I'm working on educational software and trying to increase Engagement ("fun").

Clear Progress toward a Goal (one of the tenets of Engagement) would suggest we need to let the player know how they are doing. But we don't want the player to become demoralized. (These "players" have brain injuries, and so can become very demoralized easily.)

So I'm thinking that we'll want to only explicitly show forward progress ("You 'leveled up'"), but we wouldn't have "lives" (because you can "lose" them).


Think of this as Education "Tutoring" Software (sort of like the Kahn Academy) We already give them feedback when they get an answer wrong. We also help them get the right answer.

But when they do very well they Graduate to a higher level. If they do very well for a long time they get some sort of award/recognition that they are doing exceptionally well.

What I'm wondering is if they have a sustained period of poor performance, should we also give them recognition (obviously something kinder than "Hey, you suck"), so that this "failure recognition" doesn't really give them more information?

This is the roman emperor giving a thumbs down (the Gladiator already knows how he did in the battle).

Any downsides to that?
(I guess one might be that they lose faith in feedback from the game because it's not telling the whole story. Sort of like if a parent only gives you praise, you might start to think they're saying it to be nice.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Maybe rather than tell them they're doing something wrong, you could continue to suggest how to do something right. Personally if I'm not getting any hints and I'm doing something wrong then eventually I get frustrated that I don't know how to finish. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nic Foster
    Commented May 4, 2012 at 0:51

4 Answers 4


What I'm wondering s if they have a sustained period of poor performance, should we also give them recognition "hey, you suck" (Obviously something kinder).

There's no point to that. Indeed, if you're too clever about it, you can induce the wrong behavior. Just look at YouTube for "death videos" from King's Quest games. People want to see what the narrator says about each death, because Sierra spend a lot of time and effort making them unique and using horrifically lame puns.

I'd say the best way to handle this is to ignore it. Particularly in education software.

It all really depends on how you do it. You didn't say what your "game"play was, so it's hard to give good advice.

The best way to look at it is to compare modern game design elements to elements from days past. Mazes are a great example.

In old games, mazes, without any form of mapping system, were basically just time wasters. There would be something of value somewhere, maybe several somethings. But there would be a lot more dead-ends than there were actual somethings. So a lot of time is wasted exploring locations that yield nothing.

In modern game design, "mazes" aren't mazes anymore. If you can get somewhere, then in all likelihood there is something of value there. It may not have been what you were looking for, but it is something.

I would suggest looking towards that kind of game design, where the difference between "failure" and "success" is blurry. It can have downsides. For example, if one place causes forward progress out of that mazes (or that area within the larger maze), then players may actually be disappointed to find process. "Success" in this case is failure to them; they wanted the stuff they would find in side passages.


Outside of any psychological downside as you have mentioned, the biggest issue I can see from a gaming perspective is that the game play could potentially get stale if its designed to remove all negative feedback. If I'm not being challenged in a game or if your game comes across as too easy I might get bored with it quickly.

Lots of people use failure as a motivator to get better at and as such, replay or keep playing a game. You really have to find that balance between challenging and frustrating so that the players keep playing because they want to get better (or complete the game), versus them quitting because they are frustrated.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also there are ways to keep failure from being frustrating: Super Meat Boy gives you a thousand deaths and it's a fraction of a second until you're back playing again, so a death carries very little frustration and is just a thing that happens. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 4, 2012 at 1:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JonathanHobbs Fez is another good example: no penalty at all for "dying", it just pops you back to where you were a few seconds earlier. \$\endgroup\$
    – Crashworks
    Commented May 5, 2012 at 0:32

Absolutely. Half of learning is failing and discovering what NOT to do (hell probably more than half of learning is failing).

If they do something wrong, they need to know it otherwise they will never learn it is wrong.

This will sound heartless, but they need to deal with it. This is where tough love comes into play. Sometimes you have to force someone to do something they would rather not do until they get it. Overcoming a major obstacle is a major confidence booster. As time goes on, they will learn to persevere.

Another side effect will possibly to teach them they can do no wrong or that doing something wrong will have no ill consequences, which is hardly the case.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "As time goes on, they will learn to persevere." Or they'll stop playing. There is a reason why extra lives are a relic of the past, as well as many other elements of old-school gameplay (unfair deaths, harsh death penalties, etc). Also, I'm not sure how this advice works with people who have "brain injuries". \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 4, 2012 at 2:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NicolBolas Not if you don't let them quit or you make success worth the while. Fundamental thing people need to be taught is that if you quit when things get difficult you won't accomplish anything. There is also a difference between punishing failure and over doing it; the unfair deaths and harsh death penalties are examples of overdoing it. If you coddle people, disabled or no, you do them a grave injustice. If your education tool is educating them that they can only succeed, when they fail (and they will eventually) they won't know what to do. \$\endgroup\$
    – Azaral
    Commented May 4, 2012 at 3:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Not if you don't let them quit" I'm rather curious as to how you expect to pull that one off... "if you quit when things get difficult you won't accomplish anything." I've always felt that the fundamental foundation of all programming is to make difficult things easy. That's why we don't use assembly anymore. That's why we have scripting languages instead of hard-coded C. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 4, 2012 at 3:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ There is a difference there though. One is making something difficult into something that is less difficult. The other is not going forward because you perceive it to be too difficult. I'm sure the process of making the improvement was not easy. ""Not if you don't let them quit" I'm rather curious as to how you expect to pull that one off .. " Yeah.. probably not the best choice of words. I was thinking more of a parent-child relationship. Offer reward for success. If no success, get nothing. Reward should equal expected hardship. Firmly against removing failure. \$\endgroup\$
    – Azaral
    Commented May 4, 2012 at 4:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, without failure there is no fun really. Load up your favorite game and turn god mod on. It is fun at first, but then gets you asking yourself, what's the point of this? Though, there are games where failure could simply be not moving forward until you do succeed. This brings me to say this question needs some context per the style and content of the intended game. The more I think about it, the more possibilities come up. \$\endgroup\$
    – Azaral
    Commented May 4, 2012 at 4:14

What are the downsides of only explicitly informing the player of success?

There are no downsides to only using positive reinforcement of player progress.

Many popular games don't have have a concept of losing or failing.

Look at simple games like Bejeweled Blitz that rewards you for every match you make in 60 seconds, or complex games like World of Warcraft where there is no such thing as game over, just more loot on the horizon.

"lose faith in feedback from the game because it's not telling the whole story"

Why is failure a part of the story in your mind? Just let players keep clicking until they they win!

If your game only provides positive feedback, and players have clear goals and understand how to achieve them, they will enjoy your game.

Failure is an obstacle to player enjoyment, not a pre-requisite.


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