Redefining Failure

I wrote a post a couple weeks back about “The Win State,” which in the world of game design is what makes a game, a game.  But that naturally mandates there’s such a thing as a “Failure State.”  We all know what that is.  Brutal when you’re in the thick of an awesome, invincible, controller twitch — and up comes that terrible prompt:  You lose.  Your character has died.  Game OVER!

Nothing to do but hit “Start over” and begin again.  That’s the beauty of a game.  You can always begin again.  And we do.  Because in the world of entertainment games, there really is no consequence for failure.

In the all-too-serious worlds of education, business, philanthropy, and sometimes, life in general…if you fail, in many instances — you’re done.  We see this in high schools throughout California where if you’re not white or well-to-do, the dropout rate is staggering (in 2009, the dropout rate was 37% if you were black, 27% if you were Hispanic, 25% if you were low-income).  Unlike Angry Birds, you can’t just hit the re-start button and jump back in for a do-over.

The reliance on standardized testing in American public education has fostered a learning structure that relies on right and wrong answers.  After all, in multiple choice tests, for any given question, there are not multiple correct answers.  There is only one.  Unfortunately, that wrong answer does not set off a subsequent line of inquiry on those STAR tests — and therefore, failure is a dead end.

But in the current circumstances of our ever-beleaguered real world, terminating effort due to defeat  is a frightening notion in that it can only lead to overall system failure.  If we give up, we’re goners.  But try solving the following problems with your first draft solutions:  over population, food and water shortages, environmental crises, economic schisms, wars fought with IED’s built from junk parts on the one hand and high tech drones on the other, global pandemics — not to mention, obsolete educational methodologies.

There are no single right answers to any one of these problems.  A myriad of strategies, quickly but thoughtfully deployed by nimble thinkers — and even more nimble AND effective doers — who must have no fear of failure is the only salvation in the current age.  It’s the only path to effective innovation.

The brilliant inventor and engineer, Charles Kettering had this to say about failure:  “Every great improvement has come after repeated failures. Virtually nothing comes out right the first time. Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”

To redefine failure, a wrong answer has to clearly be a temporary state on a longer path to re-invention, wisdom and eventual success.  That is why Nuvana has for the time being, shied away from virtual world games.  In our former lives in entertainment media, we definitely built them.  Besides being expensive and time consuming (and do we really need costly, long-term building efforts in the face of educational budget cuts?), building a virtual world with CG or Flash or any kind of animation for that matter pre-supposes that it is a closed system with borders.  Players get frustrated and bored once they sense the boundaries of a virtual world.  The builder has to constantly expand the world (i.e. more cost and more time).  And intrinsic in this environment, there is a “right” and a “wrong.”  A win and a fail.  Somewhere, the world or the program or the AI reaches its limit.

In a Nuvana game, the effort is to empower the players, show them they have no limit other than their own persistence, and to support while learning along with them, in order for them to find other pathways and solutions that might exist.

As Bruce Lee put it:  “What is defeat?  Nothing but education; nothing but the first step to something better.”

By redefining failure, what we are really doing is reforming the learning process in any context to create innovative, creative, indefatigable thinkers and doers.  Done right, education can be transformed into an inclusive, equitable, behavioral change process that will make dropouts obsolete and create standards based on quality rather than quantity.

— JvK

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