Failing Better


Play is a vital part of being a person, and failure is a vital part of play. One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the connection between autonomy and failure. When children, adolescents and adults for that matter play video games, they fail a lot. In fact, according to Nicole Lazzaro, 80% of the time we are playing video games we are failing. What other activities in our daily lives can we say that about?

Education, on the other hand, at least the traditional model, grades us on a 100% model very differently. If you get 70% of a test or a class material “correct” you get to pass it. If you get 69% it needs to be done over again, or you don’t get any credit at all. This system actually flies in the face of what educators and therapists know about learning, that it is a matter of trial, error, course correction, trial, error, course correction… and so on.

This in some ways answers a question I have often wondered about: Why are we willing to be failing 80% of the time in video games, and so reluctant to risk failure in “real life” even a fraction of the time? One answer the percentages above point to is that education often stacks the deck against us, effectively rendering any mastery of content below 70% as a failure. This failure has attached to it, shame, sense of time wasted, futility, and hopelessness.

But there is another aspect of failing in video games that I think we need to pay attention to, and that is the role of autonomy. In a 2009 study, Jesper Juul found that people prefer to play games where they feel responsible for failing. The majority of those surveyed didn’t want to attribute it to bad luck, but something the did or didn’t do. They wanted a sense of autonomy in their game play, not luck. Conversely, they didn’t want to feel victimhood either, but rather optimism.

I have been playing a game on the iPad called Incoboto which has given me pause to reflect on fun failure. (An aside for gamers who have also played this and Dark Souls, have you considered Incoboto as a cutified version of Dark Souls, trying to link the fire and bring light to a darkened solitary world? Just saying..) The game has a series of puzzles which one needs to solve in order to collect star pieces to feed to the kawaii sun Helios following your character around. There have been a few places where I got “stuck,” and spent in my opinion too much time having to throw something exactly the right way. This highlighted for me the subjective experience I had for the majority of gameplay, that I was being challenged but would eventually be able to overcome the unneccessary obstacle. On those occasions I called getting stuck, I began to experience feelings of victimization and externalize responsibility. The game was not “being fair,” it was too hard, there was a “bug” in it making the ball not land “right.”

What helped me persevere was both compelling graphics and gameplay, but also a sense of faith in the game. Ok, sometimes I cheated too, by looking up spoilers on the game forum. In those moments, you could say that I was giving up the voluntary attempt to overcome an unnecessary obstacle of the game. But, and this is what’s important, I was also ceding my sense of autonomy. It’s a weird balancing act, in one case I didn’t look at the cheat to find the solution as much as to get reassurance that what I was trying was the solution. But even though I was exercising my digital literacy here, I was also giving up for the moment my sense of autonomy, and agency.

Failure, and tolerance of failure is a subject thing, which is why Lazzaro’s presentations illustrate zones, not points, of fiero, frustration, relief, and bored. Everyone has variations in how they experience emotions, and failure in video games. And if I didn’t keep that in mind, I might feel very disheartened when I read this review of Incoboto:

“Great mix of platformer and puzzle game, very smooth learning/difficulty curve, and quite a nice gameplay experience too”

Now I am not going to get into a discussion on norms and trends and the importance of betas, because my point here is to compare and contrast the experiences of failure in video games and education.

Education in our country is trying to overcome some serious design flaws of its own. Children and adolescents are given tremendous responsibility for their performance without a commensurate amount of autonomy. This creates a culture of victimhood. Rather than noticing they got more than half of something right, we flunk them. Rather than setting meaningful individual goals, we create industrialized curriculum. And if we do give someone an individualized set of goals in the form of an IEP, we label them as learning disabled first to justify it!

We need to improve the quality and experience of failure in schools. Because video games don’t occur in a separate reality from the point of view of our minds. That mind/body split of Descartes has been debunked for ages, and yet we’re still talking about “real” life. The reality is that mastering challenges and fun failure creates a feeling of optimism, which neurologically and emotionally improves our ability to learn in the future. If we think we are capable of solving a problem, we will keep at it. Therefore, we need to foster a sense of autonomy in learning. The minute we start talking about “my special needs child,” we are taking away their autonomy.

Am I saying we should expect everyone to perform the same at school or other work? Not at all, I am saying we should be better curators of children in learning environments, and let them have less stigma around failure. In a real sense, every child should have an individualized education plan, because we are moving (hopefully) out of an industrial model of education.

As a therapist and educator who has worked in and with school systems and parents for nearly two decades, I have struggled with this frequently, both within myself and with my patients. The language of diagnoses and learning disabilities is a language I speak all too well, and I have unintentionally colluded at times with parents and systems who use it as shorthand for, “my kid can’t ___.” Maybe if failure was more tolerable and fun in school we wouldn’t be so quick to adopt these identities, and maybe if we curated environments that allowed for more autonomy we would notice different varieties of success as well.

The other night I was on a Minecraft server I participate in, founded by educators and edutechs for their children. Several of the kids were on and chatting when I logged in, and shortly thereafter this huge flame war erupted. Capital sentences of “I HATE YOU” flew across the screen. Kids stormed out of the chat room, returned, then logged off again. Some of the young moderators were instigating further conflict, while others were earnestly trying to figure out why people’s feelings had been hurt in the first place. From the therapeutic point of view, they were failing miserably, exhibiting poor social skills, dysregulated affect, and poor impulse control. It took a herculean act of will not to jump in and actively curate this group and allow them to exercise their autonomy.

They kept at the chatting, and over the next several minutes they began to collaborate on understanding what had happened. This did not have the grown up version of a happy ending where the aggrieved parties apologized and made up, so much as the group told one party that they appreciated the apology and weren’t ready to accept it then (my translation) told a second party to stop instigating in the guise of defending someone, and encouraged the third to come and build something to take his/her mind off of it.

In my mind, the fact that this took place in a game environment where failure is destigmatized and autonomy is presumed made it easier for people to keep at the challenge until it had been resolved “enough.” There was no adult who was forcing them to stay on and work at this, they were voluntarily engaged. There were several halting starts and stops of chat. But social emotional learning was occurring.

This in my opinion is an example of “failing better,” and I think this is a skill that not only can be translated from video game experience, but desperately needs to. The more we except failure as an essential part of learning and work, the less stigmatizing it will be. The less we stigmatize failure, the more we encourage autonomy and optimism. Autonomy and optimism make you a better learner, a better collaborator, and a better worker. Personally I think the world could use a lot more of that.

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  1. Great post. I recently watched what is to date my favorite Ted talk regarding some inspired people who refuse to fear failure.

  2. Everyone will get to experience this and it is important that we know how to face this issue. Do not let anger or disappointments ruin your chance of becoming better and learning a new lesson in your life. We have to accept defeat and failure sometimes in order to become a better individual.

  3. Some people find it hard to deal with failure. Sometimes, it takes a long time for them to gain the confidence to try something in fear of failing again. These people need to be encouraged and shown that they could learn things from their previous failures. This is why games and other social activities may help us learn to cope with victory and failure.


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