We play games to win. To complete challenges, to finish stories, to overcome obstacles. Games are goals and we need to meet them... right?
Or do we, really? Might we play, instead, to feel the thrill of failure? Perhaps getting our butts kicked regularly motivates us more than we think. And yet, surely there must be a delicate balance, between success and failure. A game that requires nothing at all from its player is dull; a game that requires too much from its player is overbearing.
In an interview with Kill Screen, noted video game researcher Jesper Juul observes that failure is not only critical to the gameplay experience, but also that players actually enjoy it. And while the hardcore vs casual debate often gets framed in terms of game difficulty, Juul argues that actually, that's not quite true:
[A] lot of casual downloadable games, games like Zuma or even parts of Bejeweled, are super-hard at times. I think that in gamer culture, there was this perception that only real gamers were into failure. So it just became more complicated than that. The general population understands that failure is part of games. And conversely you have these kind of shameless [role-playing games] where it's impossible to fail them if you just put in enough hours with your character to ultimately be upgraded.
Juul goes on to explain how failure can both motivate a player to try harder and succeed more or lock a player into a cycle of negative feedback — something most long-time players have experienced at one time or another. He argues, however, that what creates the biggest sense of success or failure isn't progress toward or away from the goals the game sets, but toward or away from goals the player sets for him- or herself. Sometimes the goals laid out by the designer overlap the goals the player chooses, and sometimes they don't. But the player's own goals, he says, are the ones that it really stinks not to meet: "It doesn't really hurt your self-image that you're failing against the goal of the designer, who you don't respect anyway. What hurts is that you're failing at what you're trying to do. So that's where it hurts."
Where the evolution in failure lies, Juul claims, is in the guidance a game gives the player toward understanding the tools and the world. Where games of the 1980s could let a player make an irrevocable mistake and then keep playing, unaware, for hours, modern games are more likely to telegraph intent and requirements. With feedback from the game, the player experience is less likely to result in any failures. He cites Guitar Hero as an example of a game with instant feedback, and adds:
I think that games have become easier in one way; there's that guiding line from your current state to incompetence to becoming competent. There are more signals. There used to be a longer time where you're just sort of practicing blind. Now I think there are many more attempts at steering you toward improvement.
But overall, Juul says, the existence of failure in gaming creates the sense of shared culture and shared barriers overcome because there are few ways around it. Anyone can sit through a film or turn all the pages of a book, but not everyone will necessarily understand or remember what they have viewed or read. Gamers, however, must actively succeed in overcoming obstacles in order to progress through their content of choice. And that's how we end up with discussions of who is or isn't a "real" or "hardcore" gamer: there's no faking it, no "plausibile deniability." In order to be in the virtual club of game aficionados, one genuinely has to "get it" in a way that can be fudged in other arts:
Then there's the question, especially if it's a mystery, of whether you have figured out who did it, for example, who committed the murder. So you might say that with other art forms it becomes sort of a social thing. It's not that you're denied access to the ending or something like that; it's more about that social performance at the end when you're discussing the end. So you'd say that … games are interesting since all of that is sort of hard-coded into the game; they'll tell you physically if they're doing well or not doing well.
If Juul is right, then the ability to lose, to fail, and to be driven away from a game forever is what defines the success of gaming entirely.
I Like Dying a Lot [Kill Screen]