Why do we play video games, when they cause us such pain? On Jesper Juul’s “The Art of Failure”

Why do we play video games, when they cause us such pain?

This is the question that Jesper Juul wrestles with in his terrific new book, The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. It’s an absolutely fun romp through the philosophical oddness of games, and what they do — and don’t — have in common with other forms of painful art. Juul opens the book by talking about his experience of playing two games that had radically different levels of difficulty. The first one, Patapon, was pretty challenging, so Juul kept on failing, putting the game away in frustration, but then returning to it again and again. In contrast, the second game — Meteos 2 — was so chill he finished the whole thing in one sitting.

Which game made him really angry? It wasn’t the hard one; it as the easy one. This is, of course, a common reaction amongst gamers: Hating something for not being difficult enough. And this leads Juul into a lovely statement of the weirdness at hand:

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 of 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 and 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 as a leading 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.

Juul tackles a lot of explanations for the paradox. The easy one, he points out, is simply to say that we enjoy failure inside games because “they’re just games”, without any serious stakes in life. That’s true to a point, but as he notes, it belies the incredibly deep emotions that we feel over video games: The epic cursing, the Xbox controllers hurled across the room. Juul tours through oodles of philosophy and art theory as he offers ways to explain the game paradox, but the one that rang most true to my personal experience is that games are a sort of existential measuring device we use to figure out how resilient we are. To perform this sort of calibration you something that a) feels deeply meaningful but b) isn’t going to ruin your actual life when you inevitably, and serially, screw up — hence games. As Juul puts it:

This is what games do: they promise us that we can repair of personal inadequacy — and inadequacy that they produce in us in the first place … Video games are for me a space of reflection, a constant measuring of my abilities, a mirror in which I can see my everyday behavior reflected, amplified, distorted, and revealed, a place where I deal with failure and learn how to rise to a challenge.

(This pretty much squares with how I feel about Robotron 2084; it’s less a game than a set of calipers for my soul.)

Another note I dug: At one point, Juul likens the failure paradox to film theorist Noel Carroll’s idea about why we submit ourselves to horror movies — “… when watching a horror movie, we genuinely dislike being horrified, but this unpleasantness is outweighed by the cognitive joy of learning more about the enigmatic monster at the center of the story. The experience of horror is simply a price we are willing to pay in order to reach the enjoyment of learning about the monster.”

The paradox of failure in games also helps explain why “gamification” so rarely works when corporations try to use it to motivate employees. If we grant the force of Juul’s argument — that failure is central to why we play games — then it’s clear that you can’t easily make a game out of something where failure is just straightforwardly bad, like your job. The sheer philosophical strangeness of what makes games games ought to have been a warning sign; you can’t make a dreary white-collar job delightful by simply bolting a game mechanic onto its wireframe, when game mechanics themselves are based on emotional clockworks so convoluted they wouldn’t be out of place in Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”.

What games do you like to fail at?

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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