The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games
by Jesper Juul
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012
168 pp., illus. 54 b&w. Trade, $19.95, £13.95
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
In this short but thought-provoking essay, Jesper Juul departs from the personal but widely shared observation that video games have as much to do with pain as with pleasure: We feel pain when we don’t manage to end the game or to play well, we feel disappointment and anger if we are beaten by other players, we feel something like injustice when game designers do not treat us fairly, etc. At the heart of video games there is, Juul argues, a paradox of failure: “1. We generally avoid failure. 2. We experience failure when playing games. 3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid.” (p. 2). The essay is an attempt to understand, first, what we have to understand by this notion of failure; second, how we can have a better understanding of it by linking it with other dimensions of culture; and third, what failure does learn us on games –and therefore on culture and on ourselves.
The notion of failure in games is complex, as is that of the paradox of failure; Juul offers an excellent overview of the kind of failures and pain that players experience while playing, and this spectrum of negative feelings ranges from boredom (certainly if one wins too easily) and real anger (and we all know how irritation can turn into rage and have a strong impact on real life). Yet, what he is most interested in is less the description of all these feelings than the reason why we do not avoid them, on the one hand, and how we try to cope with them, on the other hand. For game players have developed many strategies to diminish the unpleasant sensation of feeling incompetent, inept, silly, unprepared, or simply stupid. Playing badly on purpose is a good example of a psychological mechanism that helps us saving our face, either to ourselves or to those with whom we are competing in the game, but there are many others, such as starting to play a game while being unprepared: All excuses seem to be good to make the pain of failure less painful. Nevertheless, game players do not stop looking for experiences of pain and failure, and, according to Juul, this is where we can find an explanation of what makes games so unique: They make us feel inadequate, yet at the same time they seduce and, perhaps, even force us to continue to play and, by doing so, become (eventually, hopefully) more adequate. Or as the author summarizes it: “It is the threat of failure that gives us something to do in the first place” (p. 45).
Although this book is mainly about videogames, the notion of failure cannot be understood, Juul claims, by focusing just on this kind of games and experiences; Most chapters of the book are, therefore, devoted to a comparative analysis of pain generated by videogames and other kinds of pain, which are both similar to and different from the discomfort felt by players of videogames. The best-known example of such a pain is of course the fictional representation of tragedy, theorized since Aristotle via the concept of catharsis. Through the analysis of, for instance, suicide games, in which the player has to put an end to his or her life, Juul demonstrates very convincingly that the painful experience of games should not be reduced to a simple variation of fictional pain. What we feel by losing a game, or by being beaten by other players, is not something that is just one more variation on the classic theories of catharsis. Indeed, the structures of identification are different (we do less identify with others in games than those we play ourselves), for example. Moreover, games do not purge us from negative feelings; they seem to produce them, instead, and that is even the main reason why we are playing them.
Finally, Juul enlarges his reflections on videogames to games and culture, in general. Hence, the frequent comparisons with sports and purposeful behavior, in general, where similar mechanisms are at stake. While reading Juul’s book, I did not cease thinking of the irrational or at least unsocial behavior of the protagonist of Allan Sillitoe’s The Distance of the Long-Distance Runner, who refuses to win a game in order to make a larger statement on society and politics, and on the personal philosophy of the infamous (and criminal) Unabomber, who explains the crisis of modern civilization by emphasizing (among many other things, of course) the easiness of contemporary life where challenging goals are no longer available. Juul’s book on videogames offers fascinating insights on these cases, thanks to his permanent commitment to stress the crucial importance of games. For Juul, games are neither escapism nor entertainment; they are not even something that is added to life in a way or another: They are life itself, and in that sense his whole demonstration is meant to make us accept the following conclusion: “I would like to excise from the English language the phrase “just a game,” because it pretends something that is not true, that failure is neutral as long as it happens in a game” (p. 123).