When I was a kid, I spent many happy hours memorizing the colorful lights and sounds of Simon.
One of the early handheld electronic games, Simon was both simple and friendly: it would light up one of four colored buttons and play a note, and in response, you would press the same button. Then it would light up two quadrant-sized buttons, playing two notes, and you would press the same two buttons in the same order. Then three buttons, and then four, and the game went on to see how long you could correctly repeat the random sequence.
My highest score was in the hundreds, and I dreamed of reaching 1000 someday. Playing this game gave me the skills to memorize the number pi to 100 digits, to recite long Shakespeare monologues, remember an 8-top’s order when waiting tables without writing it down, and to play complicated songs on my guitar without reading music.
But I failed at the game of Simon, every single time I played.
The game of Simon only ends when you make a mistake. Instead of reflecting back one of the four cheery notes, if you press a button out of sequence, it gives you a long, low, disapproving buzz. No matter how long you play the game, it always ends in defeat.
Does this mean the experience of playing Simon is always a failure? Or does learning something new require failing repeatedly?
Every mistake makes you more wise.
When I attended public school in the ‘80s, students were rewarded for making no mistakes. The entire premise of school was: if you study and follow the rules, you could theoretically, do everything perfectly, if you never make a mistake. Kids with perfect attendance (never missed a day) or perfect grades (never missed a question) were given special recognition during school assemblies, because failure is the enemy in school.
Public schools use standardized tests to measure learning comprehension, and from an administrative point of view, they are very useful. You can collect quantitative data from a large population, identify the most likely weaknesses, and redirect your teaching strategy to accommodate the deficiencies in your student body. But as a method for educating children, tests are terrible.
The lesson of a test is that there is a right answer to every question, and if you recite the answers correctly, you will be rewarded. If you get even one wrong answer, if you fail one time, you will never be perfect.
I was really good at tests, and I can tell you from experience, this system does not help you develop the thinking skills to discover an answer yourself. Just because I could recite pi to one hundred decimal places did not mean I knew how to calculate it with only a circle and a ruler. Winning a spelling bee did not teach me how to write, it just taught me how to regurgitate answers that I was told were correct - but honestly, I had no idea if anything I repeated was really correct, I just learned what my teachers wanted to hear.
Being good at tests helped me excel at school, but being good at games helped me excel at life.
Games taught me that failure is a natural part of learning. The most relevant lessons, the ones that teach you the most, are your failures - the very things that school students try to avoid.
You will never learn the boundaries of what is possible if you don’t go over the edge a few times. Failure teaches you experientially what works and what doesn’t, and that makes a game an effective educational tool for living life outside of a school.
How testing and gaming handle failure differently
What is the difference between a test and a game?
When you get right down to it, a test is something that you either pass, or you fail. A game is something that you either win, or you lose.
When you take a test, you receive a grade. When you play a game, you often receive a score.
There are vast differences in how these numbers are used.
A grade is used to quantify your intellectual capacity. Your grades signify whether you are smart, or dumb; capable, or incapable. Sometimes you can re-take a test, or modify your grade through extra credit, but this is often up to the discretion of the teacher. Eventually, you settle on a grade that follows you through your life as your certified level of understanding in a subject or a curriculum.
A score is only your highest score…so far. You can play the game again, and try to beat your high score. If you fail on your next attempt, your high score does not change, you just get the opportunity to try again, if you want. Every effort you make can help you exceed your previous limits, but that’s not the important distinction. What makes a game so effective is: you are not penalised for low scores.
Every low grade in school haunts you. It will forever depress your GPA (Grade Point Average) and prevent you from having the top score of your class. Anyone who fails a test, even once, is ineligible to be class valedictorian.
But the high score at the arcade can be taken by anyone with a lucky streak and enough skill and persistence. It doesn’t matter how many times you fail on the journey, you are always eligible to be the best.
Is this a test, or a game?
Let’s say I gave you a series of buttons, and asked you to press them in a specific order. It’s like Simon, but more complicated. In this game, you have to hold the buttons for different lengths of time, and sometimes, you have to press them together. If I gave you a long list of instructions, I could test you on how well you follow these instructions, and give you a grade based on how closely you followed them.
But that wouldn’t be any fun.
If I connected those buttons to a video game console, and corresponded each button to a different movement for a small Italian plumber, then I could ask you to jump over a pit, smash a turtle, and collect some coins. You would still follow a precise sequence of pressing each button, but you would not resent the work - it would be fun.
More importantly, you would not be upset if you failed.
When Mark Rober gave a TED talk on this concept, he called it ‘The Super Mario Effect.’ In that presentation, he shared how he gave the audience of his popular YouTube channel a programming puzzle, using some basic coding commands. This was in alignment with the educational science content he likes to publish, and he said it was to prove that anyone could learn to code. But this game was actually an experiment.
Half of the 50,000 participants were treated like they were taking a test, while half were playing a game. When users went to his webpage to solve this puzzle, Mark randomly assigned them to one of two scenarios. For half the participants, making a mistake sent you back to the beginning, with no penalty. For the other half, they lost 5 internet points, out of a starting 200 fake, useless points.
Those who were penalised succeeded 52% of the time. Those who were not penalised succeeded 68%. More imporatnyl, this second group attempted 2.5x more often than the first group.
When they were not penalised for trying and failing, people were statistically more likely to try harder and succeed. In his TED talk, he calls this the Super Mario Effect. ##What doesn’t kill you makes you smaller Mario Mario - the first player of the Mario brothers - is always dying. If he has a Magic Mushroom, he becomes Super Mario, and being hit by a fireball doesn’t kill him - it just breaks his stride for a brief pause, before he continues on his journey at normal size. Even if Mario falls into a pit, he will lose a life, but he starts back at the beginning to try again. The best players of games are not the ones who get it perfect on the first try, but the ones who play a lot, fail a lot, and learn from their mistakes.
It’s been said that the biggest difference between a master and a novice is that the master has failed ten thousand times more than the novice ever tried. You will make mistakes, and that’s okay. Failing is part of learning. Nobody gets to learn without failing a few times. If you lose a life, just play again.
Becoming comfortable with repetitive failure allows you to stay deep in the learning process. Mastery comes from understanding all possible permutations of failure, so enjoying failure gives access to that breadth of knowledge that is only attainable after multiple tries.
Failure feeds learning if it's fun
You’re going to mess up a few times when you learn anything new. Accepting that failing is part of the process will help you to learn faster, and enjoy it along the way.
In this 7 minute video, juggler Mat Ricardo share the first thing he teaches students when they are learning how to juggle for the first time: how to drop. Watch ‘Why You Should Want To Fail’ to get a new perspective on why failure is good for you:
90% of the world’s drops are done by jugglers. When I am performing in front of an audience, I have a joke that I use when I drop a ball unexpectedly. This joke often gets me the biggest laugh of the night. (No I won’t tell it to you now. If you ever have the chance to see me perform live, come watch me.)
This article is an excerpt from my next book, Playful Productivity. To get notified when it's ready, sign up for the wait list here.