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How video games teach us to escape failure

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Failure is an integral and unpleasant part of playing video games, but "good" games give players a "fair chance" to succeed that they might not have in the real world, assistant professor at the New York University Game Center Jesper Juul argues in an essay printed in Salon.

In an excerpt from "The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games," Juul begins with anecdotes about frustration of failing in Patapon and succeeding too easily in Meteos.

"I dislike failing in games, but I dislike not failing even more," Juul wrote. "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."

He calls this process, in which we dislike failure but seek out video games where we're sure to fail, the "paradox of failure." He sees the same paradox in theatrical tragedies, where viewers are exposed to unpleasantness.

"When you fail in a game, it really means that you were in some way inadequate."

Juul admits that there are many theories about why anyone would subject themselves to unpleasantness, but he believes that games motivate players to overcome their inadequacies.

"My argument is that the paradox of failure is unique in that when you fail in a game, it really means that you were in some way inadequate," he wrote. "Such a feeling of inadequacy is unpleasant for us, and it is odd that we choose to subject ourselves to it. However, while games uniquely induce such feelings of being inadequate, they also motivate us to play more in order to escape the same inadequacy, and the feeling of escaping failure (often by improving our skills) is central to the enjoyment of games. Games promise us a fair chance of redeeming ourselves. This distinguishes game failure from failure in our regular lives: (good) games are designed such that they give us a fair chance, whereas the regular world makes no such promises."