Game and… is a series of articles in various media focusing on evaluating the mechanics of games, how they are created, how they affect us, and how we can apply them to the world outside of games.
Games and Failure
I die a lot while playing games.
That’s less self-deprecation about my skill in such games and more just due to the nature of many games. Death, and failure in general, in many games is just a set back. You come back at your respawn point, whether the beginning of the level or your last save or your team’s base, and now you can try again with the hindsight of knowing at least some of what you need to do, and where you might have gone wrong last time. Even in games where failure sends you back to the main menu, the option is always there to start again. Even how much of a setback that is decreasing over time; compare Super Mario 64’s removing a life from your stock to the most recent Mario game, Mario Odyssey, which just removes 10 coins in a game where collecting 1,000 coins basically happens by accident as you hunt for the various power moons, the goal of the game .
Games are actually really forgiving of failure. I mean, sure, there are degrees of setback they apply to you; you might get sent back to the beginning of the level, to your last save (which can admittedly be a while back), or have a penalty applied to you until you are able to recover what was lost when you died . In some games, usually strategy or 4X games , you will be made to restart the entire campaign, unless you reload your last save and are able to work around whatever made you fail. But even with all of that, the point is not to say “you lost, look how bad you are at this!” but “You lost. Wanna try again, this time having a better idea of what you need to do?”
Some of this is just necessary. A game aims to keep you playing, particularly when they are using models like games as service or arcade machines  which aim to monitise themselves by having players make small payments over a long period of time, but this has spread out to basically all games, to the extent that having a failure state has been suggested by some as a fundamental property of games; i.e. something may be an interactive experience but if you cannot fail, it is not a game. I don’t want to discuss the definition of a game here. Instead, I want to focus on how the way we can learn from and indeed, use the way games encourage you to continue on, to move past failures and eventually succeed to help us handle other situations.
Games being used in learning is nothing new of course, and nor are interactive experiences, whether on a computer or more traditional “analogue” games, but we tend to classify them as childish, and indeed these games can be patronising. I have fond memories of the Adi and Adiboo games, but I wouldn’t recommend them to an adult who’s maths is at the kind of level Adi covers (partially because I haven’t looked at those games for years; maybe I should get hold of them and have a look) . They are still used however, with the cartoony visuals removed, particularly in subjects like maths and language vocabulary that computers are far better at being able to handle than, say, marking a piece of literary criticism. While I do think that there is a space for Educational Games, particular because the interactive nature of games allows you to learn by actively doing, rather than passively learning, I want to make it clear that this isn’t what I am suggesting here. Nor am I talking about the gamification of learning, where the concept of experience and levels are used to provide a reward for effort and learning successfully. That’s definitely an interesting topic, and it’s on the list to cover in a Games and… article, but it isn’t this one. Rather, I want to focus on the other end of the spectrum; how do we handle failure?
Learning from your mistakes isn’t a new concept, but we can still ask the best way to encourage and assist people in doing so, a question that the field of pedagogy (the science of teaching) has been trying to answer for a while now. Before we continue, it is important to acknowledge that methods of learning are not universal. The following section will discuss a number of mindsets towards and techniques of learning. These may not be directly relevant to you the reader, or indeed techniques shown with a positive lens here may, for whatever reason, not be useful for you personally. However, I think they hold up in enough cases and are underused enough (that is, people who might benefit from them haven’t encountered them) that they are worth exploring here.
One of the most important factors in whether people feel able to learn from mistakes is the surrounding culture and particularly the response of whoever the learner views as a teacher, whether an actual teacher, a supervisor or just someone the learner looks up to. Fischer et al. (2006), a study detailing the self-reported responses of medical trainees to a survey on how they learn from failure, notes that when they feel able to report the failure they learn more from it. Furthermore, they note that there is a culture of covering up mistakes in many hospitals, and as they spend more time working in medicine they find themselves defending individual cover ups while acknowledging that ethically they really shouldn’t . This is fairly common in professions where mistakes can have grave consequences; indeed, some industries use a concept called a blameless culture, where mistakes are not punished so that people don’t feel they cannot come forward to admit that they have made them (Dekker, 2016). This, while a fascinating topic by itself, is slightly off the topic of this essay, particularly as, as I noted above, one of the big benefits of games is that they remove the real life rewards and consequences for the player, allowing them to simply focus on what they can learn from the situation. Now, obviously on a practical level making mistakes with consequences can be an excellent, if, depending on the situation, traumatic, learning experience, but we are discussing using the premise of treating learning spaces as a game and the benefits of doing so, not trying to create a universal system of learning.
Another issue to discuss is why people want to learn. What is their underlying goal ? Two common reasons are to demonstrate how competent you are at something, or performative goals, and learning to improve your own abilities, which we might refer to either improvement or mastery goals. Now, this is one of those awkward situations where I would wager that most people would say they want to learn for the sense of mastery; performative goals tend to be more specifically about showing a particular person or group of people what you are capable of (Wolters 2004). However, it is far easier to encourage performative goals, simply because they are based around demonstrating what you know. Performative goals aren’t inherently bad, but like the negative consequences they often encourage not learning from mistakes but instead avoiding the people you are trying to perform to, while mastery goals tend to encourage using mistakes as a learning experience (Wolters 2004, Turner and Patrick 2004).
Games I think have mechanisms by which they can encourage the player to try to improve their abilities, rather than demonstrating their skill. One is something we will find difficult to transfer to a learning setting, which is the greater ability for the creator to control the learning curve of the game compared to the learning curve of most real life topics. I want to discuss this in another G& essay , so I won’t go into it here, but essentially games are far easier to control and can make you feel like you are improving far more quickly than you are actually learning about the game because you are gaining new tools and powers in a far more controlled environment. However, there are two other ways they encourage you to learn. First of all they are very good at informing you what you are aiming for, giving you a motivation to work out how to overcome the obstacles in-between you and that solution, and secondly games don’t treat failure as a problem. They provide temporary rewards for success, not permanent consequences, and that sequence of short bursts of rewards, even if it is just a pat on the back. This, I think is something we can take over from games. Rewarding people for the entire journey, not just the final destination, and giving them clear reasons to motivate them in the short term; not just a long term goal like “I will be able to communicate in French” but “I will be able to say this thing I want to say in French”. Meanwhile, the games either not responding to your failure outside of a short death animation or, if they do respond, then showing it as a challenge and encouraging you to continue to overcome it. Probably the best example of this is from Toby Fox’s Undertale, which tells you “STAY DETERMINED!”. As I said, failure treated as a chance to try again with new knowledge and experience.
Figure 1: The Undertale Game Over screen
For a concrete example, I do quite a lot of maths in my everyday life, both in my work and my free time. I enjoy maths, and I can do it to a reasonably high level, and I am aware that this makes me fairly unusual. When I try to teach maths and explain the concepts to people who struggle with it, one of the big issues I face is overcoming their fear . Not of mathematics (although for some people that is in there as well), but fear of failing at mathematics, and a corresponding fear of being mocked and mistreated because of that failure. The fear that a single mistake that will hang over you, or worse that you will never be able to move beyond those failures.
Often, the students I am teaching are students doing a scientific subject at a university level, and there’s basically no field of science where maths is not a vital and major part of the research toolkit; even in fields such as sociology statistical analysis is essential. Even knowing this however, for some the anxiety of failing at maths, and being mocked or treated as stupid because of that failure, however temporary, makes actually doing the maths really difficult. This is within a classroom setting, not an exam or, worse, research or designs that might influence the real world. It is in a setting specifically created to give a space to learn without incorrect results causing problems. It is a space where incorrect results should be responded to with “You got that wrong. Wanna try again, this time having a better idea of what you need to do?”
In other words, I am saying that classrooms are gaming platforms, the lessons are the levels and we are all Mario…Okay, I’m not actually saying that, but I think the similarity of both being environments where failure is essentially devoid of external consequences and is simply an indication you need to go back and do some additional work is important. It allows learners to focus entirely on learning, so that when there are consequences, they already have all the tools they need to handle it.
 Given that lives are basically meaningless in a lot of Mario games, a hold over from the days of arcade machines , you could argue that losing one is actually less of a set back than losing coins; really the biggest set back is you do get a Game Over screen when you run out of lives, which sets you back to the start of the level.
 This is a mechanic codified by the Souls games, and other games like Hollow Knight, which make you drop your in-game currency and have a mechanical penalty, usually a drop in maximum health, applied to you. This makes failure, and continuing on despite it, a core mechanic of these games.
 For anyone not versed in gaming terminology, 4X games are a genre of games where the player(s) control a full faction, rather than a single character, and scout throughout the world, build new settlements and technologies, gain resources and battle opposing factions. 4X stands for Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate, and was coined by the game writer Alan Emrich in 1993.
 See “Games and the First Age of Microtransaction” – TBC
 Upon trying to track them down, I discovered the Adi and Adiboo series were created by the french Coktel Vision, which usually focused on adventure games. The games were sold in various languages, with Adiboo (or Adibou in french) seeming to be more well known and spread around than the older Adi. I kind of want to track them down and give them another look; we’ll see how that goes.
 Rationalisations for bad behaviour of individuals of groups you are a member is is a very important topic I’d like to explore. If I ever do I will link it here.
 See “Games and Goals” – TBC
 See “Games and Skill” – TBC
 For more discussion on how I think we might be able to improve maths teaching, see 9 of Hearts: An Introduction to Mathematics.
Dekker, S. (2016). Just culture: Balancing safety and accountability. CRC Press.
Fischer, M. A., Mazor, K. M., Baril, J., Alper, E., DeMarco, D., & Pugnaire, M. (2006). Learning from mistakes. Journal of general internal medicine, 21(5), 419-423.
Turner, J. C., & Patrick, H. (2004). Motivational influences on student participation in classroom learning activities. Teachers College Record, 106(9), 1759-1785.
Wolters, C. A. (2004). Advancing Achievement Goal Theory: Using Goal Structures and Goal Orientations to Predict Students’ Motivation, Cognition, and Achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(2), 236-250.