Super Awesome World: Epic Fail or Why gaming teaches us how to fail
Did you know that gamers fail 80% of the time? Believe it or not video gamers crash and burn on average 4 out of every 5 attempts. That’s a lot of failure. Yet millions of people around the world, of all ages and demographics, enjoy playing video games every day. It’s almost as if in video games, failure is fun.
Failure in real life is disappointing: a lot of the time we can feel demoralised, demotivated and disengaged from whatever task we were attempting. Continued failure can result in elevated stress levels, decreased self-confidence and even lead to anxiety and depression. I suffered from depression through a considerable portion of my twenties and whilst there are a plethora of reasons why any one person develops a mental illness, in hindsight, I attribute it in part to feeling, really quite acutely, that I was a failure. I was putting immense pressure on myself to achieve in life, setting myself impossible targets, comparing myself to my peers, and holding myself up to ridiculous standards. Somewhere in my early adulthood, I’d forgotten to enjoy the ride. To remember that I was still learning and developing and that this was kind of the point! Learning is the fun bit. And actually, the hope of success is more exciting than success itself.
Everyone wants to succeed in life, no one seeks out failure. But scientific studies which monitor positive and negative reactions to success and failure in games have shown that game players tend to feel more excitement, joy and optimism when faced with failure rather than success. So what is it about games that elicits this counter-intuitive reaction? And how can we learn not just to tolerate our failures in real life, but to enjoy them?
Failure in games is epic. It is rare in video games, especially in narrative driven ones, that our losses are quiet and unassuming. More likely is that a failure will be spectacular and dramatic. In Street Fighter we can get ripped apart in the most gruesome way possible. In Mario we might fall into boiling hot lava or get stamped to death by a terrifying boss figure. But yet, despite this being our fate for multiple attempts (and for most of us we can expect to die dozens of times within one gameplay session) we keep coming back for more. Because it is enormous fun! We know the risk and we are intimately acquainted with the consequences of making mistakes, but yet we choose to play again and again.
And I think the key element here is choice. We have agency in the game. There is no one forcing us to undertake the quest or mission, it is entirely voluntary. And when we fail, there is no resentment, because we are in control, we can choose to continue or to pause and make a cup of tea. So in this safe environment, where we make the rules and dictate the directions of our efforts, getting it wrong is suddenly thrilling.
The question then is, why does this optimism and desire to have just one more go, not translate to real life? Why are we not all heroes that leap between buildings to save those in distress or even just huge risk takers in the stock market? Well, the immediate answer is obvious: the cost of failure in real life is much higher. Gambling on the stock market is not a good idea unless you are super rich and/or a financial expert and leaping between buildings may result in actual, permanent death. And games designers take particular care to make sure a video game is fair and that the game player will eventually succeed. In real life we don’t always have that assurance. Sometimes the game is rigged. We might tell our children that they can achieve or become anything, but the fact is that the majority of powerful people in this country went to a handful of elite private schools and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Unfair design leads inevitably to discouragement. Life is not a game. Real, meaningful things are at stake. When we fail in life we can lose relationships, our livelihoods, even our lives. But perhaps sometimes the stakes aren’t as high as we think they are. When I decide to try a new hobby and attend a class I’ve never been to, I take the risk that I will be terrible on my first try, I won’t enjoy it, I won’t get along with the other people in the class. But so what? I am perhaps back to square one, but I haven’t really lost anything of substance. And if I was excellent on my first go, what would be the point in going back? If there’s no progress to be made, what’s the point?
This is where we can learn from gamers. They will tell you that winning the game, ends the fun. When you lose in the game, you get to have another go, to play again. And we should be proud of our failures. Knock-backs are tough, they truly test our resilience. Sometimes we may need time to recover. But the important thing is we tried, despite knowing failure was a possibility and that should be it’s own reward. When we try, when we go bravely into breach, again and again, we should give ourselves the credit we deserve and stop berating ourselves for failing to make that platform, getting beaten by the boss, falling into the lava or failing to level up. The game is designed that way, and what’s so great about success anyway?
I decided to make a solo show about my depression and to talk about it through the video games I played as a child. I’m taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe. It is a huge risk. People might not come. People might not like it. It might get bad reviews. I care about these things. Everyone cares about things like that. But I’m having fun. I’m having the time of my life in fact. So I’m not really sure if I care so much about winning any more.
Amy is a theatre maker and performer based in Scotland. Amy Conway’s Super Awesome World, which uses computer games to talk about depression, is winner of Summerhall’s Autopsy Award and is premiering at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this August. Showing at Summerhall (Venue 26), Aug 2, 4-13, 15-27, at 17:40 (1hr).