Failure Is an Option

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One thing that the Game and Learning Industries have in common is a tremendous hesitation to allow their users to fail. In the case of game makers, this is largely based on the idea that as games have become more mainstream, difficult games won’t sell in large numbers. After all, if you’ve spent $50-100 million developing and marketing a game, and you’re trying to sell to the same audience that buys movies and watches TV (that is to say, just about EVERYONE), you don’t want to exclude potential customers based on something as arbitrary as skill! In the case of the Learning Biz, the aversion to failure seems to be derived from an idea that if learners are allowed to fail during a course, it will crush their spirits so mightily that they will be demoralized to the point of collapse, not complete the course, not learn the material and, by extension, rain down ruin on the entire enterprise.

Or maybe just be really, really sad.

In both cases, there is a certain amount of credence to these concerns. However, failing – making mistakes – is a critical part of learning, and giving up on using mistakes as a learning tool is itself a terrible mistake! One of the biggest strengths of games as a teaching aid is the ability they give to try an activity again and again, and to experiment through successive iterations of play. What matters isn’t failure itself, but how it is portrayed and contextualized.

But first, let’s talk a little about what failure is. To start, failure must have a consequence. Choosing the wrong answer in a multiple choice test, having the test tell you the answer is incorrect, and immediately selecting a different answer is really not failure. At least, it is failure of such an inconsequential type that any lessons learned are likely to be fleeting and not of much value. The best types of failures/mistakes (I’m going to use those terms somewhat interchangeably) are ones that cause the person who made the mistake to 1) stop for a moment, 2) evaluate what just happened (both “I really don’t want to make THAT mistake again!” and “why did that mistake happen?” are important parts of evaluation) and 3) formulate a different approach that is perceived to be less likely to cause the same mistake to occur again. With that being said, the best consequence for any mistake is a swiftly administered electric shock.

OK. Not really. But that got your attention, right? The best consequence for any given mistake is going to vary with the context of the mistake, the intended lesson, and the degree to which “punishment” is part of the consequence. This is an important point: a consequence need not be a punishment (at least, not an external punishment). It only needs to elicit the response discussed earlier: 1) stop, 2) evaluate, and 3) try again.

Let me give you some examples from games. To start, I thought I would use an example of a game that uses consequence extremely poorly: Angry Birds (pick your flavor). Whatever its strengths as a game may be, Angry Birds is terrible at making a player’s choices – and, by extension, his or her mistakes – matter. Just on the off chance that you have somehow never seen an Angry Birds game, it works as follows: birds (spoiler: they’re miffed) are launched from a slingshot at taunting green pigs. The principle system in the game is its physics simulation, which controls everything from the trajectory of the bird after it is launched to the structures on which the pigs rest and which get shattered as birds impact them. The goal of each level is to get rid of all the pigs on the board, either by hitting them directly with a bird or by causing them to fall by collapsing the structure they’re sitting on. The player controls three things: the angle of launch, the amount of pull on the slingshot, and the deployment of the individual bird’s special power (which can be used at any point before the bird hits something). The number and type of birds the player has changes from level to level and the order in which the birds are launched is a designed element over which the player has no control.

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The player can easily reset the board at any point if it seems like it won’t be possible to get all the pigs (or that it won’t be possible with enough points to get a better high score, or whatever other criteria a player may have for wanting to try the level again). It takes longer to win a level of Angry Birds than it does to reset it after a mistake. Because of this, as well as the fact that there is such a high degree of randomness at play in the various Angry Birds game systems, it can be very difficult in some circumstances to know what error was made and what to change in a renewed attempt. These were deliberate design choices, and they may be a factor in the success of the series, but they also contribute significantly to the overall shallowness of the play experience in the game. There’s not much to be LEARNED from playing Angry Birds. It’s why the game is sometimes described as “mindless.”

Now, let’s contrast Angry Birds by taking a step back and talking about another mainstream game experience where failure is an intrinsic part of play: Guitar Hero. Again, a brief recap for the uninitiated: Guitar Hero is played with a plastic guitar controller. Instead of strings, the guitar has a line of 5 colored buttons on the neck and a “strum bar.” The player presses combinations of colored buttons while manipulating the strum bar up and down to simulate the action of playing a guitar. Meanwhile, a song plays, with different notes represented by colored circles slowly moving towards a line. The colors on the screen correspond to the colors on the guitar’s buttons, and the object is to hold down the correct buttons and then “strum” the guitar at the moment the circles on the screen touch the line. If the player does this, the music keeps playing. If the player doesn’t do this, the music stops and a sound of someone playing a sour note on a guitar plays instead.

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While difficulty is variable, based both on the song selection and how high the game difficulty has been set by the player, the game has a learning curve across the board for new players (accounts vary as to how helpful knowing how to play an actual guitar is to the experience). For the novice, early play is marked by repeatedly playing bad notes, crowd booing, and eventually getting kicked off the stage. Failure is stark. And yet, Guitar Hero sold, over the course of its life as a franchise, almost 58 million units in various iterations. It was a huge success. And failing, or, more to the point, learning to stop failing is a huge part of that success. The key is how the player feels during the process. Let’s break it down.

First, the game fundamentally feels fair. This is critically important. The player can see all the notes coming down. The player gets immediate feedback on whether a note has been played correctly or not, both visually and sonically. The game tracks input very accurately. Taken together, these three things allow players to very clearly understand when they make mistakes, and causes players to associate their mistakes with their own actions, rather than assigning them to a technical problem or computer “cheating.” This is important. If players aren’t taking ownership of the mistakes, they won’t try to correct them!

The game balances its relatively steep learning curve by allowing a number of recoverable failures before resulting in an unrecoverable failure. That is to say, failing a single note – or even botching an entire series of notes – isn’t enough to get booed off the stage. It requires repeated, sustained failure to reach that state and have to start the song over. Because of this, the player has a chance to make small play style tweaks as he or she is playing, rather than having to start over at the first mistake and having to try for perfection immediately. This also gives the game more time to offer feedback regarding the nature of the mistake the player is making, since players tend to make the same mistake repeatedly (“I’m not hitting the right button.” “I’m strumming to early/late.” Etc.). So the stop/evaluate/try again loop is incredibly fast (so fast that “stop” may seem a misnomer, but it DOES require “stopping” – at least mentally – to break the cycle of incorrect behavior).

Lastly, the game gives positive reinforcement when the player is doing the right things, and this reinforcement is constant – the music plays! And assuming the player picked a song he or she likes, the desire to continue hearing the song and the illusion the game creates that the player is PLAYING the song is powerful. The feedback loop of the game – immediate positive feedback for success, immediate corrective feedback for failure – creates a circumstance that allows players to very quickly start acquiring basic skill with the game. And therein lies the fun. Players FEEL themselves getting better. They experience the learning that is happening as an almost physical pleasure. And for most players, this is a powerful incentive to keep playing. Of course, continuing to play means practicing, and practicing leads to greater skill, which leads to greater accomplishment, and more desire to play. It’s a positive feedback loop.

But failure is an important part of the equation. Later iterations of Guitar Hero added a “no fail mode” (often described as “kid mode,” though I don’t know of any but the absolute youngest of kids that were really interested in using it). In “no fail mode,” no matter how badly the player does, he or she can always finish the song. It is impossible to be booed off the stage. The interesting thing is that this mode is actually pretty boring. The risk of an unrecoverable failure actually makes the game more fun for most people. While repeated unrecoverable failures can certainly lead to frustration, the right amount of failure actually leads to motivation to continue practicing and improving. The key (and herein lies the subtle alchemy of game balance) is to have the correct degree of difficulty so that it is not TOO hard, but is always HARD ENOUGH. This is one of the (many) reasons why game design is such an iterative process.

So, for a game to teach something in a way that improves player skill, there has to be an element of failure that instructs the non-expert player on incorrect actions in order to refine the player’s abilities. The failure shouldn’t be punitive for the sake of being punitive, but it should be consequential enough that the player feels an incentive not to fail repeatedly. It should encourage behavioral change that gives the player a chance to succeed and it should be consistent in its application so that the player feels the game is “fair.” Most of all, the expectations of the game need to be balanced to the skill of the player so that failure doesn’t become constant and frustrating. With these rules in mind, failure is an invaluable aid for helping players learn the skills you want your game to teach!