Dark Souls Has Me Thinking… About Education

Ok, first thing’s first… I’m a gamer. There, I’ve said it. I’ve had a love affair with video games since the day my dad brought home an Atari 2600. I remember playing Asteroids with my dad, attempting to get the highest score. Then came the 8 bit Nintendo, and I bet you get the picture. Here I am 25 years later still playing, although now that I have children (and teaching) my playing is me alone on a Friday night after everyone has gone to bed.

Now that the backstory is out of the way, to my thesis. Recently I picked up a new game based on some compelling reviews that I read about it. I won’t bore you with details, because this post isn’t really about the game its about the metaphor the game inspired for me. But for the sake of my point I will tell you that the most intriguing thing about the game for me was that it was almost universally described as extremely difficult. As a for-instance, the game has no pause button. If you enter the menu during the game, you can still be assailed from all sides by enemies. Also, the game came with essentially no instructions other than a diagram of what each of the butons on the controller did. These things are completely contrary to current gaming conventions that typically involve lengthy “instructional” missions at the beginning of the game where the player is gently guided through the control system in a safe way. With this game you are thrown into the maelstrom from the instant you click start.

What does this have to do with education you might ask? The primary learning mechanic in this game is failure, which in this case is depicted by the death of your character. This is a mechanic proudly touted by the game designers as the tag line for the game is “Prepare to Die”. Every time your character fails (dies) you learn something. Don’t jump there, look out for that trap, this character has a weakness to fire that I discovered too late but I will use next time. There were times when I was so frustrated with the game that I would turn it off, but I would find myself pondering it when I wasn’t playing. What if I had tried that tactic instead, or what if I had taken the alternative path, would the outcome have been different?

As frustrating as the failures were, I found them to be a very effective teaching tool. I found myself taking great care not to make the same mistakes again as the consequences were so dire. Does our public school environment allow kids to fail enough? If failure is such a powerful learning tool how can we incorporate it into our teaching methods in a safe but authentic way? Is the type of intrinsic motivation that was generated by the mechanics of the game unique, or can these mechanics be produced in the classroom? Failure takes time if students are to learn from it and improve upon past mistakes, and time seems to be something in short supply in schools these days. What do others think about using failure as a teaching tool?

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2 thoughts on “Dark Souls Has Me Thinking… About Education

  1. Clare Johnson says:

    What at interesting post. My seven year old son plays a lot of games, and gets incredibly frustrated when he ‘dies’, or if he fails at any point. I have struggled to get him to embrace the concept of dying as a means for progressing, and it has caused me some concern in the past as I wonder how he will cope with the inevitable failures he will face as he grows up (though I have never thought of it quite so eloquently as this!). At the moment, I don’t believe his young mind is capable of accepting failure in this way, but hopefully, at some point, he will realise the value of it. Personally, whilst I do remember my successes, I take much more pleasure in achieving something after a struggle.

    • Chris says:

      Thanks for the comment Clare. I must admit I was thinking of the effects of failure on middle and high school students rather than younger ones. Your comment made me think of when I play Chutes and Ladders with my four year old. If I win he won’t want to play anymore and he will be morose and sulk for a while, but if he wins he wants to play again right away. Of course there is no skill at all involved in the outcome of that game but the effects of winning or losing are interesting to me. I wonder when the brain is capable of making the switch to learning from failure?

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