Key takeaways

  • Upskilling will be necessary for businesses to compete, but some skills are harder (or softer) to teach than others.
  • Soft skills can be difficult to teach, and to learn, with multiple paths to mastery and no correct answers.
  • Game mechanics, such as failure, experimentation and iteration, provide a safe, and fun, solution.

Gaming is, essentially, the art of overcoming failure. But, unlike in play, we typically do not teach people how to fail at work. It’s because of this that we face very high hurdles on the track to reskilling the workforce.

Upskilling and reskilling have been high on company priority lists over the past few years. PwC research has consistently found that skills weigh on the minds of CEOs. Three quarters of chief executives responding to our 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey said they were concerned about the availability of key skills to achieve growth. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum has launched efforts to “future-proof workers from technological change and help economies by providing skills for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”1 The OECD estimates that 1.1 billion jobs will be transformed by technology in a decade, and people will need to be trained up to take on the fastest-growing jobs of the future.2

But what are the jobs people need to be trained up in? It’s no surprise to see a continued predicted rise in demand for technology roles in data and AI, engineering, cloud computing, and product development. But, interestingly, according to the OECD, the area with the greatest number of opportunities is in sales, marketing and content. And, critically, high-growth roles will be in demand for both ‘digital’ and ‘human’ skills.3

Unfortunately, while organisations have come to understand that they need to invest in digital upskilling, softer skills have been pushed down priority lists.4 This could be because learning human, soft, or social skills such as creativity, persuasion, adaptability, negotiation and collaboration can be trickier to learn than quantifiable ‘hard’ skills.5

Mastering failure

There is no ‘correct’ way to master soft skills, and therefore they can’t be taught by following a set of rigid rules. Instead, experimentation (performing skills in different contexts) and iteration (continually adjusting approaches until there is success) are necessary, and by their very nature, ‘failures’ are destined to occur along the way.

Failure, however, is a tricky topic. As children, we are often taught to avoid failure and the nuance of ‘possible outcome’ vs ‘correct outcome’ is not a mindset we are all comfortable with, especially in the workplace.6 Additionally, failure is inherently personal, and thus requires a vulnerability and personal commitment from an employee that can feel like an imposition. Expecting an employee to fail until they master a soft skill is a big ask, and it’s no wonder that the teaching of hard skills is given preference by businesses.

Perhaps it need not be so difficult. There is one pastime, afterall, where people routinely sign up for failure, through experimentation and iteration of mastery, and what’s more, they enjoy the experience. The activity? Playing games.

Danish game designer and educator, Jesper Juul, posits that games are “the singular art form that sets us up for failure and allows us to experience it and experiment with it.”7 Far from being just ‘fun’, games provide a space to be inadequate and then give us a chance to overcome it.

From casual mobile games to online multiplayer epics, physical sports to a cerebral game of chess, players learn through iteration, experimentation, and plenty of failure. Yet despite the negative experience of losing, players keep coming back for more believing that eventually they’re likely to succeed. Games provide a safe space to fail, get constructive feedback, iterate tactics, and hopefully, win.8 

Game failure

Games, like soft skills, don’t typically have ‘correct’ answers, which make them particularly suited as a learning method. Consider a game of chess. Checkmate is a winning move, but the final positions on the board to get there are always different. Yes, players fail, but when a game is enjoyable they’re more open to trying again. And the best games help players fail in a very specific way.

Humans experience failure on different levels, and how they attribute that failure directly impacts how personally they will take a loss, and how likely they are to try again. As in our chess example, failing can be attributed in three ways:

  • Internal (I lost because I’m not good) vs. external (I lost because my opponent is better)
  • Stable (I’ll always fail) vs. unstable (I can improve)
  • Global (I’ll fail at all games) vs. specific (I’m only failing at chess)

When we lose a game of chess, ideally we attribute that failure as unstable, specific and external. We can improve, we’re only failing at a specific game and our opponent is better. All three types of failure provide feedback that is constructive and encourages us to continue.

In the workplace, we are rarely provided with the kind of feedback needed to attribute failure as a positive. This can lead to misattribution by the employee, or worse, by the employer removing the motivation or even opportunity to try again.9 Games, on the other hand, can safely help a player attribute their failure to the right place (the game, not themselves), and give them the space to try again.

Just one more run

Games do this using a variety of mechanics that can be employed by business when designing soft skills programs. These include:

Finding comfort in failure

Roguelikes, or roguelites, are a sub-genre of role playing games where a user must progress through punishing — and often fatal — levels. They die. A lot. Once progress is lost they have to begin again. However, these games, such as Hades, have won over players with how they incorporate failure — as part of the narrative. Failure is essential to the story and thus to progression within the game.

Soft skill use: Build failure into your soft skill teaching by having employees explore how ‘not’ to perform a skill in order to progress.

Experimenting with success

Candy Crush and Dark Souls are very different games. In one, players must clear a board of candy and in the other, players go on a grueling journey. Neither has a ‘correct’ way to get to the next level. The tasks are always the same, but how a player completes them is unique. They achieve success by experimentation.

Soft skill use: Build experimentation into your teaching through greater rewards for employees that provide multiple/inventive answers.

Iteration through exposure

What happens when the task at hand isn’t always the same? In procedurally generated games, such as No Man’s Sky or Dead Cells, the universe reorients itself so players face a different challenge each time they play. With no path to follow, they must approach unknown situations and adapt their tool-use or iterate their strategy to succeed. Like with successfully employing soft skills, tactics must change to fit the scenario. 

Soft skill use: Build iteration into learning by giving employees a range of different, randomized or ever-changing scenarios for them to ‘play’ in.

Iteration, experimentation and failure

Failure has always been a part of the stories told by successful people. But, if we do not teach people how to embrace and properly attribute failure, we can’t expect them to be comfortable falling prey to it. Without that safety, they won’t put themselves in situations where they are open to experimentation and iteration, and without that practice, soft skills will never truly be learned.

To upskill beyond digital or hard skills — and indeed, to be effective in communicating and implementing our knowledge in such areas — we need to ensure that when it comes to soft skills, people embrace the failure that leads to their successful learning. If we don’t, we’ll never get to the next level.



Louis Bennett

Louis is a director in the Learning Architect Team in L&D at PwC US, based in New York.

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