Luck and Uncertainty in Games and Education

Remember, it’s All Luck. You are lucky to be here. You were incalculably lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you get educated and encouraged you to go to Uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy… but you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which – when placed in a horrible childhood environment – would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating Uni. Well done you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces. – Tim Minchin, UWA Address

Luck is important, but it is something that we don’t like to acknowledge in western societies. The myth of the protestant work ethic is something that gets drummed into us from an early age. Though, I think we have good reason to belittle luck. I say this because the word ‘luck’ conjures up images of people who irrationally believe that objects (like lucky charms, or lucky underwear) possess great power. Luck nullifies hard work, and it is associated with social inequality since it is the privileged few who are ‘the lucky ones.’

In schools, particularly in the case of the classroom learning environment, luck is often something that goes unacknowledged. It is a taboo. And it has nothing to do with success. You get good marks because you studied hard. Although this sort of belief system isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the situation is different in games. Luck is important in games – it exists in the roll of a dice or in the cards that a player is dealt. This element of uncertainty is what keeps us engaged in a game.

In recent times, I have come to think about luck and its place in the school institution. As teachers we don’t like to teach the idea of luck, but it exists and it is real. We like to inform our students of what is to come, to make them feel in control of their studies. We design rubrics, and give exemplars for assignments, we generate practice exams and allow the students to do them inside the classroom, in exam conditions, and we do this all in the name of preparation. We want the student to feel like they have a high locus of control, but the reality is a situation that often goes unacknowledged. Certain students are endowed with gifts, natural abilities, talents that allow them to learn things without much effort. Other students have parents who are highly educated, or they may come from backgrounds of great privilege.

So should we teach luck? Or should we somehow embed it into our teaching? What place does luck have in schools? When I started my Master’s Degree, I stumbled across this study and it really challenged in the way I thought about games, game design and learning. The study consisted of three experiments, and the second and third ones particularly made me think more about the nature of luck and uncertainty, specifically from a pedagogical standpoint. In pairs, primary school aged children worked together to try to beat the computer in a game of Wipe Out. The children were given multiple choice questions, and if they answered correctly then they were to roll a pair of dice. The results of the dice roll were added and placed on the scoreboard. After the first dice roll, they were given the option to roll again however if they rolled again and rolled a combination containing a ‘one,’ then the points in that round would be nullified. Further, if they rolled a pair of ones, then all their points would be wiped out. The first to reach one hundred points won. In the second experiment, adults were given the same game, however the element of uncertainty disappeared from the game. The dice rolled a pair of threes, and there was less interest or enthusiasm for playing the game in the second experiment. And in a way, this makes sense – the unpredictability gives the player something to anticipate, it allows the player to also feel emotionally involved in the game.

Though I mentioned that luck can be associated with social inequality a book chapter that I read seems to suggest that luck paradoxically can bring about player equality. When luck exists in a game, then the untrained rookie still has a chance at winning, and this sort of hope motivates players to keep trying.

How has this affected my teaching?

I play snakes and ladders with the younger, primary school aged children that I teach (the dice contain symbols of music duration rather than dots though). I also play my own adapted version of Wipe Out in preparation for an AMEB exam. Whenever I design games, I try to be very conscious that good games contain that nice balance of luck and strategy.

I’d love to open the question on luck and learning to anybody out there in the blogosphere who might be reading – do you think luck should have a place in the education system?

Stuff you should read if you are really interested, or have the time, or just needing to reference something ‘safe’ (i.e. not this blog article) in your essay 😉 

Howard-Jones, P. A., & Demetriou, S. (2009). Uncertainty and engagement with learning games. Instructional Science, 37(6), 519-536. doi: 10.2307/23372500

Johnson, S. (2012). Playing the Odds. In C. Steinkuehler, K. Squire & S. Barab (Eds.), Games, Learning and Society: Learning and Meaning in the Digital Age. New York Cambridge University Press.

Kapp, K. M. (2012). The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education. San Fransisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

2 thoughts on “Luck and Uncertainty in Games and Education”

  1. Another fascinating blog, Rebecca. Earlier in the year I read the short but challenging (confronting, even) “Free Will” by Sam Harris. From some of the ideas in this book we might conclude that there is nothing BUT luck. Or, at least, that we are not nearly as in control of our lives as we think we are.

    I get uncomfortable with the idea of “talent” usually, but thinking of it as luck (social or genetic disposition to certain activities) may be helpful.

    Fabulous stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading James 🙂 – I’m familiar with Harris, I remember feeling confronted too with the idea when I first encountered it. I’m not a huge fan of ‘talent’ either, I think it’s a myth that makes parents force their children to stop music lessons, funny, it’s really big in the arts and even in sports, but in academic subjects at schools (like maths and English) the advice is the opposite: keep trying, don’t give up, it will make sense eventually. I digress, I’ll be posting more soon 😉


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