Research: Gamers and failure - it's a way of life
October 31, 2014
By Dennis Ramirez, Sean Seyler

Good games encourage players to take risks, explore, and try out new possibilities. In everyday life, the stakes are often too high to just try things out. For instance, one would never dream of building a rocketship for a manned space mission without any prior understanding of astrophysics. However, in games like the Kerbal Space Program, players are allowed to do just that. Sure, most of the early attempts explode on the launch pad, but this failure doesn’t discourage players. On the contrary, it invites them to revise the way they handle the task at hand and try again in a process known as “recursive play.” This iterative process isn’t unique to games, but in a world where failure leads to harsh consequences, games are one of the few places that actively encourage it. The relationship between gaming, failure, and learning is largely unknown, so we asked whether Gamers believe that failure is the key to success.

Research Methods

In our research, we investigated whether those who identify as Gamers viewed failure as a natural part of their lives. In order to understand the connection between failure and the Gamer identity, we released a questionnaire on the Reddit page “/r/samplesize” regarding people’s videogame play and their beliefs about failure. Among the questions, we specifically asked the participants “Are you a Gamer” in order to have them self-identify, which we used as the basis for comparison with our other survey questions, which included “People are expected to fail the first time they try something new” and “Is Gamer a bad label”.

We employed data-mining algorithms to create decision trees that categorize survey participants as either a Gamer or Non-gamer depending upon their survey answers. The algorithm was compared to their self-identification to check how each answer was related statistically to Gamer identity. Ultimately, we wanted  to determine how those who identify as Gamers perceive failure.


While our algorithm found a number of interesting findings that correlated gender and playtime with identification as a Gamer, we focused on several key correlations between beliefs about failure and identification as a Gamer. The most interesting of these findings was that those who answered that they “believe people are expected to fail the first time they try something” are very likely to be Gamers rather than not. This fits with the idea of recursive play and that Gamers may pick up the idea that failure is a natural part of learning. Our survey cannot determine whether self-identified Gamers hold this belief due to their pastime or if their belief leads them to play games, but this statistically significant correlations warrants further investigation.

Potential Take-Aways

While there is plenty of anecdotal assumptions about gamers, our findings present the identity in a positive light. They suggest that those who identify as gamers may inherit a useful disposition towards failure that is desirable in educational settings.

However, many questions remain. For example, why do players generally persevere when playing a game, but are more prone to giving up in other areas, like school? What might we learn from games if we want to foster this kind of perseverance in other contexts? And what happens if we don’t allow for failure? Young Gamers are already acceptant of failure, but the educational system punishes those who do not first succeed. We suspect that creating a system tolerant to failure is a key step in improving learning outcomes.

Dennis Ramirez
Dennis Ramirez is a doctoral student in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He works at the GLS Center with Kurt Squire developing educational video games.
Sean Seyler
Sean is a graduate student working towards a master’s in Curriculum & Instruction (Digital Media) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Interests include education, philosophy, and videogames.
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