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

August 18th, 2011  |  Published in Games  |  6 Comments

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*](http://thinkprogress.org/alyssa/2011/08/12/294109/video-games-and-fear-of-death/). 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.


> 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](http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2011/02/tom-bissell-and-simon-ferrari-on-games-criticism.html) 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"](http://www.long-sunday.net/long_sunday/2006/07/shivering_lives.html) 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](http://www.popmatters.com/pm/blogs/marginal-utility/) to tell me how I'm actually brainwashing myself into neoliberal subjectivity...


  1. Evan says:

    August 18th, 2011 at 1:10 pm (#)

    Re: the first sentence. I have been doing this too, for much the same reasons. A post about that listing some of the women’s voices that you’ve found valuable would be much appreciated.

  2. Peter Frase says:

    August 18th, 2011 at 2:14 pm (#)

    Thanks for the comment–I’ve been contemplating an ongoing series highlighting good women-authored blogs, and this definitely makes me want to go forward with that.

  3. eastendleo says:

    August 18th, 2011 at 7:51 pm (#)

    I agree: in game dying is not about RL dying, but about failure. For me, there is an in game tension between desiring challenge, and the enjoyment of a smooth flowing game experience.
    My contribution of a woman’s blog that I find insightful, compelling and essential, is Amanda Marcotte’s ‘pandagon’.
    Look forward to your list!

  4. Don says:

    August 19th, 2011 at 10:13 am (#)

    I agree to an extent. I definitely agree that game death is unrelated to real death (well, unless you were open to reincarnation, but that would mean starting from scratch with a new character; games generally don’t do that, and for good reason). But game death as failure feels like a very specific type of failure. It’s one thing to fail at a game alone in front of your TV in your home. It’s another to fail publicly at your career in front of your peers. I’d love to unpack that a bit more, but don’t have time at the moment. Out of curiosity, have you tried playing any online multiplayer games since getting back into gaming?

  5. Rob says:

    August 19th, 2011 at 11:32 am (#)

    You’re brainwashing yourself into neoliberal subjectivity — okay, that’s out of the way

    I totally relate to your point here; I have a dumb obsession with Ms. Pacman, and I refrain from tweaking the dipswitch settings to make it easier — sometimes I think I am learning how to control the behavior of the ghosts, but usually I just die when I get to the banana board —

    I wonder how/whether the phenomenon you describe here fits in with workplace/consumer gamification — whether learning to tolerate risk is an aspect of gamification — I tend to think it as profitably tapping into human compulsiveness, not pushing people to find the maximum level of difficulty that they can master — it’s about increasing productivity for inherently unrewarding tasks, with game elements designed to mask the repetitive dullness

    also wonder if benefits of what amounts to learning how to learn (through learning to tolerate failure) is somehow negated by the arbitrarity of the difficulties presented by games — one can’t learn the political skills often necessary for success when confronted with difficulties that are purely abstract, motivated solely by the need to make things difficult for players.

  6. Evan says:

    August 24th, 2011 at 2:56 pm (#)

    EspGaluda (on MAME) is my silly obsession. Relatively easy for a bullet-hell shooter, but where the difference between winning and scoring high is vast (e.g. you can win the first stage with 100k points or 7m).

    I sometimes wonder if an increasing fluency with manipulating complex rule-based systems isn’t something that colors the popular discourse in the US lately, powering the rise of the libertarian and ‘neoliberal’ wonks. Rob’s comment about arbitrary difficulty plays in here; since the largely young male wonkitariat is familiar with games and the culture that has spun off from games (SF movies, comics, etc), there’s a certain fascination with the gameability of systems and coherent systems of actions that don’t rely on the hazily predictable actions of actual people.

    (I note here as an aside that this is doing a real disservice to a largish number of people by reducing their views to a schematic and attributing to them motives, knowledge, and intentions that they likely don’t have.)

    I am not sure where that goes (other than projection, maybe?). I don’t really know enough about the history of political battles and the political press to have any idea if that tendency in politics is long-standing or new, nor do I have any experience of the politics of other countries to see if it’s something that’s happening elsewhere, although from an occasional glance it doesn’t seem to be happening in the UK quite as strongly.

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