We live in a society where academic failure is not an option. The statistics bear out that the more successful you are in education, the more well-off and unemployment-proof you will be over the long haul. Add to that the fact that students and/or their parents are often paying a premium price for higher education, and you have a situation with significant pressure to perform. Thus students are conditioned to avoid failure in school. Such a fear is healthy and can be motivating, but it also presents a problem if failure is never experienced because coming up short sometimes helps to prepare students to overcome obstacles in their future. If they never take risks, then they fail to learn from their mistakes. Grades further complicate the situation because in order to get an "A" students must never fail.
Games, in contrast, depend on failure to teach. They literally push players to the edge of their ability and knowledge; then the best games change or adapt when a level is reached to push players further. In order to succeed, players must encounter and overcome obstacles both large and small along the way. These disappointments teach students to persevere and foster creativity and adaptability – invaluable skills in our hyper-connected, fast-paced, global economy. Here is a look at some of the ways failure helps students and how games support this valuable learning opportunity.
The Benefits of Failure – What Does it Teach Us?
I recently wrote about the importance of failure for learning ("Learning to Learn from Failure" & "Teaching Students to Fail Their Way to Success") and how educators and students need to embrace the occasional learning disaster as key components of education. Failure teaches many critical skills, among them:
- Perseverance – Small failures that can be overcome teach students to keep trying until they succeed. There is little that we do in life or our jobs that is an instant success every time. Achievement is a process filled with incremental gains and small setbacks. Games involve players in this system and make it part of the learning process.
- Resilience – Students must learn that their failures do not define them and that they are not made less by experiencing them. In fact, they are made better and stronger – more resilient – by facing them. This is something that they will require throughout their lifetimes and which the best games teach through adaptive difficulty levels.
- Creativity – Seldom can a problem be solved by repeatedly doing the same thing over and over. More often than not, innovation is a key component to overcoming failures. The earlier that students learn this skill, the more proficient they will become at doing it. This ability to be creative in the face of adversity is something that defines the most successful members of an innovation-based economy and that is modeled in good games.
- Adaptability – Students who encounter failures in their learning must also become adaptable in their approaches to solving problems and in their understanding of the way the world works. If you succeed every time, there is no challenge to your understanding of reality. If however, you encounter obstacles that must be overcome on the way to success you will learn that there are a wide range of reasons for that failure, possibly including fundamental flaws in your understanding of how the world works. Developing the flexibility to adapt to these changing understandings allows students to become successful in whatever context they may find themselves in the future.
- How to ask for help: One thing that failure often prompts people to do is ask for help. This is, however, a learned skill that happens with intellectual maturity, and is not a natural part of many young people’s strategy for dealing with the world. Though it is one of the most successful strategies for learning.
- Acting Independently: Many games also push players to act independently and decisively with little advanced notice. Failure to act quickly in a game will lead to losing more often than not, but players learn to adapt to being assertive agents of their own fate – what more could a prospective employer want?
Games and Failure – How Games Use Failure to Support Learning
Games and play are naturally occurring forms of learning – animals engage in play to learn important behaviors and our children play to learn how society functions and their place in it, among other things. In any game, failure is a vital part of the process and it helps players get better. There are three areas in which failure in games helps support learning:
- Incremental knowledge gains- Games are designed with a single larger objective, but also with dozens, even hundreds of smaller obstacles or learning opportunities that, when designed well, can seamlessly lead a player/learner to develop their knowledge gradually and in a way where the process and the failures encountered along the way are motivating rather than off-putting. Good games can mirror the natural process by which expertise is developed, taking a player from the novice level to mastery in small steps. Really good games can adapt the challenges they present to match player skill, so that even the fastest learners are constantly presented with new obstacles that push them to higher levels of knowledge and skill.
- Authentic skills development – Because games, and the designers behind them, have the ability to simulate any situation, context, or challenge that can be imagined, including realistic representations of authentic tools and processes, they present an opportunity for players to gain an understanding of real world-applicable skills in a safe and supportive environment. For students training to work in hi-tech, high-stress, high-risk fields, these simulations of authentic tools can literally save lives in the future. A case where a small failure now could prevent a tragedy later. While few of these games currently exist, there is absolutely nothing to prevent their development.
- Fostering confidence – Playing any game enough will eventually lead to greater confidence playing that game. In games designed for authentic skills development, confidence can be gained in working in the real world and in coping with challenging or hazardous situations. Small failures along the way and the process of understanding those events and moving beyond them are inherent in games and work to actively instill confidence in the player despite (really, because of) failure.
Choosing Games for Learning in Higher Ed
There is a real crisis in the educational games industry. If games contain solid educational content, they tend to lack the fidelity and engagement of high-end commercial games. In higher education, finding games to use in specific courses is even more challenging than in K-12. As a university educator there is a shortage of time and possibly information available in which to seek out brave new virtual worlds to determine if they will help your students learn course content. Once implemented however, games in the classroom can, because of their ability to support independent learning, free up additional time for other activities. Unfortunately there is no secret formula or even centralized resource site of games that are useful in any given discipline. The best place to begin your search for games to incorporate into your teaching is with your institution’s instructional technology, educational technology, or learning support office. If you are lucky, you may find an individual who has been trained to help you incorporate games in the best possible way.
If there is no individual on campus who can help, you will have to turn to the Internet for assistance. The good news is that there are countless resources available to help you online. The bad news is that you may have to do a bit of hunting to find them. That said, here are a few places you can start your quest- don’t be afraid to reach out with an email to ask for suggestions, these are all open communities that invite interaction:
- Education Arcade
- Center for Game Science
- Institute for Simulation & Training
- Games for Change
These sites provide some good resources for starting a search for games to incorporate into higher education. Success in this effort, like in anything however, is going to take some time and energy to do correctly. If college faculty can devote just a little bit of time to finding games that align with their course objectives, they can help their students take advantage of the power of learning through failure that games provide.