Well-designed failure makes video games more engaging, fun, and addictive. Failure is also a powerful learning tool. Therefore, serious games need well-designed failure in order to be as engaging and effective as possible.

Why well-designed failure works

Well-designed failure is a type of safe failure game mechanic. Even the best gamers spend 80 percent of their time failing, which can mean making strategic mistakes, exploring dead ends and empty locations, and getting their game avatar defeated in some way. And yet gamers still spend countless hours enjoying game play. This is because the failure is low risk (i.e., your character regenerates, you get to try again, and you learn something in the process) and is, in many cases, actually enjoyable.

A small amount of peer reviewed research has been published on this topic. In 2006, Niklas Ravaja, et al., of the Helsinki School of Economics and Media Interface & Network Design (M.I.N.D.) Labs researched emotional responses to video games, concluding, "These results suggest that instantaneous putatively negative game events per se may elicit positive emotional responses." Counterintuitively, the research team also found that attaining desirable goals or other positive in-game outcomes can actually decrease player arousal and interest. In other words, failing at a video game can be fun and keep us playing longer.

As Dr. Jane McGonigal says in her book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How They Can Change the World,

"The right kind of failure feedback is a reward. It makes us more engaged and more optimistic about our odds of success. Positive failure feedback reinforces our sense of control over the game's outcome. And a feeling of control in a goal-oriented environment can create a powerful drive to succeed...As long as our failure is interesting, we will keep trying--and remain hopeful that we will succeed eventually."

The implication for serious games is that the deeper engagement and longer play time associated with well-designed failure can help players learn more.

How to design failure that’s productive and fun

Failure is a core game mechanic with outsized impact on the whole experience of any game. Thus, a discussion about failure design quickly leads to a discussion about game design, which is a much bigger topic than we can cover in one column. However, here’s a list of a few key concepts to keep in mind while designing failure into your own serious games.

1. Keep players on the edge

Gameplay and content should grow more challenging as a player's abilities improve (i.e., as they learn). This keeps players right at the edge of their abilities, failing a lot ... but not too much. And if they go back to earlier levels, they're able to succeed with ease, demonstrating that they have, in fact, learned key lessons. In a presentation at the 2008 Game Developers Conference, McGonigal and her colleagues Ian Bogost and Mia Consalvo said, “The best content understands exactly how the player likes to play—and makes it slightly harder." Or, as Wired columnist Clive Thompson says, "It's only fun to fail if the game is fair—and you had every chance of success."

2. Provide real-time feedback

Failure and the reasons for it should be immediately obvious to players. Don’t keep them guessing. McGonigal writes:

"By design, every computer and video game puzzle is meant to be solvable, every mission accomplishable, and every level passable by a gamer with enough time and motivation. But without positive failure feedback, this belief is easily undermined."

To accomplish this, you could include quantifiable metrics, say, that show how far a player got before failing. You could also provide ongoing visual and auditory confirmation of how well or poorly a player is doing. This can be a map, an energy status bar, a scorecard, or other indicators. With real-time feedback, when a player inevitably fails, they’ll be able to assess what happened, try again immediately, and get closer to success with each new attempt. In other words, they’ll be learning.

3. Design entertaining fail sequences

Countless games employ entertaining or even downright funny fail sequences. For example, part of what drives Fortnite’s enormous popularity is the unique and silly dance moves avatars can make after killing other characters. Or consider Super Monkey Ball 2, the game researched by Ravaja, et al., in which every mistake ridiculously sends a tiny wailing monkey encased in a clear ball flying off the edge of the playing surface into an unending abyss. Players almost unanimously love watching this sequence even after they’ve played the game for a long time. These entertaining fail sequences make the nearly constant failures as fun as the occasional successes, and in some cases the fail sequences are the whole reason we keep playing. As mentioned above, this leads to deeper engagement and longer playtimes, which, in turn, means players are learning more.

4. Share successes

Creating ways for players to be social and share both successes and failures is perhaps the most effective strategy of all. Not only is it often more fun to play games as part of a community, players learn more quickly when they know others may be watching. Players can also share what works and what doesn’t with their friends. Players can learn more and be more social by:

  • Playing in front of an in-person audience
  • Streaming or recording games
  • Sharing scores, successes, failures, and lessons learned
  • Playing multiplayer games
  • Receiving praise, admiration, and feedback either directly in-game or post-game

If you design your serious games with safe, low-risk, and entertaining failure sequences by using the principles above, your games will be more fun and keep players engaged much longer. Players won’t get discouraged and lose interest. Ultimately, they’ll learn more, which is why you’re making games in the first place.

Additional resources

Works cited

McGonigal, Jane. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2011.

McGonigal, Jane, Ian Bogost, and Mia Consalvo. “Top 10 Research Findings.” Game Developers Conference 2008.https://www.slideshare.net/avantgame/game-studies-download-30/

Ravaja, Niklas, Timo Saari, Jari Laarni, Kari Kallinen, and Mikko Salminen. “The Psychophysiology of Video Gaming: Phasic Emotional Responses to Game Events.” Media Psychology, Vol. 8, No. 4, November 2006. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247503384_Phasic_Emotional_Reactions_to_Video_Game_Events_A_Psychophysiological_Investigation

Thompson, Clive. “The Joy of Sucking.” Wired. 17 July 2006. https://www.wired.com/2006/07/the-joy-of-sucking/