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Gamification: The Importance of Failure

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No one likes to fail. So how is that gamers can spend 80% of the time failing and still love what they are doing? 
— Jane McGonigal
 

In the previous article, I wrote about the basic motivation principles for setting up a great gamification model. In this one, I would like to tell you what I learned about failing and why it is a critical element in gamification.

Nicole Lazzaro is a games researcher, and in one of her researches she found out that, gamers spend nearly all their time failing. Four out of five don’t finish a mission or quest, run out of time, and have to start all over. And gamers enjoy failing.

 
And the most interesting thing here is that when we play a well designed game, failure does not dissapoint us. It actually motivates us to try again.
 

In the study — #1 Finding in Games Research(yes, that’s the name of the research), pinpoints that failure in games help gamers increase their mental toughness.It’s an exciting idea and finding. Taking into consideration that in real life, once you experience failure, you are less likely to try it again. Your level of interest diminishes each time you don’t succeed.

 
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Why failure makes us happy?

The M.I.N.D. lab, who did the research mentioned above, found out that players experience the most strong positive emotion when they fail. They did that by analysing their brain activity and blood levels. And the peak of brain activity was when then failed. Most of us would expect it to be when you finish a game or reach a new level or earn more points, but no. It’s when you fail and try again.

 
The research also showed that players experienced a peak of positive emotions when they failed - but in a fun way.
 

During the research, players were playing a game called Monkey Ball 2. The primary goal of the game is to navigate a monkey trapped inside a ball from one end of a stage to the other. Players control the floors by tilting it with the control stick. Thus making the monkey in the ball roll and can fail a level by falling off or by running out of time. And if you failed, the monkey went whirling and wailing over the edge into space.

And that specific animation made failure enjoyable.Or as one player mentioned: “If I can send a monkey into space, I for sure can win this game.” That animation made players laugh, and we know that when we laugh, the mental pain is more bearable.

 
More we fail in a fun game, more eager we are to try again.
 
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Why is this happening? 

It happens because we understand that it’s a game. And no matter what type of game it is, whether a puzzle or an action, it is meant to be won. And how do you win it? With enough practice, time and motivation. And of course, this will happen if the game itself is worth it and there is a positive feedback when failing. In our case, it was a monkey launched into space which made the failure easy to bear.

 
Better hope for success. Compared with games, reality is hopeless. Games eliminate our fear of failure and improve our chances for success. In many cases, that hope of success is more exciting than success itself.
— Jane McGonigal
 

And in addition to the quote from above, Jane Mcgonigal wrote an interesting idea: “Success is pleasurable, but it leaves us at a loss for something interesting to do. And if we fail, and if we can try again, then we still have a mission.”

This leads me to the thought, as explained in the first article, that the grind or the process itself, is more important for us than winning. Why? Because it’s an intrinsic reward — we crave meaningful work. And once we achieve mastery or finish the game, it becomes boring to us and most likely we will no continue playing or trying.

 

Games are meant to become boring

No matter what type of game you build, how good it is, or what kind of gamification model you use, at one point it will become boring. And that is a normal process in the lifecycle of a game.

This happens because we enjoy becoming good at something. We appreciate the grind, the process of getting somewhere. And once we master something, we get bored and move on.

Also, a critical point here to remember is that you can’t keep the level of fun, someone’s experiences using your product, forever. Raph Koster, the author A Theory of Fun for Game Design says that:

 
A game is fun only as long as we haven’t mastered it. And the destiny of games is to become boring, not to be fun. Those of us who want games to be fun, are fighting a losing battle against the human brain.
 

And it’s important to make failure fun because it improves us as human beings. Makes us more resilient to setbacks and makes us stronger. And that’s a great way to improve people’s lives. Or as McGonigal herself writes in the book:

 
Learning to stay optimistic in front of failure is an important emotional strength that we can learn in games and apply in real life. When we’re energised by failure, we develop emotional stamina. And that emotional stamina makes it possible for us to hang in longer. Work harder and tackle more complex challenges.
 

Encouraging optimistic failure

Encouraging optimistic failure is key for a user’s continuous engagement until it achieves mastery. Optimism itself is correlated to better health, quality of life, less stress and anxiety. And it also means more successful relationships and careers. Optimism is like water and sun for a flower — it allows us to flourish.

But another critical point here is the visual feedback of knowing how much you progressed after you failed. A user needs to know her progress. And you should show them how much they achieved concerning points or percentage. This way, as a user, you know how much more you need to work or practice when trying a second time.

So let’s say that your game involves answering ten questions and the user responded only 8. Here it would be great to show the number of correct answers and also a comparison of how much better he did than previous trials. Or you could prove that he did 40% better than the last time. Also, an important note is not to tell them how much worse they did. That’s discouraging.

And in the end, let’s say that you would put in place a levelling system for your product. It should be harder for users to climb each level and eventually they could fail. Because if people fail, it will motivate them to work harder. The struggle is an essential aspect of gamification. But your users will try again only if the product and is well-designed of course.

 

Don’t oversimplify

We should understand that failure is a critical element of growth. Oversimplifying it or imposing too much optimism is also a bad practice. You have to realise that there is a fine line in everything that is done with gamification practices. And it’s important to remember that there are moments when you need to give a small push. And there are times when you should not step over the boundaries.

 
Eugen Esanu