Posted in education, Games

On creating space to fail

Last week I wrote about how we need failure to learn, and how fewer experiences of what I would deem safe failure is resulting in lower resilience and higher levels of anxiety.

It’s all very well for me to say this stuff, but there is the small issue of what we do about it…

Hence this blog – an attempt to share a few ideas about what we might do about it.

Where possible, I try to embed opportunities for my students to get things wrong.  Please understand, this is not some diabolical plan to trip them up only to then swoop in and prove my superior intelligence…

One: I do not have superior intelligence.  Ask my friends.  And if you don’t believe them, look at this picture of me:

As you can see, here I am wearing a tea cosy on my head.  Yep.  A tea cosy.  A tea cosy in the shape of a hedgehog.  Behold my MIGHTY BRAIN!

Two: Creating opportunities for failure is not about tripping your students up, it’s about letting them figure stuff out by having a go.

So… how might you embed failure into learning?  I think the best way to try and break this down, is to give a couple of examples from my practise.  All of this comes with the disclaimer that I do not hold the definitive answers… this is just the way that I’ve tried to work stuff out…

Example One: writing an essay

Look – a pen on some paper!

I had a group of students who struggled to get their heads around essay writing.  They never gave themselves enough time to think, read and plan.  They would put it off because they were afraid of not understanding the reading and of failing.

So I made a five-stage essay development ‘game’.

Participation was voluntary.  Those students that decided to play, received a weekly quest card relating to the essay title that they were working towards.

The quests started small: find two definitions of [insert here]; and got more challenging: find a theorist that disagrees with all the things you’ve previously written…

They had to write up their findings in a weekly blog, which I would read and comment upon.

This approach meant that they could explore the ideas and really unpack the essay title.  They could go off on tangents and it was fine, because this wasn’t the essay – it was the work towards the essay.  In other words, they could make mistakes without these costing them marks.  There is something about flow and levelling up in this approach too – but that might be the next blog…

I found that students following this approach did better in their essays than usual.  And this is not down to my bias – I have always been careful to moderate these assignments (meaning that one of my colleagues also reads the work to ensure objectivity and fairness).

Example Two: playing an Alternate Reality Game

(c) ZenFilms

Alternate Reality Games are great; I’ve used them a fair bit now, which you can see in this previous post.

But for this example I am thinking of a different game – one that I made for students studying the digital world.

In it, the students are tasked with developing work for a digital timeline that I built.  (The phrase ‘digital timeline’ sounds fancy but it’s really easy to make.  I use the excellent Knightlab.)

Having contributed to the timeline, an A.I character steals their work and shuts the timeline down.  The students have to engage with A.I. through:

  • researching more to satisfy A.I.’s criticisms;
  • engaging in online debate;
  • preparing further materials to supplement the earlier work.

In essence, they end up having done more work than entailed in the average essay, but it’s spread over a few weeks and presented as a series of conversations.  Taking on the A.I. character allows me to be more critical without the students feeling threatened.  They are free to, effectively, get more ‘wrong’ before they get a lot right.

It is not necessary to build an ARG to embed opportunity to get things wrong – but if you’re interested in ARGs in education then check out what I’ve said about them in the past, and watch this space for an upcoming blog about making ARGs…

In Summation

Making space for failure means making space for play.  If you’re playing, then it’s ok to get things wrong.  And if you’re playing then you are getting to deeply know in a way that feels safe.  Play is fun.  But interestingly, play is not easy.

Contrary to popular opinion, games are fun because they’re difficult.  Not because they’re easy.  In fact, easy games are boring.  We do not need to make education easy.  We need to find where it’s hard, and celebrate that.  Games do not shy away from making the player work hard.  They just support the player to develop the skills they will need to succeed.

I think that this is at least some of what we need when we’re teaching: good support and structure, with space to fail and lots of challenge.

In the next blog in this series (yep, it’s becoming a series – check me), I will discuss how increasing the challenge leads to greater engagement in learning.  If I can ram it in, then I may also talk about making ARGs… or that might be a blog all of its very own…

Posted in Games, Uncategorized

Campus Crisis – building Alternate Reality Games for learning

So… Alternate Reality Games (ARGs).

I wrote a little post about these and posited that Facebook is a sort of ARG a while back.  Not a very good ARG but, I think, very arguably an ARG.

Warning: when talking about Alternate Reality Games there is a real possibility that I will end up repeating ARG a lot just because I like the way it sounds…


Ok.  Now that’s out of my system… for anyone that isn’t already aware of them, Alternate Reality Games are basically games that are played in both the real and virtual world, i.e. you might play part of it online and another part of it in real-to-goodness offline mode.  Why, you might ask.  Good question.  Well – for a start it can be a great way of engaging with our surroundings in new, imaginative ways.  It is also good to remember that, no matter how much enjoyment we might get out of the virtual, our bodies are in the real.  And our bodies are not just vehicles to get our heads to games consoles.  Indeed – engaging the body and the mind at the same time is about as immersive as any experience can be.  Why else would anyone go to so much trouble to make VR a reality?

I made a little ‘history of ARGs’ timeline a while back.  You can see it here.

It is by no means a complete history, but it does endeavour to give a solid account of the beasts.

So… skipping to the end.  I believe that ARGs are incredibly powerful ways to organise information.  Perhaps even more powerful than traditional stories.

They have greater potential within education than, say, Egan’s story form model, or stories in general, because they require more active involvement from the player(s).

Traditional stories give us the privilege of seeing the world from someone else’s perspective.  ARGs call us to be in the world and to embody this perspective.  Or – to my mind even more excitingly – to explore our own perspective within the play-space.

In other words, in ARGs you are the hero.  Or you can be.

And that is what I tried to capitalise on when I developed Campus Crisis with some wonderful colleagues at my place of work; Campus Crisis is an ARG that teaches players about sustainability, by inviting them to save the world.

Yep – some non-player-characters from the future, have found a way to talk to us now.  And they have one thing to say: help us, our world is dying.  Help us.

And there you go.  The students are tasked with strategising ways to change first their own lives, and then the world… They are given guidance in the form of a blog, some audio files and some teaching videos.  Their tutor is there to add any further pointers, but that is it.  They are the hero.  This is the hero’s journey.  And, in a nutshell, that is a key feature of the ARG, the hero’s journey.  And, on that note, here is a brilliant youtube video about this cunning little structuring technique:

Other things to consider include pace and opportunities for emotional engagement, i.e. why should the player care… and this is a whole thing in and of itself.  But, for now, when thinking about an Arg for learning think: what structure are you employing and why; why should the player care? and where is the pace quick, and where does it give the player some space to reflect?

Primarily, though, I believe that when you have a solid structure (i.e. everything is there for a purpose), then you should have something that will ‘work’.

I was fortunate enough to deliver a workshop about this game and some of the more subtle points underpinning it at the Playful Learning Conference yesterday.  And if you happen to be reading this, and you would like to know more or chat about it, please leave a comment and I will be very happy to get back to you.