The Joy of Failure

Hammer and many bent nails in a board.
Try, try again.

The best games make failure fun. In much of life, failure can be costly, even deadly. Games get to define what failure looks like. In games, the blows of failure are softened, so that the player is safe (more or less), but they are not eliminated. Games — and education — grant us a crucial opportunity to fail, fail, and fail again.

One of my favorite examples of this principle comes from Axis and Allies. I have played a few hundred games of the excellent anniversary edition, and have learned that it is unusual for the Axis player to win. But the game is designed so it is irresistible to make the attempt, even knowing failure is likely. The game models well true elements of military strategy, but neither success nor failure cost real lives.

Failures must be in some sense costly. There is a genre of popular computer games called “roguelikes” (after a 30+ year old game named Rogue), adventure games defined chiefly by an ever-increasing difficulty over time and the intentional design choice that the player’s failures are permanent: you can never go back to a previous save, no matter how well you were doing before and how badly you just botched things. Your options are to move forward, or else start over entirely from scratch. Over the years this design choice has crept its way into practically every other genre as a common option for play.

In some games, failure may be more costly than lost time. My favorite sport, Ultimate, is a non-contact sport, but I know from experience that failures may lead to concussions, chipped teeth, or sprained ankles. It is safe enough that players judge the risks a fair exchange for a demanding contest of physical skills between individuals of diverse age, fitness, and sex.

The best education similarly makes failure fun. Years ago, I ran a tutoring business that was fairly successful by at least one measure: the median grade improvement of our students was approximately two full levels, and at least half of that improvement occurred in the first several weeks of tutelage.

Clients often believed that the tutor’s primary role would be as an effective communicator of material, a subject matter expert. Occasionally this was true. However, I believed that there were two “secrets” to the grade improvements. The first of these was that my priority for a new student was not to teach, but to connect: take time to talk, care about the student’s daily struggles, to love. For most students, building this connection instantly resulted in better grades.

The second secret was that the most important parts of my job had little to do with the subject matter. As I grew to understand and appreciate the student’s struggles, I would target the sources of their failures, usually by intensifying them dramatically. If the student struggled to engage actively with the material, often it was because the course was so undemanding as to be criminally boring: I would make the homework harder and more complicated. If the student just worked too slowly, I’d pile on pages and pages of repetitive easy exercises. Perhaps it was exam stress: everything became a test with a timer. Distractability and lack of focus? I became quite creative with inventing new and devious diversions.

You get the picture. As Gandalf said to Bilbo, “Very amusing for me, very good for you — and profitable too, very likely, if you ever get over it.”

Of course, I didn’t merely try to make my students fail. This approach required a good grasp of the students’ limits, to push them always just beyond those limits. I worked hard to ensure that every increase in stress was somehow entertaining or fun, if I could. I invented a lot of little games in those years. I also guided the students with the best advice I could muster, drawn from my own experiences or from research I was familiar with. And then we practiced, practiced, practiced.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-ups…so that the pretense of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest.”

The importance of this freedom to fail must not be underestimated. First, we are psychologically inclined to be led astray by imagining catastrophic worst-case scenarios; practice dealing with failures helps us overcome these fears. Moreover, and very important for education, is that we are not likely to learn the most important lessons from an unending stream of successes. In fact, we are quite likely to learn bad lessons and grow delusional.

I long considered games to be useful tools for education. Concepts important to real-world decisions I make regularly, such as tempo, opportunity cost, or risk and reward, I learned in part or in whole from games. But as I grow older, the more my concepts of education and games coalesce into one. They are an exploration, with friends, into the unknown, where by trying again, again, and again you will all grow and change.

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