Game Design, Gamification, Learning Design and Assorted Other Strangeness

Enjoyable Failure?


Sometimes ideas about how education should move forward can come from unlikely places. Even something as simple as a smart phone app can raise some interesting questions.

There is a fun game called “Dumb Ways to Die“. In it you attempt to help some characters in strange situations, like jumping over a shark, tying shoelaces, or even trying to get an astronaut into his helmet before his head explodes.

One of the most interesting things about this game is that it’s fun to lose. The deaths that are caused by losing are comical, and encourage you to try again. With a low cost of play and the ability to get right back into the action, most players are back into the game before they have time to worry about their previous failure. This makes it surprisingly addictive, and a great way to pass some time.

dumbways to die

Almost all computer games have this enjoyable failure built into them. It helps to take the sting out of the mistakes that players make, and encourages trying new solutions to old problems. This is not to say that there are no consequences in computer games for failure, but that they are sharply reduced especially when compared to real life.

In the field of education however, failure is often associated with dire consequences. Students may be removed from a class they currently are in, removing them from their peer group. Students may be berated by teachers or parents. They may even have their identity as a good person questioned for failing to achieve what was expected. As such, failure has become a thing to be avoided, prevented, and in some cases, even made impossible.

This fear of failure has in turn led to students exhibiting signs of being risk averse. Students will select the tasks that they are sure that they can complete, and avoid tasks that they are unsure of.

Unfortunately, risk averse behavior gets in the way of actual learning. For learning to take place, learners have to be able to take risks and make mistakes in a space where the real world consequences are lowered. This is known as the psychosocial moratorium, and was first discussed by Erik Erickson.

To put it simply, without making mistakes there can be no learning. Risk averse behavior reduces the number of mistakes that are made by reducing the complexity of the task, thereby reducing the learning opportunities available to the student. When the entire environment is geared to be risk averse it becomes almost impossible for a student to learn anything new.

The other downside to risk averse environments is that they are boring. If the student is playing it safe, they are almost always certain of the results before the first move is even made in the game. This leads inevitably to disengagement.

Computer games have embraced the principle of enjoyable failure whereas modern education has not. It may be time for education to look and learn from unlikely sources.

You can download Dumb Ways to Die and its sequel from iTunes or the Google Play store.

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