I can't recall now how I came across Jasper Juul's The Art of Failure: An essay on the pain of playing video games, but I am certainly glad that I did. It is a fascinating and fast read about the nature and meaning of failure in games. It explores paradoxes like the fact that humans don't like to fail yet when he performed a study asking people to rate their enjoyment of a game, he found the seemingly counter-intuitive results of people ranking games higher in which they had failed, at least once. Perhaps this is not entirely beyond logic since humans also like to overcome challenges and to strive to improve.
He also explores the unwritten promise in a game that we can "win" if we keep playing. Success may be found in gameplay through one of three (sometimes overlapping) paths: skill, chance, and labor. So if we fail, maybe we don't have enough skill yet, or we haven't played long enough, or hit the right combination of pieces. But eventually we can be successful. Learning (and life) isn't always presented this way. Learners often don't feel that there is a pathway to success for them especially if they have no indicators that they are progressing along the way. Or meaningful indicators I should say. The fact that they got some points for turning an assignment in on time does not provide them with any information about their understanding of the subject matter. It may help them "win" the game of completing the course, but may do little to enhance their mastery of the material. That's a pretty hollow victory.
Another topic that resonated for me was Juul's reminder that:
"We are more likely to search for causes for failure than for causes of success. Whereas success can make us complacent that we have understood the system we are manipulating, failure gives the opportunity to consider why we failed."
This is a great missed opportunity on many projects I have seen. When they go well, people aren't as likely to stop and reflect on what made them go well and learn from the success.
I am only scratching the surface of the multifaceted exploration of failure that is covered in the book, but I have to leave some surprises for you to find.