Making Failing Games

From education, to the corporate workplace, to the scientific laboratory, failure is being embraced as desirable. With a growing cultural recognition of the value that mistakes play in the learning process, the gaming generation seems like a demographic that should be quick to take up the call to, “institutionalize the art of making mistakes,” as one business executive wrote last week on the Harvard Business Review blog.

Overcoming obstacles, trial and error, and having to make meaningful choices are some of key tenets found in games. As Ian Bogost puts it, “most games require some non-trivial effort to play. Challenge and effort are often cited in definitions of games, as is a tendency toward meaningful interactivity.” What is more, as NYU’s Jesper Juul has noted, “failure is central to player enjoyment of games …. However, it is notable that failure is more than a contrast to winning – rather failure is central to the experience of depth in a game, to the experience of improving skills.” By relating failure both to a capacity to learn from mistakes, and to develop one’s skills so as to further enjoy the game, Juul identifies constructive failure as a key reason for why we play games. [As an aside, it turns out that I make a lot of mistakes when playing games, so reading Juul's paper was a big self-esteem booster for me. You can imagine how it felt to learn that all my game-related failures were actually a good thing!]

Given the centrality of failure to creating deeper, more engaging games, I find it puzzling that articles that purport to explain how to “use game mechanics to power your business,” stay well away from addressing the fact that mistakes can and do happen in the real world. The generations of gamers that are now firmly entrenched throughout all levels of society are perfectly primed to be the most responsive to games that incorporate mistakes into their structures, so why aren’t we seeing applied games being built with failure in mind?

Bogost writes about two elements of social games that disturb him: compulsion – exploiting human psychology in order to elicit particular actions (actions which make companies money), and optionalism – as he writes, the, “gameplay in social games is almost entirely optional. The play acts themselves are rote, usually mere actuations of operations on expired timers.” Another way to frame these features is to think of them in terms of how they relate to failure.

In games like Farmville or services like Foursquare, behaviors that are rewarded are entirely compulsive. In the frame of these games, “failing” is akin to not completing. In foursquare, failure literally isn’t even an option. Although a user can “lose” her mayorship, being stripped of status is not generally of any real consequence. Check in some more, you might get the badge back, but since the game never ends, if you ever stop checking in you lose.

The problem with this is that compelled behaviors don’t teach us anything about the actions themselves, for example, like whether there is a better way for us to do things. Rather, they teach us that the only path to success is conditioned response to incentives. What many of these ‘games’ are, then, are beautifully stylized positive feedback systems. These systems offer no nuanced player experience. Every player either buys into the point structure, or they are left on the outside. These games don’t seek to engage their players, but rather to incentivize them to perform particular actions.

Obviously, points do work as incentives for some actions. We all want credit cards with points, and when done right a point-based representation of participation on a website can be engaging and fun. But there is a great opportunity, and need, for games that facilitate learning in the workplace, not just with a points mechanism, but with something deeper. Learning leads to people doing a better job, being more productive, and being more satisfied with their jobs: In short, everybody wins.

As more organizations attempt to bring game mechanics to the wider world, one of the central challenges that to be faced will be in how to make mistakes mean something. Making mistakes isn’t good; learning from them is, and key to missions like making the workplace more fun is making it a place where mistakes can be both made and learned from.

To quote again from Juul, “that failure and difficulty is important to the enjoyment of games correlates well with Michael J. Apter’s reversal theory, according to which people seek low arousal in normal goal-directed activities such as work, but high arousal, and hence challenge and danger, in activities performed for their intrinsic enjoyment, such as games.” If games are to be used to make things like work more fun, we need to start by creating workplaces in which it is ok to take risk – to take on challenges in which success is not assured. There will be failure – lots of it – but with these mistakes will come an environment that rewards true learning and development of its participants, rather than rewarding a predetermined series of actions.

Guest Baxter Mathias Crawford is a researcher at the Institute for the Future, and part of the team behind Signtific Lab, the massively multiplayer thought experiment. His current passion and research is in the art and science of game design.

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