We’ve all been there. If you’re a gamer, there’s a chance you’ve died. Not literally of course, because that would be silly. Video games test our skills, and more often than we would like to admit: we fail. We fail hard. I know I’ve had countless deaths at the hand of Robot masters, thousands of deaths in the Mushroom Kingdom, and more deaths you can imagine at the hands of Eggman. For most people, failure is a big no-no; we hate doing it, and when we do failure we take it hard. However, gamers are seemingly ok with failing in video games and, more often than not, the failure just makes them want to continue playing.
Ridiculously difficult games have always had their niche audience, but games that are exceedingly difficult have become far more popular this console generation with games like Dark Souls and Demon Souls promoting being the hardest of the hard. Are we masochists for playing these games? What about difficult games appeal to us? Shouldn’t we want to stay away from games that are difficult and make us fail more? Logically, yes. We logically should want to stay away from things that make us fail….And yet we don’t with video games. Why?
It could be that we perhaps enjoying failing. Maybe we’ve always secretly wanted to just lose to Donkey Kong Jr. in Super Mario Kart on the SNES repeatedly until the Cartridge stopped working, but we didn’t because it wasn’t socially acceptable. Sure, you could just pass it off as being bad at the game, but eventually people would get suspicious. Wondering why you, a grown man, couldn’t defeat the adolescent ape who is by far the slowest racer in the game. Things would also get confusing when you’d be miraculously better in Versus mode against your friends, so you’d pretend to lose to keep the lie going; anxiously hoping they don’t find you out for the perverse desire to lose to that tank top wearing ape that was constantly swilling through your mind. You could even try and go get help for this issue, but the looks and stares of the medical professional just makes you sick to your stomach. Eventually they’re moving out all of your stuff out of your room, seeking to find that hidden Mario Kart cartridge you have hidden away in the loose woodplank beneath your bed. “YOU’LL NEVER FIND IT!” you scream from your full body constraint, only to receive another injection of tranquilizer to calm you down. Muttering ” “DK Jr. Just likes the bananas” as you fade out of consciousness, you might even wonder if it’s all just one big trick devised by that dimwitted Donkey Kong……
What? Where was I?
Oh, failure in games. This paradox of why we typically avoid failure, and yet go to video games despite the fact that we often fail at them is what Jesper Juul evaluates in his recent essay “The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video games” . Juul, an assistant professor at NYU’s Game Center,the most compelling video game program in the country, explores what he calls “paradox of failure”
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.
And that’s only the start of it! Is this a valid paradox? Furthermore, how does failing at video games shape us in the outside world? Does it make us more prone to failure? More okay with failing? These are all valid questions, some of which Juul touches on in his essay. He notes that we don’t like games that are too easy, which is true. Most gamers much rather play a game that’s overly difficult, like Ninja Gaiden, than games that are overly easy, like Pokemon Snap.
He describes people having a “separate rule” for video games, one in which people don’t adhere to the same regulations and attitudes in games as they would in real life. That’s certainly true, as if a partner of mine in the video game dies I don’t blink, but the same can’t be said for the real world. Separate rules for separate worlds. Seems fair. Juul is also very much aware that video game failures don’t come at the same cost as real world failures, so the stakes are much lower when one fails in the video game world. Of course this is a determining reason: knowing that you can take another stab at a problem, most of the times immediately in video games, makes failure a lot more comforting. I can imagine it wouldn’t go over too well if in their next game Bungie only allowed you to die once. Gamers wouldn’t be too happy and players would take their failures in the game much, much harder.
I have separate rules for separate worlds:you steal flowers from my flowerbed in the real world and I don’t care, you do it in Animal Crossing and I’ll send your nasty mail for weeks.
I don’t have too many answers on this topic, but Juul’s piece has made me rethink failure in video games. I don’t know if I view failure any differently because of being such an avid gamer, as failure in real life certainly stings, but certainly video games have made me fail quite a bit. If video games do make individuals view failure differently than non-gamers, then something tremendously sociological can be said about the impact that video games have on our socialization. Video games certainly do teach us lessons and ways of life, so perhaps it’s not too far fetched that Video games are teaching us how to deal with failure.
You can read an excerpt of Juul’s essay here!
It’s really interesting stuff. I say this because I both think it and hope to score brownie points with Juul for the sake of getting in NYU’s MFA program one day. Mostly the former…because he’ll never see this, and god help me if he did.