How Games Can Help Us Embrace Failure and Develop Growth Mindsets

From Grow Home, a game all about trying, failing and learning.

What is a Growth Mindset?

How do you approach problems in your everyday life? Do you like to dive in, ready for some educational failure? Or do you find yourself growing disheartened if you don’t succeed right away? These approaches, and the beliefs and attitudes that inform them, are called “mindsets.” Your mindset can greatly influence not only how you tackle problems, but how you approach life in general. Carol Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, has revolutionized the research into mindsets by coining the term “growth mindset”.

In her article, Mindsets: Developing Talent Through a Growth Mindset, Dweck explains that a person with a growth mindset, “think[s] of talents and abilities as things they can develop—as potentials that come to fruition through effort, practice, and instruction.” In other words, the key tenet of a growth mindset is the belief that talent is learned and practiced, not simply innate or natural.

People who develop a growth mindset approach problems more calmly, with the understanding that failure is not only normal but useful for mastering a new skill. Research performed by Dweck and others found that “students with a growth mindset improve more in academics and other skills, and can even be less aggressive and more socially engaged.” This increased student engagement and classroom citizenship is currently inspiring research into how growth mindsets can be beneficial for a person’s overall mental and emotional well-being.

Growth vs. Fixed Mindsets

The flip side of a growth mindset is a “fixed mindset”. A person with a fixed mindset, according to Dweck, believes that talent and intelligence are static and unchanging. They believe that people are simply born with more smarts or natural talent than others.

A person with a fixed mindset does not see failure as an opportunity to learn but as a sign that they are, and always will be, less smart or less capable than others. These all-or-nothing stakes make failure feel devastating to confidence and motivation, resulting in patterns of avoidance behavior where people with fixed mindsets flee from conflict or problems. Those with a fixed mindset tend to value looking smart by hiding their failures or avoiding situations that would result in failure, while believing they are actually foolish because they fail so often.

It is also important to remember that no one’s mindset is completely “growth” or “fixed”. In some situations, we might have a growth mindset (“I’m good at figuring out difficult puzzles and mysteries,”) while feeling very fixed in other parts of life, (“I’m terrible at math,” or “I’m left-brained; I can’t do art.”) Recognizing these thoughts can make us more mindful of our growth-centric or fixed-centric behavior in our everyday lives. We can even work to strengthen our growth mindset while partaking in our favorite pastimes like playing video games.

How Mindful Gaming Can Help Us Develop A Growth Mindset

Video games, from classic platformers to the latest open-world RPGs, rely on player resilience and self-efficacy. To beat a challenging and worthwhile game, we need to be resilient against failure.

Games usually require players to fail in numerous ways to learn how to later succeed in more difficult levels. Even the first, easiest level–the tutorial–is typically designed to allow us to fail a few times to get the hang of controls and mechanics. Most of us probably don’t mind that. We understand that we’re learning from these little failures and push forward. A seasoned gamer understands that when they approach a game they will fail many times before developing the skills necessary to master the mechanics in a satisfying way. In this way, the fundamental set-up of games, as virtual environments where failure is not only frequently possible but very much expected, helps us learn not to fret when we make mistakes.

The first time we come to a boss in a challenging game like Dark Souls or other Souls-like games, we know that we probably won’t defeat it flawlessly on the first go. We do our best, and we might dream of dealing a killing blow on the first try, but we already accept that we will be caught off-guard at some point, misstep, and need to start over. In fact, if the boss is too easy to defeat, we can feel a little disappointed. In this way, games teach us to value challenge and to appreciate failure as an integral part of practice, mastery, and overall satisfaction.

Games also show us that challenges are intrinsically valuable. Obstacles can actually be opportunities, another important tenet of a growth mindset. When approaching a gang of raiders or bokoblins, we understand that defeating them will be an obstacle, but we may be rewarded with materials necessary for strengthening our characters. In exploration-based games, we seek out challenges with excitement, ready to strengthen the in-game and real-life skills that will make the game more rewarding in the long-run.

If we play mindfully, self-monitoring while we play, we can strengthen our growth mindsets in real life. We might take some time to appreciate how much more calmly we approach the possibility of failure when we try to solve a platforming puzzle than we approach small failures in real life like getting a few answers wrong in class or making a mistake at work. In games, we understand that failure is a teaching mechanic. If we adopt that understanding in reality, we might not mind tripping a few times when picking up a new skill.

A growth mindset can help us learn new skills, expand our horizons, and appreciate our accomplishments. If you’ve already mastered that perspective while playing games, why not give it a try in real life?

Courtney Garcia’s writing focuses on the practical use of games and other forms of media as therapeutic tools for developing emotional intelligence. She is a lifelong gamer and has experience as a secondary school educator using games to enrich her socio- emotional learning curriculum. She has seen, firsthand, the engagement and creativity students experience when they approach games as educational tools that can boost their well-being, too. Courtney earned her BA from the University of California, Riverside, where she graduated magna cum laude before earning her Masters in Education. Courtney has published research in scholarly journals and regularly writes articles for Screen Therapy, a blog about games, movies, and how we can use them to help ourselves.
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