The Effects of Win/Loss States on Learning

Olympic Podium - Winning and Losing
If some win others must lose - Photo by Florian Schmetz on Unsplash

Many games are designed as zero-sum, where one side wins and the other inevitably loses. But we all know that life, and learning, is far from zero-sum. There is a range of gray between black and white. Not to mention the colors and their countless shades. And that ‘winning’ isn’t everything.

James Carse talks about this in his book: Finite and Infinite Games. He says: Finite games usually end with a victory or loss. While infinite games don’t end. They are focused on progress and continuation of play. So how do you go about designing game ecosystems in which winning isn’t the goal? When the goal is learning or just simply continuation of play.

Finite and Infinite Games is available on Amazon 

I build games for learning in which learning must happen irrespective of a win/lose state for players. There are a few things I’ve learnt over the years which have helped me to focus on the learning outcomes as opposed to winning and losing in a game ecosystem. Here are some of them.

Reorient the player learning narrative

Most players enter a game ecosystem for the following reasons:

  • To have fun
  • To learn
  • To get better
  • To win
  • To take down the bad guy
  • To conquer an epic quest
  • To pass time

And on and on…

As you can see, for a player, winning isn’t the only objective (while it may be important) it isn’t the only one. So when I design game ecosystems in which winning isn’t the goal, I dispel the idea that we’re here to win. Instead, I make it abundantly clear from the very beginning that we’re here to learn, to play, to revisit something we knew but weren’t sure about or to discover something entirely new. Doing this changes the narrative of the player and makes them think about why they’re here. It reorients them to start to see things from another perspective.

Design for reflection

When you bake into your design the opportunity to reflect from the learning, the learners are less likely to focus on absolute outcomes like win/lose. This requires you to start by reorienting the players’ narrative and then identifying the important reflection areas to direct the players’ attention to after the game-play.

Focus on progress and activity instead of “Victory”

Man approaching mountain representing learning progress
Measure progress – not winning – Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

While I can’t imagine a finite game that does not have an end goal, one of the things I’ve been able to do is make the end goal less obvious by increasing focus on real-time activities that the player must do to eventually get to the end goal. If done right, the activities themselves are so engaging that most players will feel busy and content with staying there. I’ll encourage you to read about core and dual loops to learn more about that. When players focus on the activities at hand and gain progress (and have fun) through that, they are likely to care less about the end outcome. Needless to say, this isn’t a blanket statement as we know there are all kinds of players out there. Ones who play to play and ones who play to win.

Why dampen the effects of win/lose states in learning games

In most games, this shouldn’t matter as much. But in games that are designed for learning, this element plays a significant role. Think about how you feel when you win a game. Now about how you feel when you lose. A stark difference right? No matter how balanced and zen-like you are, you feel a sense of elation when you win and little pinch when you don’t.

As I designed and ran learning games for various corporate teams across the world, I began to realize that when teams won the game, they would bask in their glory of how incredible they were. While when they lost, they would often sulk so much that they didn’t want to have anything to do with the game. Some went as far as blaming my games to be “rigged”.

Over time I realized as I shifted the focus from winning or losing to playing and learning, I was able to keep the players balanced through the game. If they won, there was something to learn from the experience just as much as if they lost. Through the years as I ran tests with the three parameters, I learned that the cases in which the learners did not focus on winning/losing were the cases in which players took away the most learning from the game irrespective of whether they won or lost in the game.

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Learning Game Designer at Gamitar / Evivve
Mohsin Memon is a game designer who focuses specifically on building games for learning. He also teaches Game Design at a French University (École Intuit Lab). Mohsin has built over 50 games which have been used in various classroom and virtual Instructor Led Training programs. 2 of his most popular games (Evivve and Superhero Within) have won numerous awards in the learning and development space. He has also facilitated thousands of learning experiences for large organizations across Europe, Middle East, Asia and Asia-Pacific.

While being absolutely passionate about games for change, Mohsin also loves spending his time trekking up a mountain in the summers and snowboarding down it in the winters. He loves board games and names Imhotep as one of his all time favorite board games.
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