Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Mechanics of Failure

I’ve got about 25 years of experience in graphic arts, and using graphic-related software. In gaming terms I figure I’m a paragon-level graphic artist. Maybe 15th level? My software tools have evolved over time, as has my mastery of them. Every once in a while I’m called on to create materials for a presentation. This usually involves a certain program from a large software company that is, to put it mildly, less-capable as a graphic art application than my primary tools. It’s like picking up a weapon in an RPG that you aren’t proficient with. Yes, I can make graphics with it, but it’s like putting oven mitts on the hands of a violinist and asking him to play some Bach.

On Friday I was asked to step in for a coworker to finish a presentation for an end-of-day deadline. A presentation for a major brand. A presentation that was going to be projected on 45-foot wide screen in front of who knows how many people. Being the team player I am, I said “sure” and dove in. People started feeding me input and edits. It was quickly apparent that I was expected to work at the same pace, and with the same facility as my coworker. I sat there and imagined the oven mitts on my hands. An hour into it, with the deadline approaching, I realized I was going to fail. The d20 had been rolled, and it was showing a one. I raised a white flag, called my coworker back out of her crucial meeting, and explained the situation.

At this point, the team began to rally around and reorganize the effort. I took a portion I felt I could handle. Others stepped into the crucial meeting. The bases got covered and the presentation was completed on time.

Had this been an RPG encounter, my character would have been forced to pick up the Flail of Undead-Slaying, step up to the dragon (knowing full well that my lack of proficiency with the flail, coupled with the undead-centric nature of the weapon weren’t going to help me against a dragon) and take my best shot. And I rolled a one.

However, in many RPGs characters can be – and often are – built to avoid all prospects of failure. Players expect to succeed, and they micro-engineer their characters to ensure their success. In the various rulebooks for WotC’s 4e D&D they explain the roles that various character classes fulfill, and the concept of making sure that each player has time in the spotlight. The idea was to make the game more inclusive. Unfortunately, one of the side effects has been this idea that the spotlight shines exclusively on success.

Narratively speaking, failure builds tension. Like it did for me with the presentation assignment. The spotlight was on me. It highlighted my failure, and my coworkers rallied around me, allowed me the opportunity to identify a way I could help achieve the objective, and we carved out a win from what appeared to be a potential loss. In the moment, I felt like crap. It’s no fun to fail, after all. But in the end, with the teams’ success, I ended up feeling pretty good about it.

So why are gamers afraid to fail? Why do game designers feel compelled to craft systems that emphasize mastery and success so much that the possibility of failure is all but eliminated? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.