The Old Knewton Blog

Video games and failure-based learning

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I used to teach afterschool in City of New York/Parks & Recreation’s Computer Resource Center program. Kids in the program spent a lot of time playing educational games like Logical Journey Of The Zoombinis and The Incredible Machine.

The kids would literally fight with each other to get to be the first to play these games, with an intensity that surprised me. I mean, the games are fun and everything, but they were nonviolent, with less-than state of the art graphics and no recognizable characters from TV or movies. The educational content was rarely disguised as “fun,” and yet, kids who snoozed through math class were riveted by the exact same content when it was presented in the context of Treasure Mathstorm.

Video games have a lot to teach designers of elearning experiences. Intuition suggests that the gratification of video games is the sense of accomplishment and victory they offer. In my observation and experience, most of the pleasure gamers experience is in moments of failure. As long as the game is balanced well, failure is fun. Beating the game feels good too, but it’s a fleeting pleasure that quickly turns into a letdown. It’s no accident that some of the most enduringly popular video games are literally impossible to beat: Tetris and Pac-Man, for example.

The pleasure of a video game is in exploring a rule set, testing out hypotheses, noticing which ones fail and which ones succeed. Every video game is an interactive learning experience. In Logical Journey Of The Zoombinis, the player learns inductive reasoning. In Halo, the player learns the game’s particular version of military strategy. In Tetris, the player learns to perform spatial logic puzzles under time pressure.

Not every game has to be explicitly goal-oriented. Will Wright’s games are more like interactive, autodidactic toys, in which the player is interacting with a complex and open-ended dynamic simulation of a city, anthill or galaxy. Any goals are set by the player. Wright’s designs are based heavily on the educational philosophy of Maria Montessori. Wright says:

One of the counter intuitive things I needed to learn as a designer was that players enjoy failures more than success. As long as it’s diverse, they like to explore the failure space of a game.

Learning is exploring a failure space. Once you’ve mapped out all the wrong paths, you can avoid them as easily as the furniture in your room when you’re walking around it at night. The point of classroom exercises and homework is to guide students through the failure space of knowledge, exploring the wrong turns and blind alleys, as well as identifying the right path.


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