Complicated Games

Failure is an option

Games Features
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You can blame America’s obsession with failure for the uptick of interest in spelling bees, where little kids compete in a match that has zero room for error: one wrong letter, and they’re booted off stage.

And we can’t get enough of it. In fact, I think the DVD of 2002’s Spellbound should come with a montage—no, a “dingtage”—of all 248 losers misspelling their words and crumbling at the sound of the bell. To get a winner, you have to make losers. And losing’s gonna hurt.

Most of us fail again and again before we beat a video game: We try the same sections or boss fights and get blown to smoke again and again and again until finally we get it right. But some critics have asked if failing is really necessary. When players make mistakes, why do we punish them for it? We all know why older arcade games gave you three lives for a quarter: so you could lose and feed the game more quarters. The first home consoles kept this idea, but as games grew more complicated, and we started playing them on devices with disk drives and memory cards, we had the option to save our progress—and if we got knocked off, or the pizza showed up, we could just jump back to our last save point.

Over the years, this development has bred endless arguing about how much slack to cut players: Should they be able to save whenever they want, to preserve every inch of progress they make? Or is it better to make them finish a series of tasks—even half an hour’s worth or more—to give them a real sense of accomplishment? Arguably, the easy-to-use quicksaves are as bad for gaming as the word processor was for writing: Just as constant cutting and pasting lets us crawl through an essay, quicksave teaches us to limp through levels instead of running through in one nerve-wracking take. I remember playing Mercenaries, where the missions could go an hour or more without a chance to save. It was a blast to crawl through the North Korean wilderness, knowing that one false move would knock me back to square one. But when a bullet caught me right as I was clinging to an escaping helicopter—well, it’s a good thing I always leave my window open so the controller doesn’t break the glass on the way out.

Of course, you can also make a game where nobody’s a loser. Games scholar Jesper Juul has argued for “games without goals,” where the players create their own motivations and play the way they choose. A classic example is The Sims 2, where even a “mistake” can open a new direction. You play to explore, not to win.

But for the majority of games, the score is what matters—and failure ain’t always a bad thing. As any little-league coach will tell you, the most crucial life lesson is learning to handle failure; to pick yourself up and try again. The best thing a game can do is point out your inadequacies, but swiftly give you another chance. To quote MIT’s Eric Klopfer, who researches games and education, giving kids a place where they can fail is one of the best ways to help them learn. “If you’re always a straight-A student, maybe you’re not being challenged enough,” Klopfer told me. “If you fail half the time and succeed half the time, maybe that should be an A.”