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Game design and rethinking failure in school

Written by Joe Dillon
April 28, 2012

Game design and re-thinking failure in school

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is .

Katie Salen, executive director of the Institute of Play , offered principles for instructional designers to use in order apply the theories of game design in schools in this web session on Though the session title indicated there were six principles, I got four:

  1. Create a need to know
  2. Create a space of possibility
  3. Create opportunities for authority and expertise to be shared and reciprocal.
  4. Multiple, overlapping paths to mastery. 

From failure to iteration and prototype

In her explanation and exploration of the fourth point, she made the observation that game designers have to construct games in a way that participants can find success. A game designer has executed a poor design if players cannot find success. This is a distinct contrast from traditional classroom settings, she noted, where the instructional design suggests that not all student will find success and when students do not, schools blame the students more than they rethink design.

Participants in the web session asked Salen how schools built on game design help students with the routine failure that players experience to learn in game settings. She explained that gamers view failure differently. In the schools she works with- one in Chicago and one in New York- educators intentionally talk about failed efforts as iterations, prototypes and proof that approaches do not work. The hope is that students see success as possible. They, like players in a game, learn that risk and experimentation pay off. When students try and do not succeed in game design schools, they can trust that there is a pathway to success and that they are in the process of finding it.

My own failure

During the recorded web session, I paused the discussion to do a little research when I heard a mention of the game Minecraft . Having read recently about classroom implications for games like Gamestar Mechanic and Little Big Planet , I wanted to familiarize myself with Minecraft, a title I’m encountering more and more in my online reading about games in education.

In minutes, I downloaded a free app for the pocket edition on my smartphone. In no time, my little avatar was running over the block landscape and stopping to stack blocks. I had to build a structure that would protect me after nightfall. Entirely too soon, night did fall and hordes of monsters came out of nowhere and destroyed me.

With my short experience with Minecraft, the pocket edition, I gained a new appreciation for the term my students use more and more: “Epic fail.” My epic failure may have hooked me on the game, though. Failure gave me a few objectives for my next experience, too. I know now that I will probably have to explore the terrain more, and figure out how to stack these blocks where I want them to go. Once I learn how to navigate and build, I will need to figure out what kind of structure will impede the murderous monsters. I’m probably going to fail, like, 10 more times before I develop the competency to advance in this game. Luckily, this is a game, though, so the learning is probably going to be fun.

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