Thursday, February 25, 2010

Educational Gaming Redefining Failure

One of video gaming’s attractions is that you are free to fail: in fact, you’re encouraged to fail! How much fun would a game be if the first time you played it you, you won? Instead, your character dies and you re-start, the time runs out and you miss slotting in that last puzzle piece, or you can’t think of the answer quick enough and you’re back to zero.

This freedom to fail is often mentioned as one of the benefits of educational games. Students are encouraged to discover solutions in a safe environment.

But do games really offer freedom from failure? And is that what we want?

If you’re an educator, you’re probably aware of the current debate surrounding the “no-fail policy”. Some regard the no-fail policy as the latest step in sacrificing education for feel-good programs; others argue that it promotes greater learning by avoiding burdening students with a stigma early on in their education.

Whether or not you support it, the no-fail policy is an indication of how prevalent the notions of “pass” and “fail” are in both the school system and in larger society.

And perhaps nowhere is the subject of passing and failing stronger than in Aboriginal education. In 2008, the Educational Institute published a report stating, “2001 Census numbers showed that nearly 59% of on-reserve Aboriginal people and 44% of off-reserve Aboriginal people have not graduate high school, compared to 31% of the population as a whole”. Similarly, the Council of Ministers of Education states in the overview of the Aboriginal Education Action Plan, “Aboriginal students, both male and female, perform at lower levels than other students”.

In a system that lauds the idea of passing and failing, our Aboriginal students are being failed.

So, how does this relate to video games?

The education system is built around preset definitions of “pass” and “fail”, to the point where success has become a synonym for pass.

Games question this premise.

Games redefine what failure means.

In fact, using words like “fail” when it comes to gaming shows how far we still need to go: we don’t yet even have the vocabulary to talk about gaming outside of this pass/fail duality. But when a character dies in a game, when you don’t quite fit that puzzle piece, when you need to re-start the game four hundred and ninety-nine times (knowing that you’ll probably need to re-start it that five hundredth time!), that’s not failing. It’s learning how to learn. It’s finding out something integral about you, something relating to determination, hard work, and perseverance.

Of course we need to focus on making sure students pass. Of course we need to make sure students are being given the ability to succeed. But perhaps we also need to show them that they can redefine what passing and failing mean.

Online games give students – even if only temporarily – the ability to exist outside the continuum of pass/fail. And perhaps that freedom is needed as much, if not more, than a no-fail policy which simply refigures where the students sit on the same old continuum.

Collette Jackson, Content and Marketing Specialist at BlackCherry Digital Media, is writing on behalf of On the Path of the Elders, a free online educational resource that explores Cree and Ojibway history and culture, and the signing of Treaty No. 9.

On the Path of the Elders launches March 24, 2010. Check it out at

For more information, email us at

Created in partnership with the Mushkegowuk Cree, Carleton University, BlackCherry Digital Media, and Pinegrove Productions.

This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canadian Culture Online Strategy. Created with additional financial assistance from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the Inukshuk Fund.