Games

If you’re not dying, you’re not learning

August 18th, 2011  |  Published in Games

I’ve been making an effort to read and engage more with blogs written by women, because the recent online conversations I’ve been involved with have been oppressively dude-heavy. I’ve also been meaning to write about gaming, because I think people who love games and take them seriously should be out of the closet about it, and not give in to the stigma that still tends to relegate games to a status below that of other art forms. Fortuitously, I spotted an opportunity to hit both targets at once.

Alyssa Rosenberg is writing about her experience playing Portal. It’s a wonderful game, which I may have more to say about later, but what caught my eye was something more general about games. Rosenberg says that one thing holding her back in that game, and in games in general, is a discomfort with dying:

I’ve figured out one of the things that kept me from playing games regularly for a long time: I find dying in-game incredibly stressful.

And,

I’m surprised that there isn’t more conversation about what dying in game makes us feel about our own deaths.

I completely agree that constant player death is both a central feature of video games, and one that gets insufficient discussion. But either Rosenberg just reacts to games differently than I do, or else she has yet to get past something that I eventually dealt with when I was getting back into video games. Because while I understand the first sentiment I quoted, I think that the second is really pointing in the wrong direction in terms of helping us (or at least me) understand the meaning of video game death.

I got back into games a couple of years ago, after hardly playing them at all since the 16-bit era. And I initially struggled with in-game death as well, but I would characterize the issue a bit differently. As strange as this seems, I don’t view video game death as a signifier for real world death at all; rather, death in games is a metaphor for failure in life. After all, death in games is unlike real world death in the only way that really matters: after you die, you get to go back and try again.

This argument sort of relates to a long-running debate in games criticism between so-called “narratologists”, who treat games as vehicles for story and character and hence tend to take the story elements of the game more literally, and “ludologists” who view games chiefly as formal systems and ludic experiences (see for instance this this debate between Tom Bissell and Simon Ferrari). But I think it cuts across it in some ways.

I really came to terms with the nature of in-game death when I was playing through the Mass Effect games, which are some of my favorites of recent years. Being bad at games and out of practice, I wasn’t very good at the action portions of the games. And yet I didn’t want to turn down the difficulty to “easy” just to get through the story–that felt wrong, unsatisfying, and cheap. I wanted to beat the game on one of the higher difficulties, in order to feel like I had really mastered it, and really overcome a challenge.

But doing that meant dying. A lot. And I eventually realized that what I disliked about that wasn’t that dying somehow reminded me of my own mortality, but that it dredged up my fear of failure. It was as though the game was constantly reminding me how inept I was, how far my abilities fell short of my ambitions. And so the only way to get myself through the experience, and to accept repeatedly dying, was to recontextualize what failure meant. Dying no longer meant that I was bad at the game (although, proximately, it did mean that). Instead, dying meant that I had the game on a high enough difficulty level. Dying was proof that I was challenging myself, putting myself in situations where I would be forced to get better, forced to learn new ways of getting through each level.

In that way, I came to see dying as a positive sign over the course of those Mass Effect play-throughs. In fact, if I went too long without dying, I would take this as a sign that I needed to turn the difficulty slider up to the next level. I even coined a motto that I’d repeat to myself, in order to ward off complacency: If you’re not dying, you’re not learning. And if playing games has any positive value for the rest of my life, it’s summed up in that slogan. One thing that I think has tended to hold me back in a lot of areas–and I think this is true for a lot of people who are used to being successful and precocious–is a fear of trying something and failing, and thereby being exposed somehow as an incompetent or a fraud. Games helped me get a little bit better at accepting failure as a natural part of the learning process, a way of figuring out what you need to do to be successful in the future.

That’s an important thing to internalize, whether you apply it to submitting papers to journals, applying for jobs, asking people out on dates, or suggesting guitar parts to your band. Which isn’t to say that games have to be “moral vitamins” in order to be artistically legitimate, just that in this particular case they did sort of work that way for me.

Now I just need Horning to tell me how I’m actually brainwashing myself into neoliberal subjectivity…