When you play the Challenge, do you wince when you get a question wrong or let out a giant Homer Simpson-style "Doh!" Don’t. Because what’s happening when you get a question wrong may be just as important as what’s happening when you get one right. (See "Can Forgetting Help You Learn?") In fact, frequent failure may be what makes playing games like the Challenge fun.

In his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning, cognitive scientist James Paul Gee describes playing a Winnie the Pooh video game with his very young son and being "surprised to find out that [the game] was fairly long and pretty challenging, even for an adult." He then tried out a game designed for teens and found that again, it required him to "think in ways at which I was not then adept. Suddenly all my baby-boomer ways of learning and thinking, for which I had heretofore received ample rewards, did not work." In other words, Gee was failing.

And yet, he was hooked. He described the feeling the game gave him as "life enhancing" or "pleasantly frustrating." For a cognitive scientist specializing in educational learning principles, this was fascinating. The game was making learning fun.

Nine years later, with failure-as-a-tool-for-learning a hot topic among educators, scientists, and corporate managers alike, psychologists are weighing in on the question of why games that involve so much failure feel fun. One new study described by journalist Annie Murphy Paul for the KQED blog MindShift looked at emotions and learning and suggested that the shifting from frustration to surprise and delight that seems to characterize learning reflects the cycle of clarity and confusion that drives the learning process itself. 

Here’s how this works: You feel confused or frustrated by something you don’t understand. Your brain then worries over the problem until you work it out. That’s where surprise and delight come in. But without the initial confusion or frustration, your brain never would have got there. "Without the struggles," writes Scholastic educational game developer and Harvard School of Education adjuct lecturer David Dokterman in a recent blog post, "there’s little satisfaction. And when you finally figure it out, it feels pretty good. That’s because the brain’s reward center provides a satisfying dopamine hit to help validate the effort."

So what do you think? Do you feel good when you play the Challenge? Even if you fail? A lot? Let us know by posting a comment below. For extra credit, think about when you are more likely to turn away from the game — after you’ve completed a perfect round or when you’ve just answered a question wrong?

Summer is the season of play, and we’re celebrating it on the Vocabulary.com Blog. Be sure to check out other gaming-related blog posts: New Games, Just in Time for SummerTour de Vocabulary: On Competition and PlayWord Learning for Word-o-phobes, and Do You Have an SAT Prep Personality?