Monday, 15 April 2013

Mistakes and (Games Based) Learning

“In school we learn that mistakes are bad, and we are punished for making them. Yet, if you look at the way humans are designed to learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we never fell down, we would never walk.” 
― Robert T. Kiyosaki, Rich Dad, Poor Dad

Learning from mistakes is an evolutionary advantage.  If we did not learn that putting our hand in fire was painful, we would burn ourselves often.  If we did not learn from poorly designed tools, we would never make improvements and reap their rewards.  Learning from mistakes is what has made humans so powerful.  We make large and small mistakes for ourselves, learn from them and pass on this knowledge.  Mistakes are a powerful learning tool.

“Mistakes are the growing pains of wisdom.” 
― William Jordan

However, not all mistakes can be learned from.  Some are just too big to recover from.  Some can also harbour too much negative emotion to be useful; people usually don’t like to make mistakes publicly.  So, can games provide a safe, secure place to learn from ones’ mistakes? The following bullets consider this question:

  1. Immediate feedback and the opportunity to change and adapt – immediate feedback allows the player to quickly learn from their mistake and adapt their strategy, change their decision etc.  For example, in a first person shooter, you may decide that the best way to go about killing all the aliens in the given area is to go in all guns blazing.  If this doesn’t work, you have the chance to try again and adapt your strategy, maybe preferring to take cover more, or to stay at a distance and use long-range weapons etc.
  2. It’s just a game – this may be a blasé thing to say when some people spend a large proportion of their time and real money on MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games).  However, for the vast majority of people, a game is just a game and it isn’t the end of the world.  If your city burns down in SimCity because you forget to build fire stations, you can rebuild it.  No real city is harmed, the damage is relatively easy and quick to fix and you will probably not make the same mistake again.
  3. Simulated scenarios – adding to the last point, games area safe place to make mistakes and learn from them.  These may be accidental.  However, simulations can be used to train people who could not practice their job in the real world e.g. pilots, soldiers, surgeons, town council officers.  Mistakes for a trainee pilot or surgeon could be a disaster, therefore, mistakes in training simulations offer a rich learning experience with no negative real-life implications.
  4. Social factors – many people play games alone.  This means they are able to make mistakes with no scorn or criticism.  However, if they are playing with friends, mistakes are part of the process and the fun, so they are more acceptable.  For example, whole sub-games have developed around the Fifa franchise if players suffer a particularly embarrassing defeat:
  5. Games have different difficulty levels – games, unlike the real world, can be easily tailored to the players’ abilities.  They also often change and adapt as the player becomes more skilful.  This is important as if something is too hard (and people make too many mistakes), the individual may give up.  Too easy, and too few mistakes and the task is boring.  Games enable the player to stay motivated and engaged while making a good amount of mistakes to learn optimally.
  6. Rewards – mistakes are part of the process of most games.  However, to make this bearable and to keep focus and encourage learning, rewards are offered.  These can cement the learning process and encourage players to continue developing and playing.

“Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.” 
― Brandon Mull, Fablehaven

Learning from other people’s mistakes is also extremely valuable.  If people didn’t learn from the mistakes of others, we would not know which berries, insects and mushrooms were poisonous, how to not hunt prey and so on.  Therefore, collaborative games based learning can be extremely powerful.  Playing a game together can encourage learning in many ways.  For example, one team could learn from another team’s mistake in a team game and get the upper hand.  Forums are also a popular way that gamers learn from the mistakes and successes of others.  New social media sharing platforms within games are also becoming more popular.  For example, the new SimCity game is ‘Always Online’, allowing other players to see your work and Play Station 4 will allow players to let other gamers watch their game play in real time.

“I never made a mistake in my life; at least, never one that I couldn't explain away afterwards.” 
― Rudyard Kipling, Under The Deodars

So, whether they are your own or someone else’s, mistakes are an evolutionary advantage if they can be learned from.  Therefore, a more appropriate term for a mistake with a beneficial learning outcome might be a ‘happy accident’.  Games are a safe way to cause these happy accidents and going back to my first quote, maybe children should have this point reinforced.  After all, some of the most successful people have made the most mistakes, but they become successful because they try more things and learn from their mistakes (see this great article from ‘50 Famously Successful People Who Failed at First’).  Games are a great way for children and adults to learn for many reasons outlined all over this blog, but one of the most important ways is that they safely allow learning from mistakes.

“I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.” 
― Edna St. Vincent Millay

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  1. we learn by making mistakes. We Kizi learn to walk by falling down. If we never fell down, we would never walk.”

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