Game-Based Learning Talk

A quest to transform education through game-based learning

Games and Failure

with 2 comments

This is part of the commencement speech that I presented at California State University, Fullerton on May 19, 2012 to the graduates of the master’s in instructional design and technology program.

California State University Fullerton Commencement 2012

First, let me give you a few statistics about gaming today. We know that videogames are popular, but let’s just see how popular.

  • 72% of all American households and more than half of all adults play videogames
  • The average age of videogame players is 37 years old
  • 42% of gamers are female

Now, let’s get to the good ones:

  • 99% of boys and 94% of girls play videogames, boys for an average of 13 hours/week, and girls for an average of 8 hours/week
  • By age 21, the AVERAGE American will have spent more than 10,000 hours playing videogames
    – The equivalent to 5 years of work at a full time job
    – Almost the same amount of time a child spends in the classroom from kindergarten through high school
  • Gamers worldwide are playing videogames for a total of 3 billion hours each week

So, you can clearly see that games are really, really popular. But why are they so popular?


I’d like to segue here to the main topic of my talk today. On this glorious day – one in which we’re here to celebrate one your life’s greatest successes – I would like to now talk about a topic that is near and dear to my heart these days. And that topic is failure.

What? You’re probably thinking, “This is blasphemy! Why is this guy up here talking about failure on a day when we’re here celebrating all of our success?”

But, here’s the thing, videogames are all about failing. In fact, when you’re playing a videogame, you’re actually failing around 80% of the time.

Angry Birds

How many of you here have played Angry Birds? Remember the very first time you tried the game? You probably sent the first bird way past the structure. Then, on your second shot, you probably fell way short. Then, finally on your third one, you probably hit the target but didn’t get all the pigs – and so you lost. You failed.

But then, a cool thing happened. The game said “You Lose” and the pigs grumbled at you, but then you got to try again. And again. And again. Until, you finally figured out how to get all those grumbling pigs. Then, you happily moved on to the next level. And then the next level. And then the next level.

And then, later on, after two hours had gone by and you suddenly realize that you were supposed to have run a couple of errands and read an article for your lit review, you find yourself happily at Angry Birds, Level 21 despite the fact that you just spent over one and a half hours failing at something over and over.

So, here’s the thing – in a game, it’s OK to fail. Games are a safe environment in which to fail, over and over, and it’s perfectly OK. Each time you fail, you keep learning a little bit more about what not to do.

In fact, there is no such thing as failure. You can think of every failure as really just a partial success. Even your complete and utter disasters are not really failures because you know exactly what not to do the next time.

Sometimes, games make failing even fun. In some action games, when you fall off the ledge and die, there’s this big, spectacular “You Lose” animation – sort of like when the Coyote misses the Road Runner and falls off the cliff in a grand cloud of smoke.

You see, by providing a safe environment where it’s perfectly OK to fail, games are rewarding perseverance and effort, and so that’s why you see yourself spending two hours playing Angry Birds –  and it’s a big reason why games are so popular. Also, this safe environment where it’s OK to fail makes games a non-threatening way in which we can learn.

In fact, in games, sometimes the best strategy is to try to fail on purpose. In Angry Birds, usually the first thing that I do is to shoot all my birds in a straight line to see if the brute force method can knock down the structure. Almost all the time, this doesn’t work, but sometimes it gives me a clue about where a weak point in the structure might be so I can try a new idea the next time.

F Grade

But, can you imagine if your kid takes this strategy of failing on purpose in school? “Yeah Mom, I got an ‘F’ on the quiz on purpose just so that I could figure out what the right answers were later on.”

Unfortunately, schools these days are not a safe environment where it’s OK to fail. In school, if you get an “F” on anything, it’s there on your permanent record – forever! It makes it really hard in school, then, to take any risks, because one slip up and you’re done.

In games, however, take all the risks you want. Try out a new, creative, out-of-the-box solution. Games encourage this type of thinking. School, unfortunately, tends to encourage the uniform, get-the-right-answer type of thinking.

So, imagine a school where it’s not only OK to fail, but where your failures are appreciated by everyone because they provide learning moments that everyone can learn from. Wouldn’t this be something? InUtah, there’s a private school that’s started a Mistake Club, where they give points to members each week on a 1-10 scale – the bigger the mistake, the more you earn. At the end of the year, they give an award to the person who accumulates the most points. Isn’t that something?

Now, you might be thinking, “wouldn’t all this failure have an effect on our kids’ self-confidence?” And this is a valid concern in today’s world where we’re constantly concerned with our kids’ self-esteem.


How many of you have seen a TED Talk by Brene Brown (there are two of them)?

Brene Brown is a social researcher at theUniversityofHouston. If you haven’t seen her talks yet, please google for “brene brown TED talk” and watch both of her 20 minutes talks on there about vulnerability and shame. Her talks are excellent and they may even change your life. Really!

In her talks, she speaks about this “epidemic of shame” that we have in today’s society. Everyone today seems to feel shameful about something for one reason or another. Maybe it’s because of things like:

  • School, where we don’t feel smart enough,
  • Or, glamour magazines that don’t make us feel attractive enough,
  • Or, social media like Facebook that makes you feel like all of your “friends” are having this great life compared to yours

For some reason, we never feel like we’re ever good enough. And, Brene Brown calls this an epidemic of shame. She also says, however, that the antidote to shame is empathy because empathy counters the growth factors of shame, which are secrecy, silence, and judgment.

Failure can fuel the epidemic of shame if we don’t know how to handle it. Empathy helps us handle failure by letting us say, “I made a mistake” – which leads to learning – instead of “I am a mistake” – which leads to shame.

And this is where games come in. Games are a place where you can say, “I made a mistake” over and over, but then you learn from these mistakes. You never think, “I am a mistake” just because you shot your Angry Bird way over the pig structure.

Games also foster empathy from all the social support you get from other gamers, whether it’s in an online multiplayer game or from a sibling that’s watching you play.

So, to answer my earlier question, “wouldn’t all this failure have a negative effect on our kids’ self-confidence?” The answer is no, it can have a positive effect. Failure is actually good for our kids’ self-confidence and self-esteem if we can show kids that FAILURE LEADS TO LEARNING AND NOT TO SHAME. Games can help show kids how to think this way – and how to develop what’s known as a growth mindset.


How many of you are familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset?

Carol Dweck is a professor of psychology atStanfordUniversity, and she distinguishes between two types of mindsets. Those with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and other traits are fixed at specific levels. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe that intelligence and other traits are not fixed at specific levels but instead can be developed through dedication and hard work. Brains and talent are just the starting point – how you develop them is up to you.

People with fixed mindsets will do well on things until they come up against, say, a difficult math problem. If they are unable to figure out the problem right away, they simply conclude, “Hey, I’m just not smart enough to do that.” People with growth mindsets, on the other hand, will get stuck on the math problem, but instead of giving up, they believe that they’ll eventually be able to learn how to do the problem if they just keep at it.

Carol Dweck’s research has found that a growth mindset promotes perseverance, resiliency, motivation, productivity, and a love of learning.

And what do you think is a great way to develop this growth mindset? Yes, it’s games – and why? Because games show you that you can always improve if you keep on trying. Why do you think it’s so common to see a kid spending hours and hours trying to get through a difficult level in a game? He’s developing that growth mindset by failing over and over but, at the same time, constantly learning from his failures.


So, as you can see, failure is so important to all of us. Failure can help us become better people. It can help us develop empathy, lose shame, raise our self-confidence, and give us a growth mindset.

Pretty much any successful person in this world has had to deal with failure on the path to success.

  • Steven Spielberg was rejected three times from the USC film school.
  • Albert Einstein couldn’t speak until he was four and didn’t read until he was seven, and he was the only one in his graduating class that wasn’t able to get a teaching position because no professor would recommend him.
  • Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. He later stated in his famous Nike commercial, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I’ve been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

So, class of 2012 here today, think back over the past 18 months and ask yourselves – were there some times when you had to overcome failure to get through this program? I’m guessing that all of you had your share of failure – mine was rewriting my lit review about a dozen times! I commend you all for getting through those failures to make it through to today.

As you go forward, I hope you continue to experience failure in your lives – and to acknowledge that failure, appreciate that failure, and learn from that failure – and then, I’m sure you will be celebrating many more successes – just like the one you are celebrating today! Thank you.


Written by randyfuj

May 20, 2012 at 12:00 am

Posted in Education

2 Responses

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  1. Truly there is something broken in our society when we are so afraid of failure, and yet failure is a necessary part of success. Fear of failure will keep you back from success. President Lincoln failed miserably at politics only to make it to presidency, Dr. Seuss had his first book rejected by 27 publishers, the list is quite long. Most business owners fail before finally finding sucess – and they learn in the process, which gives them the insights to know how to succeed.
    Games do empower us to fail and that may be one of their cheif contributions to us as a society. And one of the ways they do that is that in the intensity of the moment, in the game, we are willing to try almost anything to beat the clock, the enemy, or the other player; we are having “fun” engaging ourselves towards success, knowing we will stumble and learn from it.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    Brad Strong

    January 18, 2015 at 8:45 am

    • Thanks for your comment. My nonprofit organization, GameTrain Learning, has a goal to get educators to “think and learn like a gamer.” One of the most important mindset’s of a games is that of one who takes calculated risks and seeks to learn from setbacks – in a way, applying the scientific method to every action he or she takes in not only approaching a game but also everyday life.


      January 18, 2015 at 10:45 am

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