Designer Empathy: Understand the Fear of Failure

Recently I attended a talk at GDC 2015 by Brandon Dillon from Double Fine Productions about their game “Hack n Slash” , Making It to Break It: Designing Hack ‘n’ Slash. The talk covered their various design elements to have players literally hack the game to progress through it.  I was amazed by one of the few about programming and hacking where you are changing actual code and values in the game.

This blog post isn’t about the talk so much as a statement Brandon made about the users that played his game. You see, the game is not dressed as some techno future computer hacking game, but as fantasy adventure. Heck, the protagonist looks similar to Link. So when Brandon talked about the difference between code savvy adults and non code savvy adults he said

Those familiar to coding went through the game fairly well, eventually confronting challenges even they felt were hard to pass. With those not familiar, once they realized the game was about computer coding and hit a challenging part, they would quit or think they could not go any further.”

They were already predisposed to thinking that I know what I can and can not do, and I can not do coding. Hearing that shocked me, after witnessing how well the hacking is integrated into the game-play as such as the sword for hacking objects, and how the hacking elements are a tools that can be used for multiple solutions. How could anyone not feel they could triumph over the game?

Then he said “That children would get very far in the game. That children’s curious minds haven’t developed the concept of what their limits are. To them anything is possible. They kept experimenting and failing until they succeed. ” This shed some light.

Most children have no coding experience at all, but still felt compelled enough to play through it. What as going on in our adult minds that makes us flee from a game? As a game developer who is familiar with programming, I wanted to get to the bottom of their “fear of failure”. My mission was to find the signs of this fear, and relate to it based on my own experiences. I reflected on memories and examined by emotional state during those moments. For it is one thing to know why, but it’s another to be able to feel  why.

Symptoms for the Fear of failure

1. Unsure about their choices

“I am worried about all the possible ways of me being wrong, I would rather not risk it”

“I am so unsure on the right choice, that the consequences are not worth it”

We have all had these thoughts or feelings pass through us during times of “unsure-ity.” Decision making becomes a life altering event, with the weight of the world on our choice. At times it drives us to pace around a room,  flip-flop between choices,  and stack questions about making  . It does not matter if being in this state was the right path for us or not. What matters as designers is being aware when we are in this state. To recognize the signs in ourselves may help see the signs in those we make games for.

2. Exhibits the thought process of the Fear of Failure

Well I don’t want to mess up, so I will stick to what I know works. And if what I know does not work, I will silently agree that I suck or blame the game. If I do not know anything about what to do in the game, I will simply pass it off to someone else. But I may not ask for help, asking for help is the first sign that I am incompetent, and I don’t want them to think i’m incompetent.

3. “Hiding in my shell”

Fear is the force that pulls us to the back row so we do not stand out. It is the chains that holds our hands from being raised. It is the sinking sensation in our gut that keeps our mouth shut.

This is the  point were I creep closest to shutting down and giving up. My thoughts tell me to run, head for the hills. It is at this point of no return, once players step past this their self esteem is broken. Helping a real person as a friend to repair broken self esteem is hard, doing that through a game is even harder … if you can’t see it coming. Some games have detection of players’ failures and “rubber banding” the game. For those uninformed, its to change the difficulty of the game during game play.

A past experience

Once when I was play testing a mobile application for a hospital with an 11 – year old boy. Me and my team all came out to be a part of the session, which was 6 of us . The boy entered the room, looking down, speaking under his breath meekly. The boy was quite shy and took some time for him to warm up to us during the play test. Even though we only approach him 1 or 2 people at a time, the age difference was enough for him to fear messing up or looking foolish in front of us. No matter how much we smiled and told him okay, his shyness wouldn’t leave him. He was hiding in his shell.

We asked him to play some of his favorite games to at least gather data on what games children like. These were ones he felt  especially proud of his accomplishments. In one game he unlocked some of the hardest to obtain characters, and it gave him confidence to show that off to us. By now he’s more comfortable with us and had so much to share that we ran out of time before he finished. As you may notice, the key is confidence, we gave him a platform to bring his unique accomplishments and be celebrated them.

The solution to getting the boy to warm-up to us was not on purpose. If we thought to be empathetic, be an 11 year old boy for a moment, or when we were shy as a child that change could of happened sooner.  I could of thought “how did I ever get past that shy moment as a kid.” I might remember the moment I was flying an a plane by myself.  I was alone on a 3 hour flight next to two old adults at least 3 times my age. Then I overheard them talking about tv shows, my favorite pass time as a child. We connected to them over anime we all liked and the Simpsons.

Final note: the eyes are the windows to our soul…and how uncomfortable we feel. Use them to notice the signs early.


4 thoughts on “Designer Empathy: Understand the Fear of Failure

  1. I agree that understand your play tester is important. Actually, our project team also meet a similar situation. We designed a mechanism that the player needs to shout to a microphone to send a signal. The louder the player shouts, the farther the signal goes. We were very excited about this since all of us think it fun. However, when we play test it with groups of middle school students, we discovered that they found this mechanism embarrassing and weren’t willing to shout in front of others. In the later discussion, the teachers told us that it is because of our presence that made these students feel uncomfortable to shout. It’s quite an meaningful experience for us.


  2. I am glad to read this post since I like to talk about the fear of failure. For me personally, I am even confused about what the definition is for game design. Sometimes it is hard to judge a game is a failure or not. Later I realized that to overcome this fear I can define the failure of my games on a lower level. This is not just an excuse, This is a process to make me think clearly about what I would like to learn or achieve in this game. I think this method is good for game designers.


  3. This semester we already did 4 playtests with kids and I can totally relate to the feelings you have. At first I felt so helpless because I could tell how nervous and uncomfortable they are but I didn’t know how to fix that. And I agree when we thought to be empathetic, things would be much easier. By doing so, we figured out that we should assure playtesters that they can do no wrong and to remove hesitation with how they interact with the game. And we shouldn’t feed playtesters any information to give them expectations before they begin. Less questions, more observation. Prepare for scripts for children would be the best.


  4. I still didn’t get the relationship between coding and playing games. To me, it’s not very necessary for a gamer to have programming skills. Whether someone dare to try something new is largely depended on his or her personality. On the later part, I agree that it’s a good way to connect with children by sharing common topics. In my experience of dealing with children, I just treat them normally, without paying too much attention but make them curious about what I’m doing. That also works, because they want to be treated as an adult, but not a kitten or puppy which is so lovely to play and pat.


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