Gaming: A Refuge Where Kids Can Learn How to Fail in an Interview with Game Producer Omar Abdelwahed

Last year I was amazed by a couple of stories that had hit the media about kids who had made amazing scientific discoveries.  Jack Andraka, who was 15 at the time, had discovered an inexpensive and accurate test for pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancers.  Check out his seven minute video from the TED Talent Search.  Another innovation teen Catherine Wong, who was 17 at the time, had created a prototype of a portable electrocardiogram (EKG) that can connect to a cell phone via Bluetooth and transmit the results over a cellular network.  As both told their stories it was remarkable how they were undaunted by the trial and error process.  They were not deterred by failure or setbacks and they simply kept trying.  But where do kids learn not to fear failure and develop the courage to pick themselves up and keep moving forward?

I had seen a glimpse of this persistence with my son last summer as he was playing the game “Plants vs. Zombies” on our iPad.  I wrote about the connection with gaming and learning from failure in a post on my blog (link here).  Since then, this recurring question keeps coming back to me.  Where do our kids learn how to fail?  In the era of “7th Place” ribbons, “no score” little league games, and academic “grade inflation” where do kids learn how to persevere through their failures in the process of trial and error?

I understand that we are trying to protect our child’s self-esteem by postponing their introduction to the unpleasantness of failure.  But I don’t think we are doing them any favors when we delay this introduction with failure too long.  Research suggests each of us has the power to control our production of dopamine (the fuel that the brain uses to keep us motivated) by changing our attitudes and behaviors.  But we need to build these neural pathways and habits in order for them to stick.

We need to find a balance between protecting our egos and building the attitudes and behaviors that will help us persevere through our failures.  When a child is able to fail at something, dust themselves off and try again they are developing a habit that will stay with them throughout their lives.  Games are a great mechanism to build these habits – fail in a safe environment and strengthen our perseverance.

I wanted to find out more on how game developers thought about failure as they created these learning environments so I reached out to a friend and former colleague Omar Abdelwahed, Senior Online Producer for 2K Sports.  As a side note, if you happen to be attending the PAX East gaming conference this week (Mar 22-24) you can hear more from Omar as a panelist.  He will be sharing his story on how he networked his way into the gaming industry – Breaking Into Gaming.  I have broken the interview into two parts: 1) a video interview via Google+ Hangouts and 2) a Q&A session with Omar.


Q1.  In game design how important is the level of difficulty and whether the player might fail?

Omar:  “Difficulty” is really something that depends on the game experience you’re trying to deliver.  But in general you want to provide a rewarding experience that a player feels she earned.  The challenges in a game often scale over time as the player progresses (ie: gets better, levels up, etc.)  The most important question becomes, “Is this a fun experience?”  The “difficulty” is part of that but not the end-all-be-all.

Q2.  Is there any science/math behind how many times a player will be willing to fail before they give up?

Omar:  There’s a more general concept around what’s called “player fatigue.”  This is an issue where players literally get tired of playing.  I’ve played plenty of games that required as much as 100-hours of play, or even 1000+ hours for MMO’s, but they did an excellent job of rewarding me so that it offset fatigue.  The mechanics were well-understood and so were the benefits.  Failure should inform a player for their next attempt in the pursuit of an end goal they wish to achieve.  If there’s no learning from failure and no tangible, well-understood goal, then players will quit.

Q3.  You have worked on games across platforms.  Have you noticed changes to a player’s willingness to fail based on the platform?  Say console gaming vs. social media gaming?

Omar:  It’s more a matter of game genre than platform, although in the case of social games they are currently one in the same. Still this is more to do with player fatigue and the driving mechanics.  What is well-known is that player life-cycles are much shorter on social games than hardcore games.  This is partly to do with the nature of the content and how quickly it can be consumed.  Social games tend to let a player consume as rapidly as they want so long as they manage “energy” via real world purchases.  Hardcore games tend to require real-time commitment as the gate to consumption.

Q4.  I vividly remember “failing” hundreds of times trying to beat Mike Tyson on the Nintendo game Punch-out.  What game have you failed at most often?

Omar:  So a long a time ago, video games had no “saves.”  You either beat the game entirely or started over. And still they were fun.  Games today are not necessarily harder but the amount of content has dramatically increased, the amount of information to manage has dramatically increased and there are often several core mechanics to learn.  Because of that, you need to give players a break by letting them save their progress to continue at a later date.  A game called “Demon Souls” released a few years ago that went back to the “no saves” day and was remarked as one of the most difficult games ever.  Personally, one series I absolutely love is Portal by Valve.  There are two games in the series, Portal 1 and Portal 2.  They are puzzle-based shooters that challenge players to find their way out of locked rooms controlled by a sarcastic AI called GLaDOS. I definitely “failed” a lot trying to find the solutions to each room.  But I kept playing over and over until I reached the end of each game.  The stories helped drive me as I discovered more of the plot lines and got to know the characters better as I solved each puzzle.  Brilliant game!

Food for thought:

  • When did you first learn failure?  Or as a parent where did your kids learn to fail?
  • Does that environment still exist today or has it been reshaped?
  • What are other environments where kids learn to fail these days?

Share your thoughts and comments!

3 replies to “Gaming: A Refuge Where Kids Can Learn How to Fail in an Interview with Game Producer Omar Abdelwahed”

  1. Matt Hunt | Apr 15, 2013, 8:44 am

    A friend had sent over this article from on “Teaching Kids to Learn from Failure.” While the article mostly focuses on toddlers there are several insights that line up well with this post.

    + “You learn how to tolerate frustration, how to get creative and take different approaches to tasks, and also how to ask for help—all things that are necessary for long-term success in life.”

    + “The key is to normalize failure so your child knows he’s not the only one who doesn’t get things right on the first try.”

    + It’s fine to halt the play due to tantrums. Just don’t tell your child not to have one: “At this young age, they simply don’t quite have the coping skills. They give really strong, honest, emotional reactions.”

  2. Matt Hunt | Jul 23, 2013, 3:23 pm

    Another interesting follow up. From an article in Wired >> First games teach skills, now they test your skills. Love it!

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