The Computer Games Journal

, Volume 4, Issue 3–4, pp 169–186 | Cite as

Games You Can’t Win

  • Dana Ruggiero
  • Katrin Becker


A common notion in games for learning is that the player must win the game. But is it always necessary for the player to win in order to ‘get’ the message that the game is trying to portray? When we think back on our most memorable learning experiences, we find that these lessons are often things we learned through failure rather than success. There is a class of games where ‘winning’ doesn’t look the way we typically expect it to look. Some games do not allow their players to win, and their underlying message is more akin to that found in a cautionary tale. We refer to these games as games you can’t win, and they form a distinctly different approach to game design. Games such as Sweatshop (Littleloud, 2011), Darfur is Dying (MTVu, 2006), and September 12th (Newsgaming, 2005) are games you cannot conceivably win, and they are designed that way deliberately. This paper presents a critique on serious games that are unwinnable by design. We examine the concepts of games and learning, the design of unwinnable games, design strategies for unhappy and/or unwinnable learning games, and ways to measure the success of games you can’t win. We also briefly consider potential issues and future directions, and we conclude that the messages delivered via games you can’t win are more powerful than those of games in which you can win.


Unwinnable Unhappy endstate Educational games Game design 


  1. Becker, K. (2007). Wicked ID: A Conceptual framework for considering instructional design as a wicked problem. Canadian Journal of Learning Technology, 33(1), 85–108.Google Scholar
  2. Bowman, N. D., Weber, R., Tamborini, R., & Sherry, J. (2013). Facilitating game play: How others affect performance at and enjoyment of video games. Media Psychology, 16(1), 39–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), 5–21. doi: 10.2307/1511637.CrossRefMathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  4. Canossa, A., El-Nasr, M. S., & Drachen, A. (Eds.). (2013). Benefits of game analytics: Stakeholders, contexts and domains. In Game Analytics (pp. 41–52). London: Springer.Google Scholar
  5. Cox, J. (2014). What makes a blockbuster video game? An empirical analysis of US sales data. Managerial and Decision Economics, 35(3), 189–198.Google Scholar
  6. DeGrace, P., & Stahl, L. H. (1990). Wicked problems, righteous solutions: A catalogue of modern software engineering paradigms. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Yourdon Press.Google Scholar
  7. Entwistle, N. J. (2005). Contrasting perspectives on learning. In F. Marton, D. Hounsell, & N. J. Entwistle (Eds.), The experience of learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education’ presents the results of research from a series of related studies into the way students learn in higher education (3rd ed.). Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment.Google Scholar
  8. Gee, J. P. (2009). Deep learning properties of good digital games: How far can they go? In Serious games: Mechanisms and effects (pp. 67–82).Google Scholar
  9. Joseph, B. (2009). Why Johnny can’t fly: Treating games as a form of youth media within a youth development framework. International Journal of Learning and Media, 1(1), 253–266.Google Scholar
  10. Kapur, M. (2008). Productive failure. Cognition and Instruction, 26(3), 379–424.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Kapur, M., & Bielaczyc, K. (2012). Designing for productive failure. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 21(1), 45–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Merrill, M. D. (2001). First principles of instruction. Journal of Structural Learning and Intelligent Systems, 14(4), 459–466.MathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  13. Meyer, N. & Roddenberry, G. (1982). Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek Movie series. USA: Paramount Studios.Google Scholar
  14. Parker, J. R., Sorenson, N., Esmaeili, N., Sicre, R., Gil, P., Kochlar, V., et al. (2009). The booze cruise: Impaired driving in virtual spaces. IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, 29(2), 6–10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Parkes, W. (Director). (1983). Wargames [Motion picture]. United artists, Sherwood productions.Google Scholar
  16. Pivec, M., & Kearney, P. (2007). Games for learning and learning from games. Informatica, 31, 419–423.Google Scholar
  17. Ravaja, N., Turpeinen, M., Saari, T., Puttonen, S., & Keltikangas-Järvinen, L. (2008). The psychophysiology of James Bond: Phasic emotional responses to violent video game events. Emotion, 8(1), 114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1984). Planning problems are wicked problems. In N. Cross (Ed.), Developments in design methodology (pp. 135–144). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  19. Rosenhead, J. (1996). What’s the problem? An introduction to problem structuring methods. Interfaces, 26(6), 117–131. doi: 10.2307/25062196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Ruggiero, D. (2013). The effect of a persuasive game on attutide and affective learning. Ph. D. Doctoral Dissertation, Purdue University.Google Scholar
  21. Sajak & Farki (Developer), Fission impossible [web game], Science Alberta Foundation (Publisher), game site:
  22. Schank, R., & Neaman, A. (2001). Motivation and failure in educational simulation design. In Smart machines in education (pp. 37–69). MIT Press.Google Scholar
  23. Sharritt, M. J., & Suthers, D. D. (2011). Game-based representations as cues for collaboration and learning. In Discoveries in gaming and computer-mediated simulations: New interdisciplinary applications (pp. 163–188). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.Google Scholar
  24. Shute, V. J., & Ventura, M. (2013). Stealth assessment: Measuring and supporting learning in video games. MIT Press.Google Scholar
  25. Squire, K. (2002). Cultural framing of computer/video games. Game Studies, 2(1), 1–13.Google Scholar
  26. Tanenbaum, J. G., Antle, A. N., & Robinson, J. (2013). Three perspectives on behavior change for serious games. In Proceedings of the 2013 ACM annual conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 3389–3392). ACM.Google Scholar
  27. Tate, R., Haritatos, J., & Cole, S. (2009). HopeLab’s approach to Re-Mission. International Journal of Learning and Media, 1(1), 29–35. doi: 10.1162/ijlm.2009.0003.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Van Eck, R. (2008). COTS in the classroom: A teacher’s guide to integrating commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) games. In Handbook of research on effective electronic gaming in education (pp. 179–199).Google Scholar
  29. Watson, W. R. (2007). Formative research on an instructional design theory for educational video games. Ph.D. Doctoral Dissertation, Indiana University.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Bath Spa UniversityBathUK
  2. 2.Mount Royal UniversityCalgaryCanada

Personalised recommendations