The next chapter of Reality Is Broken starts off with this question: “No one likes to fail. So how is it that gamers can spend 80 percent of the time failing, and still love what they are doing?”
It’s an interesting question. Many games, such as Demon’s Souls, as known for their fiendish difficulty – as that is often portrayed as a positive aspect, not a negative. Dr. McGonigal notes that in one bit of research from the M.I.N.D. Lab, the researchers found that players felt happy when they failed at playing Super Monkey Ball 2 – more so than even when they succeeded. Why would that be?
One thing they noted was that the failure itself was a kind of reward – when the players failed, the scene the played was usually funny. More importantly, though, players knew that their failure was a result of their own actions and symbolic of their own agency – they drove the ball off the course. Because everything was in their control, the players were motivated to give it “just one more try.” I know I’ve certainly had that feeling before – intense concentration on a hard task and then, “Aaaaah!” Coming just short of success, I immediately leap back into trying again.
Of course, that’s not true of every game. There are many games where failing makes me want to give up. There’s two main elements that differentiate the two – agency and hope. If failure is random and feels out of our control, it is demotivating. (Think Mario Kart when you get slammed with a slew of items right before the finish, when you were in 1st place.) But if we see that the failure was fully within our control – and another attempt shows us getting ever so slightly closer to that goal – then the hope of success can feel even better than success itself.
This feeds off of the idea that learning is inherently interesting. When you win at a game, you are successful – but then what do you do? But when you fail, you are learning how to play the game well, and that learning and the act of mastering the game’s mechanics is what is so motivating.
As math teachers, we often talk about Productive Failure – the idea that our students learn better by attempting something themselves, failing, and correcting, than by simply being instructed on the correct method ahead of time. The theory of this is matched by many of our observations (and by research) – but we often have the problem of people being shut down by failure. It ties in a lot with math anxiety and attitudes about math – if I think I am bad at math and that’s just the way it is, failure if just reinforcing that idea, not motivating me to try again.
In the book, Dr. McGonigal doesn’t talk about productive failure – she talks about fun failure. The key factors she mentions – a sense of agency and hope – are what’s so often missing from our math-phobic students. Math feels out of their control – and so any success is accidental, and any failure is predestined.
What can we do? Our main goal is to be a guide – because failure is productive for learning, we want to help the student overcome it themselves. And that means doing what we can to provide that sense of agency and hope.
For a gaming example, Rob was playing a game and was struggling against a particularly frustrating boss (Moldorm from A Link to the Past) – a single false move in the fight would knock him out of the room and he would have to start the whole thing over. Even though he had been having a lot of the fun with the game, this single frustrating experience was enough to make him consider giving up on the game altogether. I knew he would enjoy the rest of the game and wanted him to keep playing, so I stepped into action. One thing I did was provide him with the locations of some fairies – while they would not directly help him defeat the boss, they would lower the frustration of dying and having to repeat the dungeon. The second thing I did was just to watch his attempts.
After a while, when he was ready to give up, he said something to the effect of how he had tried over and over again but had gotten nowhere. But I told him that was not true – when he first tried, he would maybe get 1 hit, or perhaps none, off on the boss before being knocked off the ledge. But in later attempts, he was getting around 4 or 5. He had greatly improved in his tries – and so if he kept trying, he might succeeded. He conceded that might be true, but still took a break, frustrated and tired.
The next morning, I looked up some info and found that the boss only required 6 hits to be defeated – so that meant that in the last attempt, Rob had been very close to success! When I told him that, he was filled with hope (and well-rested), and upon loading up the game, proceeded to beat the boss on the first attempt of the day.
Our goal is productive failure, not frustration. When we are following the mantra of “be less helpful,” I think we still need to help in a different way – help dispel frustration and provide the tools for success, even if we are not telling the students the path they need to take. Be less helpful seems like a hands-off policy – but it’s quite the opposite; we need to devote even more attention to our students when we are letting them struggle on their own.