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Fun Failure: How to Make Learning Irresistible

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Bao Tri Photography

By Anne Collier

Failure is a positive act of creativity,” Katie Salen said. Scientists, artists, engineers, and even entrepreneurs know this as adults. But in schools, the notion of failure is complicated.

Salen, executive director of the Institute of Play and founder of Quest to Learn, the first public school based on the principles of game design in the U.S., explained how failure can be a motivating agent for learning in her presentation at SXSW.

Any practice – athletic, artistic, even social – involves repeatedly failing till one gets the experience or activity right. We need to “keep the challenge constant so players are able to fail and try again,” she said. "It’s hard and it leads to something rewarding."

Game designer Jane McGonigal makes a similar point. She dedicates an entire chapter in her book Reality Is Broken to “fun failure” and why it makes us happy. When we’re playing a well-designed game, failure doesn’t disappoint us. It makes us happy in a very particular way; excited, interested, and most of all optimistic, Salen said. “Fun failure” even makes us more resilient, which keeps us emotionally safe.

But the opposite is true in school, Salen said. School usually gives students one chance to get something right; failing grades work against practice, mastery, and creativity. To keep kids motivated, learning needs to be irresistible, Salen said.


Over the past year, Salen went on a “listening tour,” interviewing game designers at Media Molecule, Valve, and Blizzard Entertainment. Here’s what she learned in terms of gaming principles that can be applied to education:

  • Don’t shoot the player while she’s learning. Too much drama, too nerve-wracking or scary an environment makes it hard for participants to learn. Students need space to think, look around, process, and reflect.
  • Learning is social. Problem-solving is increasingly collaborative. Salen heard a Media Molecule designer explain how much players’ own interactions, often more than the design, adds to the experience. Players, like students, can bring ideas to the process that designers don’t even think of. Will Wright, designer of The Sims and Spore, says he designs communities, not games. “We need to design a classroom as a community in which the participants’ knowledge is valued and the exchange of their own expertise is valued,” Salen said. “Most challenges in school today only deal with individual problem-solving. Tests don’t reward collaborative problem-solving. Sharing is often seen as cheating,” while collaborating in cross-functional teams is what’s needed more and more in a complex world.
  • A strong sense of community creates safety. Open up space for students (players) to interact with one another, a space for which you’ve created 1) a need to know, 2) a need to share what they know, and 3) the infrastructure for that sharing. “Sharing should feel like a gift,” Salen said. Let players/students participate in the designing too. In participatory learning, like open-source code writing, the design keeps getting better.
  • Learning that empowers the learner helps make it irresistible. Mark Healey at Little Big Planets told Salen that empowering a player to do something feels like a "force flows through your veins like you can change the world around you.” When we can design learning experiences that feel like that, we make learning irresistible.

A version of this post appeared on NetFamilyNews. You can listen to the entirety of Katie Salen's talk here.

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