Embracing Failure

David Clemens

As the creator of SimCity, The Sims, SimEarth, The Sims online, and Spore, Will Wright is a computer gaming “god.”  In his GameTech 2010 keynote address, Wright offers provocative observations about games and education.  He argues that learning begins with collecting data, then studying the data for patterns, using discerned patterns to develop schemas (abstractions) which allow us to create mental models, and finally base our behavior on those models that we hope will be predictive. So gamers learn to master a game which unfolds in “nested feedback loops” of increasing duration.  Gamers succeed by learning what works only through suffering serial failure, the same way an apprentice learns from failing at what the journeyman does well.  But classroom education, Wright says, causes students to avoid failure by teaching them as many rules as possible.  Theory, too, he says, insulates you from failure.  Worse, theory often results in schemas that are not derived from the experiential world (which explains why businessmen run countries better than professors). From online play data, Wright discovered that The Sims players actually enjoy exploring failure states because by hitting walls and discovering limits, they can build a model of the game’s “possibility space.” Life, Wright warns us, allows limited opportunities to build reality-based behavioral models, but we can take advantage of two “educational technologies” to increase our store of experience:  toys (play) and stories (the experience of others).  He calls his games “toys” because they don’t involve winning and losing; Spore, for example, teaches basic biological principles through play. One can't help wondering if Basic Skills education might be redesigned so as to produce learning through play, failure, and nested feedback cycles.

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