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MMO Family: Failure isn't just an option; it's a requirement

Karen Bryan

The other day, I stumbled on an interview of author Paul Tough, who wrote the book called How Children Succeed. He stressed the importance of building grit, curiosity, and character in our children as they grown and learn. In addition, he emphasized the need to let our kids fail as they grow. In an age of helicopter parents and trophies for all, his message is simple but uncommon.

It's not unusual to hear people debate whether children are getting soft because of the need to protect them from failure. Could video games actually be the answer? This week, let's look at the topic of failure to see whether it might be more than an option -- it might be a requirement.

The little red pen

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with my mother and trying to explain how the kids' report cards worked. She's a former teacher and wasn't afraid to have a child repeat a year if he didn't get a passing grade. So it took me several tries to explain the complex and convoluted system used to say whether a child is doing well or not, without actually having to say it. Grades A-F are out the window, but that's not really surprising. Children are doing worse in education but feel better about themselves now than ever before. Even the color of the pen has become an issue in education today, and that evil red pen has pretty much disappeared in schools today.

We're so afraid to let kids fail or lose that we're practically setting them up for failure later on when they grow older. On top of that, the growing number of parents who hover over their children, even to the extreme of still a presence in college, is preventing children from developing their natural curiosity and ability to learn from trial and error.

Video games are good?

Video games often get a bad rap (and that's truer now than ever before), but they might actually be a saving grace in teaching kids about failure and about how to persevere. Every day, kids fail in video games; they're failing to jump through an obstacle course or failing to finish a race in time. They're learning to stick with it (sometimes even when Mom has said that video game time is up), and they're figuring out whether to fine-tune execution or start over with a completely new approach.

The great thing about video games is that they're a "safe" venue in which we fail because there aren't any consequences that carry over outside the game. On top of that, it's easier to accept failure because there's usually an avatar between the player and the action, so there's less of a direct connection to misstep. Video games might actually be the last remaining place where kids can fail and learn from it.

An EVE for kids

The problem with kid-friendly games, and MMOs in particular, is that they're often actually too safe. There's a coddling quality to them that mimics what we're seeing in real life, but they coddle for a different reason. Game studios want kids to play their games and stick around, so they don't want to make the frustration level too high. And with MMOs, there's also an emphasis on safe chat and safe interaction, which pose their own set of issues. Unfortunately, it means that the frustration level is so low that kids end up bored and forgetting their experiences in game.

MMO Family  Failure isn't just an option, it's a requirement
What would be great is to see a kid-friendly version of EVE Online, where you get thrown into the deep end of the pool right away and have made several big mistakes within minutes of starting the game. It might sound counterintuitive to the family-friendly genre, but if it's done right, it will motivate a child to step back, assess what's wrong, and learn how to fix it. That reverse learning is an important skill to have as kids grow up, and they simply don't have as many opportunities to do that anymore.

Sticky door

The title that comes closest to that is probably Minecraft. I've watched my kids make mistakes and struggle when they're building things, and they've taken the initiative to look things up in the wiki, try new plans, and stick with it until they succeeded. The redstone and circuitry in particular poses problems for the kids, and I remember my son struggling to get his automatic door to function properly. But now, he's gotten so good at setting up circuits that he can build things that I can't even visualize, and he learned it on his own, with little help from me. The grit, curiosity, and perseverance that Paul Tough alluded to in his interview is exactly what my son got from learning in Minecraft.

No one likes to lose, but we seem to be moving closer each day toward caving in and just giving everyone a trophy, regardless of the outcome. Adults who give kids the space to make mistakes are doing them a service in the long run. And video games that challenge kids to fail, and fail badly sometimes, are also a valuable ally. Video games aren't exactly the belle of the ball these days, but that could change if we see more games produced that teach things like circuitry or physics, rather than how to perform a headshot. Not only would it help the industry, but it would help carve out a larger footprint for the family-friendly genre in general. And it would provide a great venue for children to explore, fail, and learn.

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to

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