By: Jesper Juul
Excerpted from “The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games”
I dislike failing in games, but I dislike not failing even more. There are numerous ways to explain this contradiction, and I will discuss many of them in this book. But let us first consider the strangeness of the situation: every day, hundreds of millions of people around the world play video games, and most of them will experience failure while playing. It is safe to say that humans have a fundamental desire to succeed and feel competent, but game players have chosen to engage in an activity in which they are almost certain to fail and feel incompetent, at least some of the time. In fact, we know that players prefer games in which they fail. This is the paradox of failure in games. It can be stated like this:
1. We generally avoid failure.
2. We experience failure when playing games.
3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid.
This paradox of failure is parallel to the paradox of why we consume tragic theater, novels, or cinema even though they make us feel sadness, fear, or even disgust. If these at first do not sound like actual paradoxes, it is simply because we are so used to their existence that we sometimes forget that they are paradoxes at all. The shared conundrum is that we generally try to avoid the unpleasant emotions that we get from hearing about a sad event, or from failing at a task. Yet we actively seek out these emotions in stories, art, and games.
The paradox of tragedy is commonly explained with reference to Aristotle’s term catharsis, arguing that we in our general lives experience unpleasant emotions, but that by experiencing pity and fear in a fictional tragedy, these emotions are eventually purged from us. However, this does not ring true for games— when we experience a humiliating defeat, we really are filled with emotions of humiliation and inadequacy. Games do not purge these emotions from us—they produce the emotions in the first place.
The paradox is not simply that games or tragedies contain something unpleasant in them, but that we appear to want this unpleasantness to be there, even if we also seem to dislike it (unlike queues in theme parks, for example, which we would prefer didn’t exist). Another explanation could be that while we dislike failing in our regular endeavors, games are an entirely different thing, a safe space in which failure is okay, neither painful nor the least unpleasant. The phrase “It’s just a game” suggests that this would be the case. And we do often take what happens in a game to have a different meaning from what is outside a game. To prevent other people from achieving their goals is usually hostile behavior that may end friendships, but we regularly prevent other players from achieving their goals when playing friendly games. Games, in this view, are something different from the regular world, a frame in which failure is not the least distressing. Yet this is clearly not the whole truth: we are often upset when we fail, we put in considerable effort to avoid failure while playing a game, and we will even show anger toward those who foiled our clever in-game plans. In other words, we often argue that in-game failure is something harmless and neutral, but we repeatedly fail to act accordingly.
During the last few years, failure has become a contested discussion point in video game culture. Since roughly 2006, we have seen an explosion of new video game forms, with video games now being distributed not only in boxes sold in stores, but also on mobile phones, as downloads, in browsers, and on social networks, as well as being targeted at almost the entire population, and designed for all kinds of contexts for which video games used to not be made. This casual revolution in video games is forcing us to rethink the role of failure in games: should all games be intense personal struggles that bombard the player with constant failures and frequent setbacks, or can games be more relaxed experiences, like a walk in the park? The somewhat anticipated response from part of the traditional video gaming community has been to denounce new casual and social games as too easy, pandering, simplistic, and so on. Yet, what has become clear is that both (a) many of the apparently simple games played by a broad audience are in actuality very challenging and (b) some traditional video game genres, especially role-playing games, all but guarantee players that they will eventually prevail. So failure is in need of a more detailed account, and we must begin by asking the simple question: what does failure do?
Consider what happens when we are stuck in the puzzle game Portal 2; we understand that we are lacking and inadequate (and more lacking and inadequate the longer we are stuck), but the game implicitly promises us that we can remedy the problem if we keep playing. Before playing a game in the Portal series, we probably did not consider the possibility that we would have problems solving the warp-based spatial puzzles that the game is based on—we had never seen such puzzles before! This is what games do: they promise us that we can repair a personal inadequacy—an inadequacy that they produce in us in the first place.
My argument is that the paradox of failure is unique in that when you fail in a game, it really means that you were in some way inadequate. Such a feeling of inadequacy is unpleasant for us, and it is odd that we choose to subject ourselves to it. However, while games uniquely induce such feelings of being inadequate, they also motivate us to play more in order to escape the same inadequacy, and the feeling of escaping failure (often by improving our skills) is central to the enjoyment of games. Games promise us a fair chance of redeeming ourselves. This distinguishes game failure from failure in our regular lives: (good) games are designed such that they give us a fair chance, whereas the regular world makes no such promises.
Games are also special in that the conventions around game playing are by themselves philosophies of the meaning of failure. The ideals of sportsmanship specifically tell us to take success and failure seriously but to keep our emotions in check for the benefit of greater causes. Sports philosopher Peter Arnold has identified three types of sportsmanship: (1) sportsmanship as a form of social union (the noble behavior in the game extending outside the game), (2) sportsmanship as a means in the promotion of pleasure (controlling our behavior to make this and future games possible), and (3) sportsmanship as altruism (players forfeiting a chance to win in order to protect another participant, for example).
This type of emotional control can be challenging for children (and others), and a good deal of material exists for explaining it. The book “Liam Wins the Game, Sometimes” teaches children how to deal with winning and losing in games. The author tells the child that it is acceptable to feel disappointed when losing, but unacceptable to throw a tantrum. “It is being a poor loser and it spoils the whole game. Others do not like playing with poor losers.” To be a sore loser is to make a concrete philosophical claim: that failure in games is straightforwardly painful, without anything to compensate for it. However, it is important to realize that poor losers are not chastised for showing anger and frustration, but for showing anger and frustration in the wrong way. Games, depending on how we play them, give us a license to display anger and frustration on a level that we would not otherwise dare express, but some displays will still be out of bounds, rude, or socially awkward. Contrary to the poor loser, the spoilsport who plays a game without caring for either winning or losing is making the statement that game failure is not painful at all.
Though we may dislike failure as such, failure is an integral element of the overall experience of playing a game, a motivator, something that helps us reconsider our strategies and see the strategic depth in a game, a clear proof that we have improved when we finally overcome it. Failure brings about something positive, but it is always potentially painful or at least unpleasant. This is the double nature of games, their quality as “pleasure spiked with pain.”
This is why the question of failure is so important: it not only goes to the heart of why we enjoy games in the first place, it also tells us what games can be used for. Given that games have an undisputable ability to motivate players to meet challenges and learn in order to overcome failure, wouldn’t it be smart to use games to motivate players toward other more “serious” undertakings? It is commonly argued that the principles of game design can be applied to a number of situations in the regular world in order to motivate us: examples include designing educational games, giving employees points for their performance, giving shoppers points for checking in at specific location, awarding Internet users with badges for commenting on Web site posts, and so on. This is a long-standing idea, which at the time of writing has resurfaced under the name of gamification. We therefore need to think more closely about why games work so well: at the very least, good games tend to offer well-defined goals and clear feedback. This gives us an objective measure of our performance, and allows us to optimize our strategies. If applying this to nongame situations sounds tempting, consider how the 2008 financial crisis was caused in part by large banks and financial institutions making their organizations too gamelike by giving employees the clear goal of approving as many loans as possible and punishing naysayers with termination. This was a case where the design that works so well inside games can be disastrous outside games, even if we think only of the well-being of the companies involved. Games, apparently, are not a pixie dust of motivation to be sprinkled on any subject. The underlying questions are therefore: When and how do games motivate us to overcome failure and improve ourselves? When is a game structure useful, and when is it detrimental? And most important: Is there a difference between failing inside and failing outside a game?
(Editor’s note: Much like how we moved from the fields to the factories to the offices…Gamification will make toil much more bearable.)