Editor's Note: Learning From Failure
Through failure, we learn at least two things: how to fail and how not to succeed.
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A fantastic letter--we really appreciate you sharing this with us!
This is going to prompt some fantastic discussion this week, both regarding the success/failure of developers and the success/failure of the player within the game. I'm really, really looking forward to all of that!
I apologize wholeheartedly in advance for the length of this post.
This isn't only true for video games or theatre. We're increasingly designing a world that fails to challenge, and thus fails to inspire. I know I run the risk of sounding a little, "Gawh, kids this days!" while shaking my fist at the local skateboarders, but it's something that is true. There is something that we are teaching our children from an earlier and earlier age. It's not a lesson that is good for them, it's one that's convenient for us. We're teaching them that discomfort and failure can and should be avoided at all costs.
We're teaching them how to quit.
As an infant, you once wanted to walk, but could not. You watched others do it, and you were, in your own way, envious. They could get around faster. They could reach things. They could hold a cookie and still move about. It was glorious to behold, and you wanted it. So, you set about learning. You tried standing, holding a coffee table or something to stay up. You couldn't stay up long before your little legs would tire, but eventually you got better. Before long, you were making hurried laps around that table, but you were still crawling when you had to go somewhere else. Realizing this, one day, you decided that had to end. You took your first steps.
It didn't go well. Accounts vary, but in all likelihood you fell flat on your face. Maybe you even caught a piece of the table to your forehead on the way down. Falling hurt. The sensation of falling was confusing and terrifying. It was frustrating to have shown yourself unable to do what you wanted. Make no mistake, infants can feel all of this. It was a wholly negative experience for you, but you had one ace up your sleeve: No one ever told you that you could just quit, so you didn't.
Next time, you failed, but you failed a little less. And then a little less than that. So it went for trial after trial, with all the bumps and bruises that came with each. Eventually, "big failure" became "small failure," became "small success," became "big success." And within a few weeks, there wasn't a single part of your brain or body that remembered not being able to do this.
This is learning. This is how it is done. Learning is coming face-to-face with something you can't do or don't know, with which you are not comfortable or proficient, and doing battle until you've added it to the list of things you can do. It is the arduous trek from "awful" to "great," and the gulf that separates the two is only crossable on a bridge you construct from your failures.
Failure, however, is not the enemy. When failure comes to us, it can only do one of two things. It can teach us, or it can stop us. At first, we aren't aware of the latter, but somewhere along the line, we learn life's worst lesson: "If something gets too hard, you can just quit and go do something else. No need to endure the discomfort, the pain, or the embarrassment of what you can't do. Just go find something else to do." This lesson is what can turn failure's stepping stones into stumbling blocks.
There are three ways in which we teach our children this awful lesson, as parents or as teachers.
1. We protect them too much. We work so hard to shield them from any pain or discomfort, both physically and emotionally. It's for their safety, but also because we'd rather believe they can go through life in an entirely positive way. Sadly, that's just not how it works. No one wants to intentionally put kids in negative or hurtful situations, but there are times where you have to let them happen. Because eventually hurt and failure are going to find them.
Think of this like the chickenpox. It's out there, we recognize it will find our kids eventually. And we know that it is far less dangerous to a child than to an adult. So what do a lot of parents do? They find a kid with the chickenpox and send their own child to play with the sick one. Why? To get it out of the way early, when it can't do as much damage. We do this to allow their immune systems to develop strength early on, even if we don't understand it in that way.
Beyond this, medical studies are finding that kids who never get dirty, like those in our hyper-sanitized environments, tend to develop more allergies (which are just our own immune systems over-reacting to normally innocuous things) because their immune systems don't learn how to handle these things early enough.
If only we could apply this same logic (though in a careful, judicial manner) to their emotional and social "immune systems"--the mind's defense when dealing with negative input from the world. If you shelter and "hyper-sanitize" a child's world, they never learn to develop any sort of immunity to it. And when (not if) it hits, it will hit harder.
2. We play too often to the child's strengths. Kids will inevitably develop strengths and weaknesses based on combinations of genetics and development (though I tend to favor development). "Well, Billy is good at reading, but he's not very good at math." This may be an accurate statement, but the difference comes in how we use that information. Does it mean we pile on the reading, and we marginalize the math? Or does it mean that we put a bit more focus, from time to time, on where he's weak?
If a child is found to have a "lazy eye," it simply means one eye is weaker than the other in terms of its ability to focus. One eye is dominating, and the other eye becomes increasingly weak. You see the same kind of thing happen in countless pairings where one side is strong than the other. The highly-complicated and futuristic way in which they deal with a lazy eye early on? An eye patch. On the good eye. This forces the weaker eye to develop the strength to do what it needs to do and bring it up to the same level as the stronger eye.
We use the same logic when someone has an injured leg. Yes, you keep the weight off while it's healing... but as you get toward the middle and end of the process, you've got to start putting weight on it, bending it, gradually increasing the capabilities of the "bad leg." If you don't, muscles won't be ready, stitches can re-open, and bones won't be able to handle the stress. If you always avoid putting weight on a weakness, it stays a weakness forever. Sometimes you have to steer a child away from a strength (just momentarily) so that they can develop other strengths, and so that they can learn that weakness don't have to stay that way--they're a sign that you've got a harder road, not a dead end.
3. We just don't care enough, sometimes. It can really be that sad and simple. #1 and #2 teach our kids that they should quit, and this is how we often teach them that they can. The child tries something new, finds that it's harder than they thought, and they want to quit. Without even looking up from what we're doing, we just casually wave them off, "Sure. There's plenty of other stuff you could do." (Personal testimony follows. Feel free to skip to cut some length from this post.)
THE BOTTOM LINE
Growth can never occur in a state of comfort. As a child, you know you're growing when your clothes fit funny, your legs hurt, your voice gets all crackly, and a million other uncomfortable things. Growth requires a certain amount of discomfort, and we've got to be willing to endure it--and hold our kids and students to the same task.
Video games fall into the same trap. They can't be "too challenging," because there are tons of simpler games out there for people to run to. You've got to make the player comfortable, because challenge breeds discomfort. It causes the player to face what they're not good at (which should be read "not good at yet"), and most can't handle that. Games are supposed to be "fun," right? And facing your weaknesses, even a little, just isn't fun.
I know that the content I've read in this issue so far mostly speaks to failure as a developer, but I think the issue extends to how the player handles failure, and the implications of that on how games can move forward.
If you made it this far, I commend you. Go have some coffee. Or a nap.