Failure is the New Success

Failure in game-based learning

As some of our readers may know, I spent a significant portion of my life studying and working in games for education. That’s why I’m excited to tell you that my speaker proposal for the 2017 FocusOn Learning Conference has been accepted. Huzzah!

The focus of the conference this year is on mobile, games, and video. I’ll give you two seconds to guess which category my session falls into. But this isn’t another “gamify your curriculum” talk. The title of my session is Solving Complex Problems with Game-Based Learning (#606). There’s no gamification to be found here.

That’s because games have so much more to offer in terms of education. The gamification framework can be myopic in the sense that it tends to focus solely on game mechanics. Game mechanics are a fundamental component of games that connect our physical actions to the game world, but they are not the only component of games that can inform instructional design.

Part of the reason instructional designers feel compelled to incorporate game mechanics into our curricula is because we feel like we need to dangle a carrot in front of our learners to motivate them to finish the course. In other words, we have been taught that we need to extrinsically motivate our learners. But what if I told you that we could use game design principles to design learning in a way that intrinsically motivates our learners?

Learners don’t need points, leaderboards, or virtual trophies to be engaged with their learning. They certainly don’t need content shoved into a game in hopes that they’ll absorb it (we call that the chocolate-covered broccoli approach.) Learners enjoy being challenged. They like to solve problems that don’t have an obvious solution. They like trying different solutions until they find one that works.

Wait. Does that mean they like to…fail?

That’s right. Learners like to fail. And we should let them.

Failure has a bad reputation in education. We associate failure with picking the wrong answer on a multiple choice test, which causes us to get a bad test grade, which causes us to get a bad class grade, which causes us to…you get the point. Fortunately for those of us who were terrible test takers, most of the problems we face in life don’t have one single right answer. These are called complex problems.

In the real world, our solutions can have serious consequences. That sales tactic you read about might cause you to lose some customers. You may misdiagnose a patient with a common disorder when she actually has a more severe problem. We understandably avoid making these mistakes.

But instructional designers can create educational spaces for our learners in virtual environments that let them explore “what if?” without causing harm or distress to them or our companies. We can let learners be rude customer service agents or incompetent internists to let them see what happens. Let them feel the wrath of an angry customer who vows to take his business elsewhere. Let them feel the pain of a patient who went through an unnecessary surgery. Those are much more engaging and emotional experiences than reading a bullet point on a SCORM package that says “Be polite to our customers.”

We have the tools to create virtual educational spaces that allow learners to be intrinsically motivated and deeply engaged with this sort of complex problem solving. I will cover this topic and these tools in more depth during my FocusOn Learning session.

Solving Complex Problems with Game-Based Learning, session #606, will be from 1:00-2:00PM on Wednesday, June 21st. I hope to see you all there!


Curious to try out your own eLearning games and simulations? Read our white paper on “Creating Serious Games and Simulations,” and get started today!

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