There’s no element of video-game culture that has so thoroughly permeated the mainstream. Everyone knows what it means: You screwed up or you caught a bad break. Better luck next time. Certain scenes of failure — PacMan spinning out of existence with a sad final plink, Mario shrugging as he falls off the screen — are burned into the consciousness of every gamer of a certain age.
So failure has always lain at the core of the video-game experience. Back in the days before in-home consoles had fully caught on, when most gaming was done in arcades, the most profitable games — the ones that compelled players to pump quarter after quarter into their coin slots — were just difficult enough to convince players they could reach the next level if only they could get (read: purchase) one more chance.
These days, things are a bit different. The vast majority of gaming takes place not in arcades, but on home consoles, computers, tablets, and phones. Meanwhile games have branched out in countless directions, appealing to all sorts of different players. Some games wear their difficulty like a badge of honor (“Demon’s Souls”), while others are built in a way that softens failure to a pillowlike consistency (any number of kid-friendly games for Nintendo’s Wii).
So it’s a fascinating time to examine the concept of failure in video games, and luckily the gaming academic Jesper Juul did just that in “The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games,” which was released in February by MIT Press as part of its Playful Thinking series.
For many gamers there’s something more visceral and more personal about failing at a video game than watching or reading about a fictional character’s collisions with tragedy.
Juul asks a simple question: If we dislike failure and video games offer up heaping gobs of it, why are we so drawn to video games? He takes a broad approach to this question, drawing in plenty of philosophical and psychological research. The paradox, Juul rightly points out, isn’t restricted to video games. Rather, it 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.” We happily read “Oedipus the King,” for example, knowing full well that the ending is not going to leave us in a good mood.
But Juul also identifies a key difference that sets games apart, failure-wise: “Where novels and movies concern the personal limitations and self-doubt of others, games have to do with our actual limitation and self-doubts.” Different people react to different kinds of art in different ways, of course, but for many gamers there’s something more visceral and more personal about failing at a video game than watching or reading about a fictional character’s collisions with tragedy.
Put a game like “Super Meat Boy” in the hand of a certain type of gamer, and everything — eating, sleeping, social interaction — will take a back seat to mastering the deviously difficult levels, with plenty of cursing and controller-slamming along the way. At the other end of the spectrum are games like “Proteus,” which I wrote about recently and which is literally a virtual walk in a virtual park. There’s no way to fail at “Proteus.” Unlike in the real world, there’s nothing to screw up.
So why are some gamers attracted to “Proteus,” others to “Super Meat Boy,” and yet others to both? Do different modes of failure (or the lack thereof) simply serve different needs at different times? That’s one of the many questions Juul and other researchers are hoping to better equip themselves to answer. Another worthwhile area of research: What’s the connection between resilience in gaming and resilience in the real world? Does the “World of Warcraft” player who pours endless hours into defeating a difficult monster with his or her friends extract anything of real-world value from the experience, or does this sort of stick-to-it-iveness not translate to other domains?
Whatever the answer to these questions, video games highlight a fascinating masochistic streak in some players. Maybe the best example is the “hardcore” mode from “Diablo III.” The main point of the game is to “level up” your character — that is, kill hordes of monsters to make your character stronger and earn him or her better skills and equipment. Usually, death in the game is just a minor setback — you can more or less jump right back in the action. Hardcore mode is a different story: If you die, you can no longer play with that character — he or she is forever banished from the game’s online world. And with such risk, the only potential reward is glory. Given that some “Diablo III” players spend dozens of hours leveling their characters (and the most obsessed players spend hundreds), it’s astounding that anyone would choose to play this mode, and yet the hardiest players flock to it.
YouTube is littered with videos of these virtual heroes’ demises, which are often followed not by paroxysms of rage, but by a shocked silence interspersed with zombielike muttering. For these players, the failure they’ve just experienced probably claws at them far deeper than anything in even the most tragic film or novel.
And yet the general trend has been toward games that are more forgiving, partly because the gaming audience has gotten more mainstream. Back when arcade games first burst onto the scene, “Game Over” was a harsh message of failure which meant at the very least digging into one’s pocket for another quarter. These days? Players can expect to face defeat dozens of times while playing through most action and adventure games. But the consequences have been softened: Usually death just means restarting at a nearby “save point,” your character little worse for wear.
Maybe the interesting question here isn’t what failure in games does — as Juul acknowledges, it does different things for different people — but rather what creative new approaches developers can take to one of the oldest, most universal parts of the human experience.
Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.