Losing doesn’t mean Game Over: How to move past losses and take advantage of failures in game-based learning

When you play a game, whether it’s competitive or collaborative, alone or with an opponent, a near-universal truth is that you play the game to win and face the chance of loss. On the other hand, many managers prefer not to demotivate adult learners (often already disengaged) through negative reinforcement like failure or loss. 

However, failure, errors and mistakes can teach us a great deal. Mistake-driven training is a powerful tool to drive learning outcomes. In the real world, mistakes and failure are a part of life. Rather than coddling the learner in a failure-free learning environment, it’s important to encourage your users to test and understand the boundaries of their knowledge by allowing them to get things wrong.

Gaming and failure

How do games work? “You try something that doesn’t work, then you try something else, and you repeat until you find the solution,” says Ashleigh Hull. Gamers focus on thinking around an issues.

Unlike the real world, the gamer is guaranteed to find at least one path to success. Working with the knowledge that failure is not the end, he or she remains persistent and refuses to quit until they succeed.

Failure and education

When students receive a failing grade, they feel despair because they believe that education is intended to help the learner pass a test, rather than to achieve learning. Failure can be used as a “teaching tool” for “problem-solving, leadership, communication, decision making, learning, and so on”. It’s just a matter of breaking free of the mindset that failure is the end of the world. “We don’t allow room for mistakes,” says Hull. “We live with a sometimes crippling fear of not reaching targets or goals.”

Managing losing in game-based learning

So how do you apply this insight to game-based learning? Games should not be too easy (failure should be possible) and yet they should not be too difficult (winning should be possible too). Easy games are uninteresting and cause over-confidence. Difficult games are demotivating.

A great way to maintain this balance is through diversified learning paths. Each time a learner beats a level, based on the speed with which they do so, the difficulty of the next level can be adjusted to suit. The most important strategy is to allow repetition and retakes until the learner achieves success. Don’t let loss or failure be final.

Since games are rules-based, it’s easy to understand what went wrong and create a plan to get it right the next time. Games take the fear out of failure, as you know that you have another chance to win, and another after that. 

Share feedback, not grading at the end of each game. The priority when it comes to game-based learning is not win/loss or pass/fail, but the learning that comes through the game. Advise your learners on what went wrong and how to succeed the next time. Don’t present a stark GAME OVER end-screen, but instead use a loss as a learning opportunity.

Use inspirational sound design that avoids mocking loss sounds! While the occasional ‘oops’ may be funny and appealing, some loss sound effects can have a disheartening effect on struggling learners. Create sound design with compassion and the objective to motivate the learner.

‘Failing forward’

Every time the learner loses, they have found another of the “10,000 ways that won’t work”, as Thomas Edison put it. Every failure has the seed of success in it. By allowing learners to fail without penalty, you empower them to take risks, thus creating an environment of innovation. 

However, for many of us, this concept of failing without consequence in formal learning is alien. That’s where games come into the picture. Virtual learning, and games, are an opportunity to take risks and grow. By learning through games, you don’t just make learning fun – you make it risk-safe.

Contact our team of e-learning experts to create a game-based learning strategy that works for your needs. Make failure a part of your learning journey, and reap the rewards – greater involvement leading to better learning outcomes, and an organizational environment that supports the true spirit of innovation.