Everyone hates failing. Society teaches us that failing is the worst possible outcome to anything. That single concept can literally paralyze people, perhaps you’ve had a moment where you didn’t even start something, simply for fear of failure.
But why is it that when we play a game, failure is perfectly fine, even in certain games it's necessary, it’s part of the process? And why does the punishment of failure in a game fade quickly when in the real world, it seems so crushing?
What a game does is promote a paradigm of experimentation, failure, repetition, and mastery when trying to accomplish a goal. Much of modern society is based on the model found in traditional education: abstract knowledge consumed as quickly as possible, just enough competency to possibly succeed, only getting one chance to succeed, and more than likely being permanently punished for failing if we don’t succeed at the first go.
This may be a somewhat biased view, but it does hold true for many institutions and occasions. The problem that arises from this view is that a culture of failure-avoidance arises, and with that comes a lack of innovation because the tried and true method leads to repeatable success and avoids possible failure from experimentation.
And this type of thinking has become a problem, but luckily, we can learn from games and gameful design how to better gamify the process of experimentation, failure and eventual success into our daily lives.
Amazingly it is not only certain educational institutions that are guilty of not embracing the power of failure and experimentation. Triple-A game titles are also blameworthy in shying away from allowing failure to occur.
Too many companies feel that their games should not have failure in it, or if it does, it is an abstract issue that is quickly overcome. There is a sense that real failure that requires effort is possibly too harsh of an outcome.
Like traditional education, they also favor speed and luck. The faster you can get through the content the more likely you will feel that you are good at what you do. And this is often achieved through a process of easy onboarding, which requires minimal competence (an effect of requiring speed and efficiency). Think of any Warfare themed FPS game, Call of Duty, Battlefield, and so on. Especially their so-called single-player narrative campaigns lack depth and avoid negative experiences.
What this invariably creates is a false sense of achievement. It almost falls under the same sensation as luck, as no real effort was exerted, therefore you could win because you should always win. Why else go through the process if not to always get the accolade at the end, proving that you did it?
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? So many of us do courses, push others, our children, parents, siblings, etc… to undertake certain educational routes simply because the diploma at the end will offer more opportunities. And many institutions now try their best to race you through it as quickly as they can.
But if we fail, well then, it’s all over. And neither of those examples really have adequate structures to deal with failure. The triple-A game, because they don’t want you to fail, and education because failing isn’t an option to start with…
When dealing with failure, you need to create and implement robust structures around discussing the failure. For many, this probably sounds obvious, but so few put the work in to do this. Ensuring success is apparently hard work.
When a failure occurs, feedback needs to be as instantaneous as it can be. In games, you know you’ve failed straight away, how many have played the Dark Souls series and have the words “You died” seared into their retina’s. You know you failed, but the advantage is that you are instantly allowed to retry straight away, building upon what you just learned.
This feedback-experimentation loop may not be as easy to implement in the real world, but fast feedback is necessary. No feedback means the failure is ignored and nothing is learned. Too many corporate environments are guilty of ignoring and avoiding failure at all costs. This leads to a culture of blaming because it is the most efficient way to find the cause, any cause, get rid of it and move on.
Also, a false concept that accepting failure is a sign of weakness and promotes low performance. And that failing at all is a shameful and often times final event.
None of these are positive experiences...Yet somehow in a game, we receive direct feedback, usually, visually, we have a moment to reflect on what we tried previously and miraculously our performance increases because we have developed an inherent need to succeed. We need to prove that we can overcome the challenge.
This structure of fast feedback, once a failure has happened, allows for the responsibility of the failure to be understood, embraced and built upon. We learn from mistakes and correct them as we move along.
What this creates is a paradigm shift that failing does not need to be shameful. Gamifying the event of failure allows for a positive learning experience. The individual develops a growth mindset as a result and a level of empathy is fostered in learning to understand where it went wrong rather than developing apathy for retrying or learning that a non-positive outcome should be punished.
What often happens when you fail in the real world is that you become isolated. This for many is a reason to fear failure. Being alone when something hasn’t gone well is a terrible feeling. When this happens, no educational value is gained from the failure. Allowing for communication and community building offers the ability to disseminate information so that perhaps others can avoid the pitfalls that you encountered.
Now you may be thinking, but there are games that are only single-player, there is no community there to communicate with when you fail, isn’t that also isolating? The reason here is that so many games in fact organically create communities around them because people enjoy playing them and learning from their mistakes to go further in the game. Yet for some strange reason when we fail in the real world the notion often is that this should be dealt with in solitaire. Very few communities organically grow around corporate failures or educational stumbling blocks. (Some do but are viewed with a sense that those they need it clearly aren’t clever enough to follow the traditional method).
When considering how to implement game-like concepts with failure in the real world, ensure that all failure is a communal experience. When you work in a team, you may fail or succeed together, but at least you are always learning together. A solid motivator for learning anything is relatedness with others.
The idea of “2 heads are better than 1”, experiments, failures, and success need to be verbalized out loud, discussed, brainstorming solutions and analyzing problems are all part of the learning experience.
By doing these various steps and activities we learn that failure teaches us that making a decision is not easy and that decisions, great and small, all have consequences. This is a lesson worth learning at any age, not just children. We can all benefit from the knowledge that experimentation and failure open's the mind to multiple, possible solutions, each attempt at success is another path to achieving it. It is developing this sense of persistence that results from embracing failure.
As with a well-designed game, if done correctly with good feedback, failure can create a curious mind in the player. One that seeks a method to success, one that seeks as many alternative methods as possible to achieve success. Their minds are open to retry as many times as needed to achieve success.
But why do these players do that? Beyond saying that failure in the real world is harsh, what is the hidden motivator behind a good game that pushes people further than they would normally go?
One of the motivators is that the environment in which they are failing is structured in such a way that they there is always a glimmer of success. If only you try one more time, you’ll win. The experience is always at the edge of proximal development. At the edge of mastering the skill needed to finally succeed.
What games are good in, is that during this period, they also deliver just-in-time knowledge, further pushing you to want to discover how to succeed.
But that’s all well and great in a game, right? The game was designed that way, how do we create just-in-time knowledge delivery in the real world? We don’t have to, it already exists. If we allow ourselves to move away from the concept of isolation around failure and move to experimentation and iteration, then with our mobile, information-rich world, we already have the knowledge we need on demand. As Elon Musk has often been quoted as saying, we need to expand the bandwidth of interaction with digital technology.
Once all of those concepts are understood, accepted and embraced, we develop a strong and much-needed ability: persistence. Failing in the correct way creates the motivation to succeed, to push past where you would normally give up because you don’t win if you quit.
The main issue when considering how to gamify something like experimentation and failure is that when it’s a game it’s safe, the real world isn’t that safe. The phrase “it’s just a game” is often invoked, because the idea that failing in a game likely holds no educational value or emotional longevity. And if we were to fail in the real world, then certain things would turn out catastrophic, and permanent. You certainly wouldn’t want a heart surgeon to treat a by-pass as a game and have another go when it didn’t work out.
What we need to do is understand the value of creating a game that replicates the experience. When we play a game we actually become emotionally (and sometimes physically) invested in the experience it provides. And unlike in a film or a novel, if we fail in a game we are genuinely upset. How often have we seen or heard someone get angry at a game? If “it’s just a game” then why do we care so much?
The game is a powerful learning tool, especially if we can fail without the patient dying on the operating table. What the game or gamified experience does is allow us to understand the failure, not avoid it, and help us build up knowledge and resistance that we can use in the real world.
This is why in certain more modern educational institutions, simulations, and live action role-playing events are so successful, because they replicate real-world experiences, offering real challenges that require time and emotional investment. And allow a safe environment to fail in and learn from as a group.
What you should take away from this is that experimenting and failing are ok, as long as you learn from it and continue in a pursuit to succeed. Failing for the sake of failing because of lethargy or apathy is of no benefit to anyone, and no amount of gameful design can solve that issue.
For these concepts to succeed, an atmosphere of empowerment needs to be created. The challenge must be worthwhile, the tools for success must be available, and the feedback needs to be fast and well structured.
I hope you found this piece useful, and if you know of others who would find use in it as well then please do share it.