By Sue McDowall
One of the teachers in the Games for Learning project described a conversation she had with the students in her class about how they might transfer into their school work the resilience and perseverance they showed when failing during gaming:
I said to them, “Well how can we transfer all of those skills in to your academic work? How is it when you get a maths question as soon as you can’t do it you give up?” And then, just this silence fell over them. And I am like, “I know. I don’t have the answer either.” And it was a bit of a revelation for all of us that they were prepared to play a game and fail, fail, fail, fail, and still want to play it. But in their academic work if they fail it, it is just this huge block. (Teacher, Year 7/8)
The question of why students are prepared to tolerate or even learn from failure in games when they don’t show the same motivation from failure at school is one that we are especially curious about. We want to know how to help students bring the attitude they have to learning through failure in games to their learning at school. So, we asked the students in our study, why they thought the experience of failure when gaming was different from the experience of failure at school. In this blog I consider what these students had to say…
Instant feedback and opportunities to “try again”
The students described how, when playing games, they got instant feedback, which made it clear what to do differently next time.
You learn – I shouldn’t have done that because now I’m doing really badly. (Student Year 3-4)
It’s like if you go down a really big slide and you crash into something and you hurt yourself and you learn from that. You’re learning while you’re playing the game and that’s important. (Student, Year 10)
They also had immediate opportunities to apply what they had learnt by “trying again”. There was in contrast a dearth of instantaneous feedback about what they were doing well or not well at school and a lack of opportunity to rapidly try and retry.
In a game if you die you can start again. At school, if you fail, you’ll still be on the same level. (Student, Year 6)
It is kind of different [from failing at school] because sometimes [at school] you can only do it once. It’s like you can only do it once a year. (Student, Year 3/4)
These fast cycles of learning and re-attempting, motivated students to persevere.
At home you do get annoyed with the game but you don’t stop. You have one life every round and you might do something dumb – you might get killed, but you want to get on to the next round. (Student, Year 7-8)
Recognition of progress
Secondly, games provided the motivational pay off – the ‘ding’ of gratification or reward through recognition of improvement or progress. While students might repeatedly fail at a particular level, information about improvement, e.g., how close they got in their sixth failed attempt compared, for example, with their second, kept them motivated.
A game is better than a test because you can keep getting better. (Student, Year 7-8)
In contrast students saw achievement at school as being constructed in terms of pass or fail, rather than in terms of progress.
With maths you might keep trying to get the answer right but with games you might keep trying to get better – like win a quest or get to another level. (Student, Year 3-4)
Maybe you try harder [in a game] because you get a lot more coins but with normal maths you just get the answer right, and that’s all. (Student, Year 3-4)
The recognition of progress in games meant all students could experience some level of success. In contrast, the teachers and students we interviewed speculated that some students may not feel as though they have any chance of success at school. As one of the teachers said:
You’re far more likely to buy into the game if you have a chance of success. Otherwise, you’re just going to opt out. And that is actually quite a nice analogy for how many kids feel about the senior school. They know they’ve no longer got a chance to win in this game so they opt out. (Teacher, Year 10)
The following comments were made by a group of Year 10 students who described “giving up” or “not trying” at school because they knew they would fail:
[In school] people just give up because they’re just going to lose anyway.
Sometimes when you think you won’t be able to do it, you don’t want to do it. It’s just that point of mind.
You get anxiety to not try [at school work] because you think you’re going to fail immediately.
If you know you’re going to fail you don’t try. It just blows your whole mind.
Just as some student saw school activities as having a ‘fixed’ end point – passing or failing – some saw school as ‘fixing’ their identities as learners in terms of success or failure. One teacher explained these student experiences, in relation to assessment systems.
With National Standards some of our kids have been told every year by their teachers, by legal requirement, that…they have failed, they are below standard. (Teacher, Year 10)
Some of the students we spoke with felt there was a personal stigma associated with failing at school.
With school [compared with games] you know you’re like a bad student if you don’t do well and you’re put into the bottom class… and everyone’s thinking you’re dumb and that. (Student, Year 7/8)
With games there was no such stigma. With a game, losing was acceptable – even expected – especially when playing for the first few times.
It is ok to die when you play a game for the first time. (Student, Year 3/4)
Interestingly, the reason students saw success in games as more achievable than in school was not because the games were easier than the school work. Rather, as they described it, game learning was broken into manageable chunks of gradually increasing difficulty with lots of opportunities to practice and apply new skills, before moving on to more challenging contexts.
Tests are pretty hard when you do it the first time. Games are easier because you just move from step to step. A game is better than a test because you can keep getting better. (Student, Year7/8)
Students also liked the way in which if they failed a level, they could try again from the point at which they failed.
A good game – you have to be able to come back to it, keep playing, come back to it. (Student, Year 7/8)
Seeing the end game: The brain’s need for completion
Our final explanation comes from some research we were told about by one of the students in our study. This particular student was passionate about the game FNAF (Five Nights at Freddy’s) and when we asked him what it was about the game that made him want to constantly persevere in the face of repeated failure, he had this to say:
According to game theory, the reason why games are so addicting is because when you die or fail or something, your brain wants to complete the task. And there’s some kind of function in it [your brain], and it won’t stop until it is finally done...Also FNAF has a simple concept but a very deep storyline… (Student, Year 7/8)
Here we see the ‘pull’ of a need to complete, in both gaming and narrative terms. Could school learning be shaped to trigger this same motivational pull?
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