A Meditation on Loss Within Games

Justin Tokarski

Extended Abstract

What happens when we lose in a game? Many have addressed failure within games. Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia (2014) focuses on the imposition of unnecessary obstacles. Suits views games as a “voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. Jesper Juul in The Art of Failure (2013) addresses the paradoxical choice of game players to actively engage in an activity (game playing) that will result in negative emotions as a result of failure. In her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (2011), Jane McGonigal takes a very broad view of the psychology behind motivations among game players. She devotes some time to the psychology behind failure and concludes that players enjoy failure under certain circumstances. Sociologists such as Clifford Geertz focus on the effects of gameplay and game failure in culture. Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight (1977) emphasizes the value which the players, both trainers and bettors, put into the cockfights and how much stands to be gained and lost. Though all of these areas of study are illuminating in their own right, they fail to distinguish failure within games from failure in non-game settings. They do not answer the question of ‘what happens when we lose in a game?’ Voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles occurs in many non-game contexts. Likewise, emotional investment in activities that may lead to painful, yet intangible, results occur in non-game activities. The kinds of motivations for gameplay McGonigal associates with failure are only a subset of the broader experience of game failure. Extra-gamic value, both cultural and tangible, associated with game failure by necessity exists outside of the games themselves. Any examination of game failure needs to distinguish it from failure in non-game contexts. Its characteristics and results must be relegated to the world of the game. The ways in which failure occurs and effects the player must follow the restrictions imposed upon the player by the game rules.

In the following meditation on and examination of failure I propose a definition of failure within games which I call Loss. This unique form of failure distinguishes it from non-game failure and distinguishes game activities from non-game activities. After defining Loss, I will be distinguishing four major characteristics which make up the Loss Event within games; Loss Conditionals which define the rules of Loss unique to a game, Loss Design which translates these Conditionals to game events, Loss Value which defines the results of Loss in terms of player effort, and Loss Experience which expresses the player reaction to Loss. I hope that defining Loss will provide a shared vocabulary which can be used across the many fields of game studies, reducing confusion between disciplines and encouraging future work examining Loss. I will examine a few possibilities for implementing this definition of Loss in different areas of game studies in the hope of encouraging the use and exploration of this new concept.