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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book Fail to Learn

Q&A on the Book Fail to Learn

Key Takeaways

  • People learn the most through failure
  • People fail the most when playing games
  • Therefore, games are the best way for people to learn
  • You can use game elements like narrative, levels, and replay opportunities to improve almost any learning environment
  • Because humans are hard-wired to play, it doesn’t take much to “gamify” something

The book Fail to Learn by Scott Provence explores how we can learn from failure and how trainers and course designers can use gamification to foster failure and learning in their educational environments. When playing games it's ok to try out something, lose the game, learn from it, and restart and try something else. This book gives you ideas on how to bring this mentality to a learning or leadership environment.

InfoQ readers can download an extract from Fail to Learn.

InfoQ interviewed Scott Provence about embracing failure, what makes games a great way to learn, why people fear failure and how to encourage them to try something, how much failure and play it takes to be successful, how to design games that encourage exploration and growth and enable learning, adding failure and play elements to games to increase learning effectiveness, mimicking real-world behavior in games, and gamifying learning.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Scott Provence: There’s a question that’s been circulating in the Learning and Development profession: “Why won’t my students or employees focus on a 15-minute problem, yet I see them spending hours and hours trying to beat the same level of Candy Crush?” It’s a paradox that educators like to laugh and complain about, but it’s also something I really wanted to know the answer to. The more I researched the subject, the more I uncovered about our strange, love-hate relationship with the concepts of failure and play. And when I found that a relatively simple change in perspective can profoundly impact how we collect and curate knowledge, I knew I had to share.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Provence: While trainers, knowledge leaders, and of course designers might get the most practical and hands-on tools from this book, I really wrote this for anyone who wants to understand why failure and play are so essential in the learning process. I call it a “manifesto” because I want it to overthrow some of our traditional, 20th-century approaches to education, specifically the idea that learning needs to be serious and error-free. If you were in school during the 20th century, you probably were victim to this behaviorist approach that punishes mistakes. But there are better ways to teach people, and better ways to teach yourself. If you want to find ways to create joy while simultaneously boosting knowledge, this book is for you. 

InfoQ: How would you define gamification?

Provence: A common definition is that “gamification” means applying game-based elements (like points, levels, characters, etc.) in non-gaming environments (like classrooms, corporations, etc.). That’s a pretty broad definition though. Technically, your grocery loyalty card is “gamified” because it rewards you with points. A lot of professional development courses are gamified because they give you badges of completion. I like to get a little more specific when I “gamify” something. I want to figure out what fundamentally makes a game a “game,” and what motivates us to play.

I believe we play games to overcome challenges we don’t encounter in everyday life. And when you think about it, that’s also what we do when we set out to learn something. So to me, “gamification” means figuring out how to bring the magnitude of game-based challenges (like how to save the world) into learning-based environments (like how to learn a new software system). 

InfoQ: In the book, you suggest to embrace failure and get a kick out of it. What do you mean by this, and how would this look?

Provence: This is one of the hardest things to do, and certainly one of those situations where I’m not always great at practicing what I preach. However, some of our most successful inventors and entrepreneurs have astounding failure-to-success ratios. Billionaire James Dyson said it took him over five thousand failed prototypes before he got a working version of the Dyson vacuum. Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed...I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And while we might hang these inspirational quotes on the wall, in general our society isn’t so great at rewarding failure. We need to create more room for trial and error, more chances for more people to make mistakes. If we take away some of our socially-constructed fear and punishment, there’s no telling what people might come up with.

InfoQ: What makes games a great way to make people learn?

Provence: In a society that still abhors failure, there is one space where it’s okay to mess up: when we play. Games are the one spot where it’s universally accepted that you’ll lose. In fact, games require an element of failure. Imagine there was a game in front of you where you won every time without even trying. You’d stop playing pretty quickly. While there are a million different ways to design a game, one thing they all have in common is the risk that you might lose. So to answer your question, it’s really about the fact that failure is the best way to make people learn. And games are the best way to make people fail.

InfoQ: Why do people fear failure and want to avoid loss? How can we encourage them to try out things?

Provence: People often fear failure because of the stakes associated with it. When we create steep punishment systems and “one-strike-you’re-out” rules, it’s only natural to be terrified of messing up. This is where we need to think more like game designers. Games encourage trial and error because the cost of starting over in a game is practically nothing. If I die playing Halo, I get to respawn and try again immediately. We need to create more “respawn” options in the rest of our lives. This is something that educators can do in their course design. But it’s also something we can encourage as managers, company leaders, or simply as members of society. The best way to do this is to start talking more about our mistakes. These are things we should be able to celebrate, laugh over, shake our collective heads at, and eventually grow from.

InfoQ: What amount of failure and play does it take to be successful?

Provence: That’s a great question. While there’s no magic number, some of my research uncovered some interesting ratios. If we go back to people like Dyson and Edison, you see failure-to-success ratios that reach five-thousand or even ten-thousand to one. A venture capitalist who interviewed hundreds of CEOs arrived at the same ratio for start-up companies making it big: about a 10,000:1 failure-to-success ratio. Now, we probably don’t need that many failures in every segment of our lives, but think about how far off most of us are from these numbers. I get down on myself if I mess up 1 project in every 10. Why am I so scared? Why do I think a 10:1 ratio is the best I can do?

As for play, the general consensus is we all could benefit from playing more. Research shows that even just playing video games can have all sorts of psychosocial benefits, even for those who play multiple hours a day. Learning and fun really do go hand-in-hand.

InfoQ: How can we design games that encourage exploration and growth and enable learning?

Provence: I suggest a few different tips and tools in the book. For example, most people believe that the best way to experience something--whether you’re sitting in a classroom or playing a game--is to start slowly and learn all the rules up front. But studies have shown that people actually can learn better when they’re given difficult challenges right out of the gate. Students who were left to struggle with difficult problems and no explanation ended up outscoring their peers by the end of the class. You see the same thing in how most games start out: turn on a video game and you’re immediately dropped into a world and surrounded by advancing enemies. No one wants to read the instruction manual before they start playing. The immediate, seemingly impossible challenge is what drives us to explore, learn, and grow.

InfoQ: What failure and play elements can we add to games to increase their learning effectiveness?

Provence: There are some surprisingly easy tools one can add to any game, or any educational environment, to boost a sense of playfulness and efficacy. For example, think about what “replay” options you’re providing your audience. How easy is it for them to try again? The more we can reduce the “cost” of failure, the more people will be willing to engage with your content. It’s so frustrating to see games or learning courses that limit the number of times people can try something. Why would you only let me repeat a quiz question once? If I’m motivated to try over and over until I get it right, why on earth would a game designer or instructor ever want to stop me? No matter who your audience is, chances are they will benefit from a “replay button” in their work.

InfoQ: What's the benefit of mimicking real-world behavior in games and how can we do it?

Provence: Imagine you're playing a game of checkers with your boss. Say your boss is a notoriously sore loser. Not only might you find a way to lose the game, but you'd probably also do it graciously and sneakily. This example is one of the many reasons I love playing games. Because--to answer your question--it's not so much that we're mimicking real-world behavior when we play. It’s that we're actively developing all sorts of inter- and intrapersonal skills, whether it’s teamwork or problem-solving or dealing with loss. Actual skills and real-world lessons are baked right into our games. We just have to get better at permitting others (and ourselves) to play more often.

InfoQ: What's your advice for gamifying learning?

Provence: Start small. You can turn just about anything into a game, and human beings (as well as many animal species) are hard-wired to respond to cues for play. So instead of starting off with an expensive point-scoring system or Virtual Reality platform, think about what play-based rules you could add in to your educational or organizational setting. What things might you turn into friendly competitions? Or instead of competitions, what about friendly collaborations? What if, at your next corporate mixer, you suddenly shouted out, “The floor is lava!” How would people respond, and what might that say about your organizational culture? I’d say the best lesson to take away from gamification is that we’re all players at heart. Those who can unlock this playfulness with a sudden challenge or creative narrative will emerge not only as organizational leaders, but as thought leaders of the 21st century.

About the Book Author

Scott Provence is an award-winning instructional designer and author. He has delivered programs throughout the U.S. and Canada, and built material for everyone from one of the world's largest private employers to the U.S. Department of Justice. Using a unique combination of instructional and game design, Provence's passion is turning expert-level concepts into engaging products for a general audience. To learn more and access free instructional design resources, visit

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