Video Games and Successful Failure


We’ve heard it so many times before, from our parents, our teachers, from success gurus. “Learn from your failures,” they say. But, of course, every time we fail miserably our brains tell us, “Boy, I never want you to do that again.”

Here’s the thing, though. All the greats down through history who changed the world by inventing wonderful things or thinking through the toughest equations, every one of them failed repeatedly before hitting on the right combination of widgets or digits. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” Thomas Edison once said.

The greats somehow had an endurance, a special gift, for blowing it and coming back for one more try … while their colleagues and classmates stormed off for a bowl of ice cream.

It recently struck me, though, that our current generation of thoughtful youths may well have an advantage in the learn from your failures department. And that next-gen face-plant pick-me-up comes from an unexpected source: video games. That’s right, that oft reviled digital entertainment that’s been accused of dumbing down kids while spurring them on toward a life of crime, may actually be a source for lessons about failing successfully.

For the most part, video games are all about failure and reward. Game designers often create bosses that, at least at the outset, feel nearly impossible to beat. They’re not impossible, of course—there’s always a weakness there to exploit—but it may require a number of punishing beat-downs ’til you find it.

Many’s the time that I’ve been working my way through a game and come up against a particularly tough boss match, only to turn it off and walk away for a while. Then later, while I’m busy doing something completely different, my brain starts waving a mental flag at me, suggesting I try some little variation in gameplay it just came up with all on its own. When I get back to giving it another try, voilà! The solution is mine. I’m a genius.

Well, not really. But the point is, the game has given me a puzzle to solve that requires that I fail in its solving. And, in a way, it becomes a class, then, on learning from and fighting through failure.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that games are as oddly complicated or mundanely grinding as real life, or that their challenges are the equivalent of finding the cure for cancer. Nope, not even close. But they may be the closest thing we have to a tutor who spurs us on to give an obstacle in front of us one more thwack and then who claps lightly when we finally break through. “See?” it tells us. “I told you a little perseverance could pay off.”

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall,” Confucius said. And he never played a single video game in his life. I guarantee it. So, young gamers, learn from your modern advantages. Apply yourself. Fail often. Change the world.

Who wrote this?

Bob Hoose is a senior associate editor for Plugged In, a producer/writer for Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey, a writer of plays and musicals and one-half of the former comedy/drama duo Custer & Hoose. He is a husband, father of three and a relatively new granddad.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Alex Clark More than 1 year ago
You're forgetting one little insidious aspect of video games that does not match real life.  In video games failing has almost ZERO consequences.  Really the only thing you lose when you fail in a video game is time, but nothing else.  Video games have no risk; unlike everything in real life.  It's easy to persevere when you literally lose almost nothing from your mistakes, it's a whole other ball game when your actions have real consequences. 
Gail Bryant More than 1 year ago
The downside of 'all risk, all the time' is the intense anxiety that happens when failure comes or is imminent. I know I'm going to fail, so therefore, I don't try. Which then causes me to fail and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Failing when there is very few consequences allows me, who is already on multiple stress-management plans, to learn how to get back in the running after a risky, real-life failure.