On September 13, 1985 Shigeru Miyamoto and his team at Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. unto the world and began teaching people a central and vitally important lesson: that failing is necessary, failing is how we learn and failing can be fun.
The concept of creating an initial experience that teaches the player the rules, mechanics and controls of the game and then opens up later to give them more freedom is a concept central to my research and my teaching pedagogy. I think higher education does a pretty good job of creating this ‘opening level’ for students. As a lecturer in the Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies Department at UNC Charlotte, our curriculum certainly introduces students to the concepts of writing studies, rhetoric, genre and all the rest of the ‘rules of the game’. But through all of this foundational scaffolding, there is a commonplace experience that we should shed some due light on. A practice that is just as important, if not more so, than the cornerstone writing concepts that we pin so much of first-year writing pedagogy and curriculum on. This common-space experience is universal and is something that we all share yet it is something, especially in higher education, that is feared above all else. If we can think a little more deeply about our mistakes, about our mess-ups, about failing then maybe we can start to see how important the act of failing becomes in first-year writing; an act that should be taught, practiced and embraced. If only there was a vehicle that existed that could help us better understand and embrace failure. If only there was something out there so fun, so enticing and so ubiquitously popular that 214 million people across the US do it for at least 1 hour per day (https://www.theesa.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Final-Edited-2020-ESA_Essential_facts.pdf)
My ideas are very much based on the work and theories of James Paul Gee who argues that “Good video games incorporate good learning principles, principles supported by current research in Cognitive Science (Gee 2003, 2004). Why? If no one could learn these games, no one would buy them — and players will not accept easy, dumbed down, or short games. At a deeper level, however, challenge and learning are a large part of what makes good video games motivating and entertaining. Humans actually enjoy learning, though sometimes in school you wouldn’t know that.” (Gee) Moving through this concept, I would argue that this deeper level challenge does more than just motivate and entertain; it trains us to become okay with failure.
Failure is the overlap between education and video games; the commonplace where a shared universal experience becomes apparent in both realms. In the video game, failing is safe. It teaches us something. We learn to avoid that monster, jump over that pit or dodge that boss’ attack. The game itself gives us instant feedback as we play it, teaching us in real time how to get better each time we start over. However, a disconnect occurs when we transpose this experience into the classroom. Generally speaking, in school failure is to be avoided at all costs. Study hard, do the work, get ready for the test, prepare, prepare, prepare for your one shot to get that A. Most of the time, we don’t offer students places to mess up, try again and fail. We teach them that to fail is to have achieved the worst possible outcome when actually this is the complete opposite of how it should be.
Katie Larsen McClarty offers us this insight from her Lit. Review of the collection “Gaming in Education”
“An attractive element of the gaming experience as a learning tool is that it provides opportunities for continued practice because negative consequences are not typically associated with failure. Rather, failure serves as an integral part of the learning experience (Gee, 2009; Groff, Howells, & Cranmer, 2010; Ke, 2009; Klopfer, Osterweil, & Salen, 2009). This encourages players to improve through repeated practice either by advancing within a game or replaying parts of a game. Failure with limited consequence, agency, and choice are seen as critical elements of a true gaming experience. That said, in the context of education where a game might become a required activity tied to real consequences, there could be a diminution in these key elements that may lead students to be less inclined to practice and realize some of the benefits of gaming.”
I am not selling any revolutionary or groundbreaking theory here about the future of education nor am I even presenting something that new or uncommon. Many programs, curriculums and institutions are working hard to ‘gamify’ their instruction, to incorporate elements of level design, experience points, rewards, etc. into their courses. I am simply reminding us, as writing teachers specifically, that this common experience of failure is one we need to embrace. Many of our students are avid gamers. Many are not. But video games, even those as simple as Super Mario Bros., remind us that we have all been in that place where we have failed. Where we have messed up. Where we have failed. Maybe we can start to think about ways we can help students embrace that failure instead of avoiding it. Lower the stakes on your assignments. Consider contract grading or aspirational-oriented scoring. Consider ways to reduce the impact of a mess up. Offer endless revisions. Offer opportunities to try something again; to do it over and over and over until the students feels successful. Mario. That poor little plumber has been blown up, dropped down a pit, jumped on, flattened and smashed so many times it is impossible to keep track. But he keeps trying. The players keep going. Games teach us to fail and if failure is a universal human experience, then we should start getting good at it.