Video Games Can Make Education Fail in a Good Way

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Video games have gained mainstream acceptance today. But they’re still widely perceived as a bad influence on students.

With the digital age, kids are generally spending more time in front of screens, and we’ve gained increasing awareness of the ensuing ill effects. And gaming is one of the most engaging activities our devices offer.

It’s natural to fear that kids won’t have the maturity to resist the addiction trap. Some might be unaffected, but many more will be at risk of insomnia, obesity, mental health issues, or stunted social development.

Moreover, time spent gaming is time not spent studying or practicing other skills that prove useful in school and later in life.

These concerns are valid, but the negative perception of video games may be preventing educators from harnessing their greatest asset.

Games for growth

Using video games as an educational tool has actually been practiced since the 1970s. Children who seem bored at school can often demonstrate complete immersion in gaming. It’s logical to see games as a solution to the common problem of education not being very engaging.

But games are engaging by design, and they aren’t always designed to be educational.

Sure, there’s a genre of ‘edutainment’ games specifically developed to fulfill this demand. However, developers will always feel the commercial incentive to pour most of their resources into more profitable, non-educational titles.

Video games will never replace classroom learning. But educators can learn from their design. Gamification has emerged as a popular method for making learning activities more engaging.

The video game feature with the greatest upside, however, is the freedom to fail.

The growth mindset is well-known as one of the critical tools in any intentional learner’s arsenal. But the real world is full of penalties that discourage failure.

Get into a few vehicle accidents, and you might be identified as a high-risk driver. Those failures are costly, and it becomes difficult to find auto insurance providers without a broker’s aid. But if those accidents happened in a simulator, you’d be a better driver in the real world, minus the stigma.

people playing a videogame

Failure and discourse

Growing up, we encounter countless other situations that could teach us to develop this aversion to failure.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Fire is the best teacher, as the saying goes. But the lesson shouldn’t be that we always need to stay safe.

Calculated risks can be taken if the potential consequences aren’t dire. Embracing the learning that comes with failure is essential to making the growth mindset work.

Video games give students a virtual environment where it’s possible to fail without incurring any actual harm. Not only that, it’s an active assumption among players that failure in the game is an indicator of progress.

In theory, learning in a failure-based environment encourages students to ‘fail up.’ They are willing to try new things, step outside their comfort zone, and tackle challenges that would seem beyond their current abilities.

Research demonstrates that this is borne out in practice as well. Student gameplay patterns based on failure provoked discourse around the relevant mechanics and content, ultimately leading to deeper learning.

It’s critical to note that failing alone isn’t enough. It must lead to a discussion to be productive, and the educator continues to play a role in facilitating that and achieving learning goals.

Learning for educators

The potential for video games to contribute to failure-based learning doesn’t negate the fact that unchecked gaming habits can still lead to addiction and poor student outcomes.

Nor does it somehow present as a cure-all for the problems of the education system in general. The use of gamification principles in education, for instance, has been criticized.

When applied blindly, gamified course design can reinforce binary concepts of passing or failing, oversimplify challenges, and deprive students of agency in setting their own goals and executing them.

Students themselves might learn to ‘game the system,’ and instead of figuring out new patterns for themselves, copy what others find to work.

Like gamification, there are potential downsides to using video games for the sake of creating an environment that encourages failure. But it’s worth a try.

Educators themselves need to learn to question the system’s assumptions. Too often, parents, teachers, and administrators get caught up in the high-stakes nature of modern education.

We need to stop fearing our own failures in this domain. Only through the willingness to innovate can we improve the system and avoid stagnation, representing absolute failure for education.

Reframing education so that all stakeholders are willing to fail up is what will embolden students to put the growth mindset into practice.

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