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Editorial: The Art of Losing
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posted by: Monica Hafer
date posted: 12:00 AM Sat Feb 5th, 2005
last revision: 12:00 AM Sat Feb 5th, 2005


A friend of mine who was recently experiencing girl problems began to question the axiom, It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.?  While trying to come up with positive reasons to explain his recent loss, my strange mind began thinking about videogames.  Everyone loves to win; it's the goal of every game out there.  But in a world of instant gratification and the need to succeed, losing has gotten a bad rap.  I would like to suggest that losing, dying, and being thwarted in the gaming world serves a necessary and wonderful purpose.


?or I'll try anything at least once?

There is a saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  In the old days of gaming there were often just a handful of ways to approach beating a game.  With the advent of games with multiple endings, branching storylines, and huge, fully-interactive environments, two gamers can have an extremely different experience of the same title.  I'm thinking of games here like the Hitman series and Black and White.  If nothing else, games like these really make us analyze the connection between our chosen behaviors and the results we achieve in our games. 

The thing about being thwarted in modern gaming environments is that it forces you to think of alternative solutions to old problems.  Also, rather than breezing through a level in 2.5 seconds, looking for innovative strategies makes you not only stop and smell the roses (i.e. appreciate the design and graphics), but it makes you look for new elements in the environment (levers, keycard, trapdoor, and, of course, other people) with which to interact.  I am delighted to think that there are game designers who are given the time to create a quality game, and in doing so, ask the same questions we players ask:  I wonder what would happen if??  This is an element of why I think series like GTA have been so popular.  If you can think of doing it, increasingly in modern games the designers have thought of it first and made it possible for you.  While that may mean that there are some really twisted folks out there (we know who we are!), it's refreshing to be able to utilize all of the skills and imagination that we bring to a game.

Finally, this creates a wonderful cycle where we as a buying demographic require more thoughtful and challenging games and put our money toward supporting titles (and the terrific people who make them for us) that give us the challenge and innovation we crave.  And some companies are getting the idea that rather than banging out and marketing crappy titles, you can make more money in the long run by creating great games which will give you a blockbuster franchise and a guaranteed fan-base.


?or Let's find out what you're made of?

I recently had a conversation with my friend Morfus, who is a founder of a guild called Serpents (a collective of MMO players committed to marauding and mayhem in the online RPGs, found at serptide.com).  Since I'm much less Machiavellian than Morfus, I wondered aloud how well their community functioned, internally as well as within their chosen games.  He said that there is, in fact, a code of honor among the mischievously like-minded.  Sincere friendships have developed through the bonds of the respect that one gains from having the right attitude, interesting characters, and the incredibly well-developed ability to smack-talk (and back it up with some serious skills).  But what caught my attention most in our conversation was his explanation of the response to his group by other gamers who had come out on the losing side of a conflict with them.

Let's face it, no one likes to be terminated in a game, especially if the character they have lovingly created is an ego-extension of themselves.  But as Morfus explained it, most opposing players were killed either in regular game interaction or in the same way a person meets their demise from something like flood, famine, or plague.  His group was described more like a chaotic force or a natural disaster--nothing personal.  But the reactions from other players were hugely varied.  Some players became the type of whiney tattle-tails that we all remember hating as kids.  Others took their deaths so personally that they vowed revenge upon their slayers.  Morfus said he was always happy to oblige this type by killing them again when they showed up.  Sometimes they would bring friends with them, sometimes they would load up on spiffy weaponry, but most often they would still end up dead because of lack of skill and preparation.  But what delighted Morfus most was the fact that an insignificant and non-personal act on his part would totally consume another player and eclipse any fun they might be having with their need for revenge.  These two types of players gained no respect from him because of their response to loss and adversity, to the unfair? nature of the rules in the gaming world.  On occasion, he would meet up again with a player whose character he had killed in the past.  This player had gone away and resurrected or made another character, lived a full and happy gaming life, learned from their demise, and had gained the skills to give Morfus a real contest of skill.  These were the people who had his respect, even if they ended up killing him instead. 

The last group of people he talked about were those who decided that defeat of this kind was too much for them and they ended up going to white? sites to play.   He said that many ended up returning to their gaming world.  Why?  Because without the chance of loss and real adversity, there is little or no tension or excitement.  There is no reason to become something more than what you are now, something better.   I liken it to walking on a six inch beam.  If you're only a foot above ground, it's a piece of cake; if you're three stories up, it takes on a whole new level of significance.  ]

I keep thinking of Captain Kirk facing the Kobiashi Maru in old Star Trek.  The simulation was rigged where you couldn't win; the point of the test was to see how well contestants held up under pressure.  It would tell people what you were made of.  While some gaming philosophers posit that games where you can't win are just as important as ones which you can, I fall more into the Kirk category.  The true test is not to bemoan the fact that the test is unfair,but to find a way to make it work for you.  Because we lose, we grow.  Without challenge, there is never any reason to become the strong players we need to be to become to be truly successful.

Risk vs Reward:

?or knowing when to say when?

While the point I made above is directly related to developing tenacity, there are always two sides to every argument.   Case in point:  When we were much younger, I watched my brother struggle his way through wave after wave and level after level in an aerial assult game.  And what was his great reward for finishing the game (some forty levels later)?  The screen darkened, the word Congratulation? appeared, then the game reset itself to level one.  No bells, no whistles, not even an s? on the end of the one word reward.  Needless to say, getting there had not been half the fun with that title, and the controller had a rather forceful meeting with the wall. 

As a gamer, your time is valuable.  Perhaps you wouldn't be out curing cancer if you weren't playing a game, but you'd definitely be out looking for the next fabulous game to play.  Sometimes losing over and over again causes us to realize that we aren't getting anywhere, we aren't having any fun trying to figure out how to get somewhere, and what we think will be forthcoming in return for getting somewhere doesn't seem to be worth the effort we are putting out.  Maybe this is the honing of our instincts for good games.  When you're working your way through a great game and you keep bouncing back from death and destruction, your will and resolve become strengthened, your skills become perfected, and as you approach the moment of final victory, you can feel your pulse quicken and you know deep in your gaming heart that this is going to be good.?  We've all been there.  Those are the moments you remember so you can tell all your friends (we l-o-v-e love to use bragging rights earned in beating those games!) and maybe even your grandchildren. 

However, we've all encountered those games where each little victory is met with something even more lame and asinine, some metaphorical hill to climb where the only vista that greets our weary eyes is more pointless struggle, more sifting through the dunghills for gems that never appear.  These are games that when we put down the controller or mouse, there is not even a flicker of the driving need to pick it back up (responsibilities be damned) that there is with a game where there are not only the intrinsic rewards of fun while playing, but the worthwhile spoils of victory at the finish.  If it weren't for the annoyances of losing on a regular basis, we might end up sucking it up? and wasting hours of playing stupid and pointless games.  On the occasion when we do this and don't find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we are not only mad at the game but mad at ourselves for having played it.  If it's a game you don't mind losing, then it's probably not worth playing.

The Economic Principles of Scarcity, Supply/Demand, and Consumption:

?or how to tell who's really cool?

This is all about the prize.  The bragging rights.  Winning the whole enchilada.  Salespeople everywhere know that consumers want the rare, the valuable?what they can't have.   It's the only way to explain people attacking each other for the last Tickle-Me Elmo or paying $500 dollars for it on E-bay.  If we go back to my friends dating conundrum, it works the same way.  You always want something more when you know you can't have it.  On the flip side, we usually don't value something that's easily handed to us.  Think of the teenager who is given a hot new car; nine times out of ten it will get trashed or wrecked because it isn't valued the same way as the one he or she would have had to slave away to earn money to buy.  Or, back to the dating thing, in the immortal words of Tupac Shakur, ?tease me. I don't want it if it's that easy.? 

When we play a game, we don't want it to be easy.  Something we've struggled to win is much sweeter than something that's easily conquered.  And not only that, the only way you know you're really cool is if you can tip your chair back from the table, nonchalantly adjust your lapel, and say dismissively, Yeah, I beat that game.?  If it was a really hard, really cool game, and you came out ultimately victorious, you're in the high country with a few chosen ones.  Someone in the real world may not understand the enormous honor that has been bestowed upon you, but any gamer worth his weight in salty-snacks knows what kind of person you are.  You are tough, committed, innovative, and courageous.  You have prevailed against the odds.  You are a winner.  (applause will ensue)

In the end:

?or how to become a winner by being a loser?

Face it, we don't like to lose.  We complain about it incessantly and wish that somehow it would all just be easy.  But the truth is, we don't want it that way.  And it's a good thing, too, because the world (both real and gaming) doesn't work that way.  Anything worth having is worth the struggle and those things that aren't worth it, aren't worth us wasting our time on them.  Adversity and loss help us know who we are, makes us tough and tenacious, hones our sense of what is worth our time or not, and makes us the kind of people who have the skills and imaginations to eventually be winners.  The journey should be half the fun, but the other half should be standing on top of the hill saying I didn't quit.  I made it through.  And the view from up here is unbelievable.?