Playing video games is about chasing victory. In Pac-Man, that means eating as many little dots as possible and avoiding ghosts. In Doom, it means shooting demons. In Super Mario Bros., it means stomping on the heads of evil mushrooms.
But as hard as we try to win, the experience of playing actually tends to be dominated more often by failure, disappointment, and frustration. As we play, we lose, over and over again. We watch Pac-Man deflate, we get mauled by zombies, we fall off cliffs and die. Then, for some reason, we hit “play again.”
For Jesper Juul, an assistant professor at the New York University Game Center, the experience of being wrecked by a game contains multitudes, and can teach us a great deal about why we play, how we think, and what we want. There is no fun without losing, Juul writes in his short new book, “The Art of Failure,” just as there is no pleasure without pain. Games, in this light—and video games, in particular—provide us with a chance to experiment with our own vulnerability, to struggle with our flaws in what is essentially a low-stakes simulation of an intense emotional experience.
Juul argues that games, in a way that’s unlike novels, movies, paintings, or poetry, allow us to inhabit failure and experience redemption: By putting us in the position of working toward a goal and frustrating us as we pursue it, they force us to confront all the ways in which we’re weak and incompetent while also giving us a chance to outgrow them.
“This is what games do,” he writes. “They promise us that we can repair a personal inadequacy—an inadequacy that they create in us in the first place.”
Why do we do it to ourselves, subjecting ourselves again and again to the horror of “game over”? Juul spoke to Ideas from New York.
IDEAS: In reading the book, I got the impression that you have a great familiarity with losing at video games. Do you think of yourself as someone who takes losing particularly hard, or loses more than most?
JUUL: I think I’m a decent player, but I think that I take failure more seriously, or experience it more harshly than people around me. Old friends of mine would attest to the fact that I’m a bit of a sore loser, who tends to be very disturbed by losing regardless of whether it’s a board game or a video game.
IDEAS: Do you remember some of the very first times you lost at a game?
JUUL: One childhood memory I have is of playing table tennis with a friend of mine in primary school, and losing to him. He was much better at table tennis than I was. And I later realized that I was able to make up all kinds of explanations for why, every game I lost, there was some particular reason it was not a real judgment of my skills....It’s very clear to me [now] that that’s the wrong way to approach a game. If you want to be good at it, you have to accept responsibility for failure.
IDEAS: You make the point that there’s something paradoxical about playing games—that we try as hard as we can not to lose, but at the same time, we’re putting ourselves in a position where losing is possible. Why do we voluntarily subject ourselves to this?
JUUL: If we fail, we have the option of saying, “Well, it’s just a game.” Or, “This is a stupid game, so it doesn’t measure my skills or measure me in any important way.” Or we can say, “I wasn’t really trying” or “I was unlucky.” Games make these excuses available to us, and I think in a way it’s how we deal with the fact that we are exposing ourselves to something that we don’t really like.
IDEAS: Losing at a game feels like no other kind of disappointment. It hurts in a special way. Why is that?
JUUL: Single-player games, especially, have this kind of melancholy attached to them. Because you put in all this effort, and it might be super interesting, but then once you fail, it’s like, “Why did I do this?” You subjected yourself to something that’s artificial, and then you failed at it. You put in all this energy, and then you didn’t succeed in this thing that in a way isn’t important, but it feels important to you. So it has this free-floating status—I think that’s why it feels very different from, say, getting a low grade on a high school paper.
IDEAS: You describe games—and video games, in particular—as an art form uniquely concerned with the experience of losing. How did you arrive at this conclusion?
JUUL: If you watch a Sherlock Holmes movie, or read a Sherlock Holmes story...you probably have various hypotheses about what actually happened. And I think at the very end it’s very easy to trick yourself into believing that you kind of, sort of had it figured out all along. But when you play a game, you don’t really have that option. The game concretely tells you that you lost—that you found the wrong solution to the puzzle, or you pressed the button at the wrong time. And so, I think this is really what is unique to games: They will call your bluff, and they will tell you that you need to improve. Games in this sense are really about you, as a person, failing to live up to standards, whereas stories are about someone else.
IDEAS: Many games that people play now, like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, go very fast and involve losing over and over again. One of the defining features of those games is that they’re really addictive. What role do you think that constant losing plays in creating the addiction?
JUUL: A lot of it is the promise that you will be able to improve yourself if you can play again. And that has a lot to do with how easy it is to understand why you failed. So you can see that a lot of the super popular cellphone games do tend to have this feature—it’s very easy to see what you could have done, that you should have turned a little earlier, or you should have clicked the exploding black bird just a little later....That [makes you say,] “Oh, I’ll just have another go, because I have an idea for how I might improve.” And I think that’s a fundamentally addictive quality.
IDEAS: Do you feel like there’s something profound in winning as well as losing? Do you like winning?
JUUL: Well, obviously. You’re usually playing to win, and you want to win. But it’s also the case that when you fail at a task, you’re more likely to consider the mechanics of the task, or how the task works, and if you succeed, you’re not really being challenged. It’s failure that pushes you to try something new, while success makes you a little complacent. Of course, complacency feels good, sometimes.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.