the difficulties they face as they problem-solve, our games feature unexpected narrative turns that keep players engaged and motivated to perform. Player motivation and excitement is anchored in:

The power of the group. Players have to make decisions within their teams, and they care about what happens to their team.

The ability to make many decisions. Teams are presented with multiple options throughout the game. They are given autonomy to make a range of decisions that build on one another.

The sense of accomplishment. Teams produce results and master skills. They are provided with personalized in-game and post-game feedback about how well they (and their teams) did.

Learn more about our simulations and platforms.


  1. [1]

    Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society, 2(59-68).

  2. [2]

    D’Mello, S., Lehman, B., Pekrun, R., & Graesser, A. (2014). Confusion can be beneficial for learning. Learning and Instruction, 29, 153-170.

  3. [3]

    For more on learning and the generation effect see: Foos, P. W., Mora, J. J., & Tkacz, S. (1994). Student study techniques and the generation effect. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86(4), 567.